The most famous jockeys are household names, whilst others could walk through a racecourse without anyone knowing who they are. In other words, no two jockeys experience the same existence in an industry that is competitive, physically demanding and emotionally draining. More than a quarter of a million people turn up to watch races at the Cheltenham Festival each year, with all but a handful of the jockeys being virtually ignored.
If owners are the people that put the money in the development of a horse and trainers are the ones doing the developing, jockeys are ultimately responsible for guiding the horses when the main event of the actual racing gets underway. What does their life entail, both in the sense of getting them to the point of being a professional and also once they’re actually involved in racing week-in, week-out?
The Early Years
Those that wish to become jockeys can formally start their training to do so when they’ve turned 16 years of age, though many will be involved with horses from a much younger age. In 2021, the National Horse Racing Museum spent a day working with Grace McEntee, the daughter of Phil McEntee, a Newmarket-based trainer. Grace began working in the world of racing immediately after finishing her GCSEs back in 2016.
It wasn’t until 2018 that Grace took out a racing licence as an amateur, showing how much hard work goes in to familiarising yourself with the world of horse racing before it’s sensible to jump into it as a career. She rode as an amateur for six months, at which point she felt that she was well-placed to attend the Northern Horseracing College in order to study for the attainment of an Apprentice Jockey Licence.
Grace’s story is one that many jockeys will recognise, including the 6.15am starts to get ready to start her day. Though her day sometimes starts even earlier so that she can ride for other trainers before working at her dad’s yard, it’s not uncommon for jockeys to be up so early in order to get themselves ready for the day ahead. Trainee and apprentice jockeys will sometimes ride as many as four horses in the morning.
Speaking with the NHRM, Grace McEntee’s advice to young riders was that they need to ‘be patient’, pointing out that things ‘don’t happen overnight’. It is solid advice, with the next stage on the ladder for jockeys to work as an apprentice jockey for a decent period of time. Apprentice jockeys is the name given to those working in flat racing, whilst those that are training to be jump riders are known as conditional jockeys.
Typically speaking, apprentice and conditional jockeys are aged between 16 and 25 and are hoping to eventually become professional jockeys. They gain experience by taking part in races alongside professional jockeys, being employed by racehorse trainers throughout the period of their apprenticeship. Dedication and determination are key factors for apprentice jockeys, with skill and ability also high on the list of requirements.
Horses are expected to carry a given amount of weight, with apprentice jockeys given certain allowances. If they don’t meet the weight requirements, weight will be added to the horse accordingly. It’s much harder to take weight off a horse, which is why jockeys have to work hard to come within a certain weight bracket. They get an allowance of seven pounds up until the point that they’ve won 20 races.
When They Turn Professional
At some point in a jockey’s career, the likelihood is that they’ll look to become a professional. In doing so, they are effectively deciding to run their own business, given the fact that they are responsible for organising their races, working with trainers and maintaining their own work schedule in much the same way that other self-employed people have to do the same sort of things.
The fact that they’re their own boss can be a blessing for a racing jockey, but it can sometimes be a curse. When The Mirror newspaper spoke to Tony McCoy about a day in his life back in 2010, for example, the point was made that the world famous jockey should have been taking it easy but wasn’t able to. Having fallen off horses several times in the preceding weeks and kicked in the stomach by one, he still had to keep going.
That is the life of a professional jockey, always having to push through the pain barrier where possible in order to ensure that they don’t fall behind their rivals or earn less money. McCoy was 36-years-old at the time and heading towards his retirement age, but worked hard on a weekly basis to keep himself two stone below his natural body weight in order to allow him to ride. Such starvation is something not many people will think of when it comes to jockeys.
McCoy, of course, is something of a standout candidate. He was the first jockey to ride 3,000 winners and was named Champion Jockey 15 times in succession. The winner of all of the great races in jump racing, including the Grand National, the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the King George, McCoy was one of the sport’s highest earners by the time of his retirement and knew he was lucky compared to many. Cheltenham racecourse even has a statue of the legend jockey near the entrance to the course (as pictured above).
A Life Of Travel
Regardless of the level that a jockey is working at, their life involves long hours of travelling. Unless they happen to live in the likes of Cheltenham, Newmarket or Ascot and only take part in races at their local courses, jockeys have to travel to where the work is. They’re also unable to forgo getting out and about if the weather isn’t good, instead having to ride in frost, rain and wind if that’s what the weather looks like when the race is on.
