The list of famous racehorses is stunning, almost legendary. Movies have been made about them, numerous books, newspaper and magazine articles have been written about them and television features have been created about them.
Try this on for size: Phar Lap, John Henry, War Admiral, Affirmed, Barbaro, Smarty Jones, Secretariat, Citation, Seabiscuit, Man O’ War, Ruffian, Seattle Slew, Northern Dancer, Native Dancer, Alydar, California Chrome, Spectacular Bid, Nijinsky, Eclipse, Genuine Risk, Sunday Silence, Buckpasser, Bold Ruler, Sea-Bird, Red Rum, Zenyatta, and American Pharoah.
You’ve probably heard of at least a half dozen of these names. Horses such as Phar Lap, Secretariat, Seabiscuit, Affirmed, Citation and Seattle Slew are practically household names.
But does anyone remember who the jockeys were? OK, let’s take the most recent Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah in 2015, who won the Kentucky Derby, The Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, all in spectacular fashion.
Who was the jockey? That would be one Victor Espinoza, not exactly a household name, even though he won the Kentucky Derby three times, the Preakness Stakes three times, and was the first jockey in history to enter the Belmont Stakes with a third opportunity to win the Triple Crown, winning in 2015 and in the process becoming the oldest jockey and first Hispanic jockey to win the award.
But he’s basically a footnote to American Pharoah, who won tons of accolades, $1.2 million and was retired to stud at the end of the 2015 racing season, which would earn his owners millions more. And you thought retirement would be boring!
Espinoza earned 10% of that purse, or $120,000, which is a tidy sum for a jockey, but the fifth-place rider only got $6,000 and those finishing worse than fifth only got a standard riding fee. And that doesn’t include fees for the jockey’s agent, valet, taxes and other fees. And there’s no way Espinoza is going to retire to stud at the end of his racing career.
So, the upshot of all this is, to paraphrase an Oscar-winning song, “It’s Hard out Here for a Jockey.” While the top jockeys can earn into the millions, the vast majority of them average about $35,000-$40,000 a year, perhaps more if they happen to hook up with a winning horse and go on a streak.
With the Kentucky Derby coming up on May 6, followed by the other Triple Crown races, the Preakness Stakes on May 20, and the Belmont Stakes on June 10, all eyes will be on the horses, their owners and trainers, and for only a small percentage, usually the race diehards, the jockeys.
A typical day for a typical jockey means getting up at 5 a.m., eating only a small amount for breakfast, most protein (gotta keep that weight to around 108-118 lbs.), getting to the track around 6 a.m., check to see which horses you may be riding that day (if it’s race day), make their way to the track to “breeze,” or work out a horse or two, back to the jockeys’ room, where he will pass the time, study the race forms and banter with other jockeys or consult with his agent, who books the races.
Cutting or maintaining weight is a constant for jockeys, who not only have to stay in top physical shape — they are 110-pound men on 1,200-lb. beasts that are going 40 mph, after all — but need to stay under the 120-lb. limit.
They even try to do this on non-race days, so they don’t have to use the sweat inducing “hot box” at the track to lose weight, which can also sap their strength. No giant carne asada burritos with sour cream and guacamole for these guys!
Brazilian jockey Leandro Goncalves, for example, only eats red meat and a couple of eggs for breakfast, has one cup of coffee, no lunch and before a race, just an energy bar. He admitted to a newspaper reporter in 2015, that he had his first burrito in seven years! “I paid for it in the hot box,” he added.
Injury is also a constant for jockeys. Even relatively minor injuries such as sprains and strains, which account for 26 percent of injuries according to the Jockey’s Guild, can have a major impact on how a race is run. Imagine trying to rein in a horse more than 10 times your weight going at top speed with a dozen other rampaging behemoths.
According to the guild, fractures account for 25 percent of injuries, concussions at 9 percent, and, not to be morbid, 150 jockeys have died in North America since 1940.
So, early hours, long days, little food, low pay, risk of injury or even death, disjointed family life, high divorce rate (jockeys move around a lot), and little recognition. Hey, what’s not to like?
Most jockeys will tell you they yearn for, and are willing to work and wait for, that one transcendent moment, that one crowning glory, that makes all the sacrifices worth it.
“It’s addictive, like a drug,” said renowned jockey Brice Blanc in an interview with The Guardian newspaper. “After 20-odd years with all the ups and downs, it takes its toll. But obviously, even after this bad year for me, I still want to work hard. You get up in the morning so that you can go to places you’re never been to, or go back to.
“That’s why we’re all in it, why we risk our lives every day: it’s because you can’t live without it.”
So while you’re watching the Derby, the Preakness and Belmont this year, think about the jockeys who are racing too. While the horses get all the attention and accolades, without the jockeys it would just be a bunch of horses out for a trot on a Saturday afternoon.
By the way, Espinoza is back at the Kentucky Derby this year, not on a contender, but a #8 horse, Gormley, whose odds of winning are 12-1. But don’t count out Espinoza, who seems like he’s got a few more transcendent moments left in his career.
Here are some of the most famous jockeys of all time: Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay, Eddie Arcaro, Steve Cauthen, Angel Cordero Jr., Russell Baze, Javier Castellano, Chris McCarron, Lester Piggott, and Pat “I’ll Wait All” Day, so named for his penchant for holding back and only pushing to the wire late.
All books are available at amazon.com. Click on title for more information.
History of Horse Racing: First Past the Post, Champion Thoroughbreds, Owners, Trainers and Jockeys
by John Carter
Inside The Sport of Kings: A Look Inside the Sport of Horse Racing Including Perspectives, Interviews and Stories
by Keith Hoffman and Gary Gibula
Jockey: The Rider’s Life in American Thoroughbred Racing
by Scott Gruender
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