Elsewhere on this site you can read a piece about the oldest jockeys in horse racing, looking at those that carried on racing well into their twilight years. On this page we’re going the other way, looking instead at the riders that got started early in their careers. As you might imagine, there is an interesting mix in the world of horse racing. For some people, riding was in the family and they were therefore on the back of the horse as soon as they were able to support the weight of their own head and keep themselves upright.
For others, riding was something that they found their own path towards, meaning that they started much later and were simply brilliant at it. The very nature of horse riding is such that entering races is something that tends to happen as people get older. It is not uncommon for riders to be involved in bad accidents, so allowing young people to ride before their body is able to cope with the rigours involved can be dangerous. Even so, there have been a fair few young jockeys that were simply too not to be given a chance to impress.
What The Rules Say
The rules around being a jockey are based more on their height and weight than they are on ages. It is common to think about jockeys being small and light, but there are still rules around the minimum height and weight that have to be reached before someone is allowed to take part in a horse race. On top of that, there are other requirements that jockeys need to meet, including having a Level 2 Diploma course, often referred to and a ‘pre-apprenticeship’, meaning that you have to be old enough to have completed that in order to race.
It then takes up to 18 months for a jockey to complete their ‘real apprenticeship’, as well as two weeks of ‘full jockey training’. In other words, in the modern era it is exceptionally difficult for a young person to get into riding. Most jockeys begin to get into the sport when they are aged between 16 and 22, once again demonstrating that it is decidedly difficult for jockeys to impress at a young age. That, in many ways, makes it all the more remarkable that the people who are on this list managed to make it at all when they could have fallen at the first hurdle.
Now that we’ve got a sense of the age that jockeys tend to be when they get into racing, let’s have a look at some specific names of those that did it at a noteworthy age. As you might imagine, most of the names on the list are not from the modern era, given that it is much more difficult for people to avoid the rules and regulations surrounding the sport nowadays than it was in the past. We’ll also look at some people that might not have started young, but won a big race at an age that was much younger than the average.
As you’ll see, the reality of horse racing is such that the majority of the jockeys on this list made a name for themselves in flat racing rather than as jump racers. Both disciplines are tough, of course, but flat riders do tend to start life a bit younger and can therefore win big races earlier on in their careers.
It is extremely unlikely that the first name that you expected to see on this list was that of George Formby and that even after reading it you think that it must be someone that shares a name with the ukulele playing entertainer. If you thought that then you would be very wrong, with Formby having begun his life as a stable boy and jockey after leaving formal education at the age of seven. He was initially a stable boy in Wiltshire before moving to the Middleham area of Yorkshire, with his dad fearing that he would otherwise follow him into the entertainment business.
After a year in Middleham, Formby was taken on as an apprentice by Thomas Scholfield in his yard near Epsom. He took part in his first professional race as a ten-year-old, weighing under four stone at the time. He continued working as a jockey even once the outbreak of the First World War saw the English racing season drawn to a premature close, moving to Ireland in order to carry on racing. In November of 1918, he returned to England and ended up racing for Lord Derby at his Newmarket stables. Although he never won a race, he continued riding until 1921.
In 1938, Bruce Hobbs was just 17-years-old when the Grand National came around. Reginald Hobbs, Bruce’s father, had taken on an American horse named Battleship, who had been shipped over to the United Kingdom two years earlier. The idea was that Hobbs would ride Battleship in the ‘World’s Greatest Steeplechase’ in 1937, but as the race came closer he wasn’t convinced that he had what it takes to do well in the Aintree event. As a result, he pulled the horse from the race, putting him forward for it a year later instead.
Reginald Hobbs remained unconvinced by Battleship’s ability to win the race, so he gave the ride to his son. Bruce Hobbs had only turned 17 three months earlier, so was battling against history as well as the horse’s relative lack of experience when trying to win the race. By 1918, no entire horse had won the race since 1901, which also went against the young Hobb’s desire to win. Even so, the 40/1 outsider romped home ahead of all of the other races, cementing the place of both the horse and rider in the record books. No entire horse has won the race since.
Jockeys don’t tend to start making an impression in the world of racing until they are in their early twenties, which is a big part of the reason why Lester Piggott’s name stands out from the crowd. In 1954, Piggott had already been riding horses for eight years, winning his first race at the age of 12 at Haydock Park on the back of a horse named Chase. Despite his tender age, therefore, Piggott was already an experienced jockey by the time he was given a ride on Never Say Die by Joseph Lawson in that year’s Epsom Derby race.