McCoy, for example, would have to take a pass on the bacon sandwiches when they were passed around on a frosty day at Nicky Henderson’s yard, surviving on sugary tea and a few jelly babies. He only ate dinner four nights a week and often started his day with a hot morning bath in order to sweat off as much as four pounds before his day even began. Travelling around on such meagre amounts can’t be fun for anyone.
Jockeys will often take part in several races at different racecourses around the country, meaning that they’ll be driven from place to place as the day goes on. Oftentimes they don’t make it home until after midnight, at which point they might have another hot bath to ease their muscles before heading to bed. The next day starts off again at six in the morning and they repeat the whole process in relentless fashion.
It’s Hard Work
There can be no questioning the fact that being a jockey is hard work. Aside from starving themselves, getting very little sleep and putting their body on the lines each and every time that they race, they have to keep training and working even after turning professional. Working with horses that weigh as much as 600 kilograms, they sometimes have to ride feeling dehydrated and weak from a lack of food and drink.
Falls aren’t predictable things, so jockeys know that they can do themselves untold damage each time they take part in a race. Everything from weather conditions to the state of the track can influence whether they make it around the circuit without picking up an injury. Even after racing is complete a jockey’s work isn’t over, having to follow the weigh-in procedures as well as work to ensure that they are paid.
How The Horses they Ride Are Picked
Jockeys usually work with agents, whose job it is to book them a ride. The booking is made in agreement with both the owner of the horse and its trainer, with some jockeys tied to working with certain trainers for the long-term. The better a jockey is, the more sought after they will be to ride horses and therefore the more money their agent can negotiate for the ride. All parties have the same aim, of course, which is to win the race.
The agent of a jockey is paid a percentage of the race fee as well as their winnings, with agents often representing several jockeys at the same time. Agents of the best jockeys can often negotiate for their less experienced jockeys to ride on a different horse owned by the same owner or trained by the same trainer as the ones that want the best jockeys to take on their rides, which is all part of the negotiation tactics.
All of the parties want to ensure that the jockey’s style matches that of the horse and vice-versa. Jockey agents attend morning workouts to get a sense of different horses. Trainers, meanwhile, tend to have a good sense of a riders’ tendencies. They will know which ones will match well with their horses and which ones won’t, so the jockeys themselves actually have little control of which horse they end up racing.
There are countless aspects to the life and career of a jockey that not everyone will appreciate. A jump jockey, for example, will be likely to take on around 7,000 obstacles every year. This includes both hurdles and fences as well as some of the other obstacles that a horse can be expected to take on during the likes of a cross country event. If you stacked those obstacles on top of each other, it would almost reach the height of Everest.
During a jockey’s racing year, they will travel as much as 70,000 miles or more. This is because they have to go from racecourse to racecourse, following the events that they’re taking part in. This amounts to more than 1,000 hours inside cars or other forms of transport. To put it another way, jockeys spend the equivalent of around 50 days of their year simply travelling from venue to venue.
In order to maintain riding fitness, jockeys will often work with what is called an Equicizer at home. They will ride on as many as four different horses in a morning before their racing day proper has even got underway. On average, jockeys will fall from their horse once in every 17 races, though obviously some jockeys come off their mounts even more regularly than that. The more they fall, the more damage they do to themselves.
During the course of a year, jockeys will ride around 1,300 miles. That would be the equivalent of them riding a horse from London to Rome over a 12 month period. Watched by more than 2.5 million people if they’re a jump racing jockey, they compete for around £45 million in prize money. The average jockey earns around £27,000 a year, which isn’t much, but the potential riches make it worth the gamble.
They Are A Close-Knit Group
Obviously when jockeys take to the field to begin a race, the only thing in their mind is victory. They are an extremely competitive bunch, but most of them are good friends. The atmosphere in the weighing room is one of camaraderie, often filled with jokes and banter. Only a jockey can know what other jockeys go through, both in the sense of how hard they work but also what they’re risking each time they take part in a race.
Even the best jockeys can learn from how other people in their profession work with their horses, which is part of the reason why the best jockeys like taking part in races alongside other top jockeys. That being said, it is a tough profession too.
In 2020 the BBC asked a question about whether horse racing had a problem with mental health, which perhaps indicates why it’s so important that the jockeys are there to support each other as much as possible. Jockeys by nature are extremely resilient people but even then it can still be a lonely life with a hectic schedule at times, including spending long periods away from their families.