Do jockeys matter at all in horse racing?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 12 2009 6:55 PM

Do Jockeys Matter in Horse Races?

Just a little bit.

Jockeys. Click image to expand.
Jockeys

Calvin Borel, the jockey who rode Mine That Bird to victory in the Kentucky Derby, will switch to a filly, Rachel Alexandra, for the running of the Preakness Stakes on Saturday. Another jockey, Mike Smith, will ride Mine That Bird. Does it matter which jockey is riding which horse?

Yes, but only a little. Horse-racing enthusiasts like to say that the jockey accounts for 10 percent of a horse's performance on any given day. While that's hardly scientific, it gets to the nut of a jockey's role: He can't do much with a lousy horse, but he can help a great horse win. The best jockeys know an animal's strengths and weaknesses. Some horses prefer to hang back and break at the last minute, while others, known as speed horses, like to be out front the whole time. Some horses are comfortable running in close quarters and can pass along the rail on the left, while others need more space and pass on the right. A jockey takes these factors into account and adjusts his strategy accordingly.

Borel's Derby win was a perfect example of how a jockey can decide a race. Borel, knowing that Mine That Bird likes to hang back, stayed behind for most of the race, only to rocket ahead in the last three-eighths of a mile. (Watch the video here.) He was also able to drive Mine That Bird through a series of narrow gaps between horses. Not all jockeys would be willing to take that risk—horses are more likely to get cramped and trip while threading the needle—but Borel is known for it. Hugging the rail is a signature move that has earned him the nickname, "Bo-rail." (Other jockeys are known as speed riders, although the labels are not particularly strict.)

Good jockeys also research the competition. They review videos of other horses and read the Daily Racing Form for updates on their performances that then inform strategy. If three speed horses are entering your race, for example, you might want to let them battle it out for the frontrunner position and surge once they get tired. Jockeys also need to know the track. For example, the way the water runs off may leave the inside path drier than the rest, making it a more attractive place to be. Meanwhile, the Pimlico track, where the Preakness takes place, has a reputation for favoring speed over come-from-behind horses.

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Jockeys also have very particular physical characteristics. Controlling a horse at 40 miles per hour requires a rare combination of strength and lightness. Jockeys tend to weigh between 109 and 116 pounds and eat very little in the days before a race. Finally, the best jockeys can relate to horses—they know how to keep them calm in tense race situations.

Bonus Explainer: Do jockeys make a lot of money? Only if they win. Most races pay out prize money to the top four or five finishers; jockeys get to keep 10 percent of those winnings. Any jockey who doesn't get a prize will receive between $40 and $100 as a "mount fee" for each race, depending on the state and track. In 2008, the top jockey won $23 million in prize money, which means he took home roughly $2 million. The top 14 jockeys last year reaped more than $1 million each. But after that, the numbers drop off. After expenses—jockeys have to pay their agents 25 percent of their winnings, plus another 10 percent for valets who take care of their equipment—the typical jockey makes between $100,000 and $200,000 a year.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Michael Dempsey of Turf 'n' Sport, Frank Garza of Frank Garza Jockey School, Terry Meyocks of Meyocks & O'Hara Racing Enterprises, and Ron Mitchell of the Blood-Horse magazine.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.