That shouldn’t give you the impression that Piggott was a strange choice for Lawson to have made. The Berkshire-born rider had already won the Coronation Cup, the Eclipse Stakes and the Triumph Hurdle, to name but a few races, by the time that the Derby came around. It wasn’t just his youth that broke the traditional ‘rules’ of racing either; Piggott was known as ‘the Long Fellow’ because he was unusually tall for a jockey. His height certainly didn’t affect his ability, however, given that he went on to win 4,493 races during his career.
Lester Piggott is also one of the oldest jockeys to race, not retiring officially until he was 59. Not many people can claim to be one of the youngest and one of the oldest to do something in sport.
As mentioned elsewhere on this page, a rider beginning their racing career at a relatively young age is impressive enough, but to win an important race will see their name make it onto our list here. That’s exactly what James Bowen did, breaking records when he took Raz De Maree to victory in the Welsh Grand National in 2018, becoming the youngest ever jockey to do so. The horse was the oldest to win the race since the conclusion of the Second World War, perhaps making the point that one part of a successful riding team needs to boast some experience.
That Bowen was already represented by the agent that had overseen Sir Anthony McCoy’s career before winning the National showed that he was well-fancied long before he became something of a household name. He was 16-years-old when he won the Chepstow Racecourse based event, having gained experience racing ponies before that. He had also already made the record books by winning 30 point-to-point events in his debut season, which was enough to earn the attention and admiration of both Nicky Henderson and Gordon Elliott.
When John Forth won the Epsom Derby in 1829, he did so at the age of 60. More than 100 years later and Scobie Breasley took Charlottown to victory in the 1966 renewal of the race aged 52. It is fair to say, therefore, that the Derby is a race perhaps best-known for the manner in which it tends to favour older riders. That is why the victory achieved by Caractacus in 1862 is one that will always stand out for many, given that the man riding the horse across the finish line that year was believed to be 16 at the time of the win.
Was it the skill of the jockey or the ability of the horse that saw Caractacus win the Derby that year? It is obviously hard to say, but the fact that Caractacus has lost all three of the races that he’d entered prior to that one suggests that it’s not likely to have been the horse’s natural ability that saw them across the line. The 40/1 outsider won the race to the surprise of virtually everyone involved, including its owner. The only question mark around the whole thing is actually the exact age of the jockey, who did little else of note in the years that followed.
Jamie Spencer would go on to become a stable jockey for Aidan O’Brien, winning the Champion Jockey title in flat racing in 2005. Yet it was his performance as a 17-year-old in the Irish 1,000 Guineas that started everything off for him. Having won the Irish Classic, he became an apprentice jockey and won 46 times in his first season, then in 2003 he won the St Leger Stakes at Doncaster, adding an English Class to his list of impressive achievements. He has won races in Canada, the US, France and Germany during his career, but it all started back in 1998.
The list of races that Spencer has won is impressive, with titles such as the Eclipse Stakes, the Goodwood Cup and the Ascot Gold Cup under his belt. On top of that, he’s also won the Epsom Oaks, meaning that added more Classics to his name at a relatively young age than some jockeys get to win in a lifetime. He was perhaps always likely to make a name for himself as a rider, but that initial win in the Irish 1,000 Guineas thrust him into the limelight and ensured that his would be a name that would forever be remembered in the world of flat racing.
There is, perhaps, something in the fact that most of the youngest jockeys on this list made a name for themselves in the flat racing side of the sport. There’s no doubt that not having to worry about the stresses and strains that come with jumping over fences helps younger riders get to grips with the industry and the career of Gordon Richards arguably reflects that fact. Richards was 15-years-old when he was taken on as a stable boy at the Wiltshire-based Fox Hollies Stables, with his riding skills catching the attentions of his boss.
His first ride game at Lincoln, with is first win as a jockey coming in March of 1921. He was just 16 at the time, meaning that he was not only young but also lacked experience in the industry. He become a full jockey in 1925 and won 118 races in his first season, earning him the Champion Jockey title. One of the things that makes Richards’ time in the saddle all the more impressive is the fact that he was the son of a coal miner, whose only real experience of horses was thanks to his raising of pit ponies in their home.
Richards ended up becoming one of the richest jockeys in horse racing history.