It’s Post Time with Joe Kristufek: Jockeying for Position


This is horse racing, not jockey racing.

That being said, there is no braver athlete in professional sports than a jockey, and their split-second decisions can win or lose a race.

Roughly 40% of races are won by a length or less. Jockeys can, and do, make a difference.

Even the best rider cannot make a horse go faster, but with a vast array of skills, they can put their equine partner in a better position to win.


Let’s take a closer look at the profession and get a better understanding of how who rides which horse and why can help us pick more winners!

10. Who are jockeys?

Unlike other professional sports, you don’t have to be elite in order to ply your trade as a jockey. You just have to be 120 pounds or less and have a license.

Men and women compete against one another and the age ranges from 16 to 60.

Some attend jockey school; others become exercise riders first and get backstretch experience before applying for their license.

There are approximately 1,500 licensed jockeys in the United States, roughly 25-30 ply their trade at any given meet. Some ride almost every race; others ride only a couple a day.

9. Apprenticeship

All jockeys begin their careers as an apprentice. They are given a break in the weight that their mount is assigned to carry. They receive a 10-pound weight allowance until their fifth winner, seven pounds until the 35th winner and five pounds for one calendar year after the date of the fifth winner.

It is important for jockeys to take full advantage of their apprenticeship. Any apprentice jockey with some ability, riding on the right circuit, who can tack 110 pounds, has a chance to be successful. The acid test comes when a jockey loses his/her “bug” and gains journeyman status. They no longer have the weight advantage and now are forced to compete on a level playing field.

Longshot winners can be found when apprentice jockeys ride cheap horses in route races contested on a tiring track. The weight break can really make a difference. Bombs away!


Photo by Dan Tordjman

8. How do jockeys get paid?

Jockeys are private contractors, and because of the health risk, their insurance bills are through the roof.

They are paid on a per-mount basis. Depending on the track’s purse structure, jockey fees are between $30 and $100 per mount. Jockeys receive that fee regardless of where they finish.

If they finish first (10% of 60% of the purse), second (5% of 20%) or third (5% of 15%), the jockey will receive a percentage of the horse owner’s share of the purse.

Some jockeys ride just about every race, others may only have a couple of mounts per day. Elite jockeys can earn more than a million dollars a year. The least successful will make less the $20,000 per year.

Agents work for a percentage of rider's earnings, usually in the 20% range, but a highly sought after agent can earn 30-35%.

Jockeys also have to pay their valet to take care of their equipment and keep them organized during a day’s racing program.

7. The agent

Jockey agents handle riding assignments for one or two jockeys at a meet. They work with a condition book of upcoming races, and secure mounts with owners/trainers.

The agent’s job is to promote their riders and book them the best mount possible in a given race, while remaining as loyal as possible to the stables that give their jockey the most business.

6. Riding skills

Some of the qualities that top jockeys possess include

  • Knowing how his horse’s style fits a race
  • Breaking from the gate
  • Getting their mount to settle
  • Putting their horse in the right spot
  • Judging pace
  • Willingness to take a chance
  • Being able to whip with both hands
  • Rhythm and flow on horseback
  • Strength and stamina to finish well

Even if a jockey makes all the right moves, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are going to have racing luck on their side.

5. Numbers don’t lie – Part I

Any jockey will tell you that unless they have a fast enough horse, they can’t win the race. Top jockeys get the best mounts because of their reputation for winning, but if the worst jockey is on the fastest, most-talented horse, chances are he or she can get the job done.

A good jockey will win approximately 15% of his or her races and they will hit the board (finish first, second or third) 40% of the time.

High-percentage riders usually attract race favorites, but remember, a middle-of-the-pack jockey with a high return on investment per mount can often offer more lucrative profits at the betting windows.

4. Numbers don’t lie – Part II

Pay attention to how a jockey does in the categories applicable to the race at hand.

Sprint, route, turf, 2-year-olds … what is the rider best at?

Perhaps the most important stat is a rider’s win percentage with the trainer he or she is riding for in that particular race.

Be aware of how a particular jockey has been riding in the short-term and whether or not they’re in the midst of a hot or cold streak.

3. The invader

Pay particular attention to a horse who is being ridden by an out-of-town jockey, especially if it is in a non-stakes event. Jockeys often travel across the country for a big-money race, but if they follow a maiden or allowance horse, chances are they angling to secure the mount on this runner for the future. Obviously, the rider thinks the horse has a chance to win.

2. Jockey musical chairs

Why is the jockey partnered with this horse on this day?

Have they ridden the horse with success in the past, or are they piloting for the first time? And if so, why?

Are they accepting this assignment because it’s the most live mount they could find, or are the showing loyalty to a first call trainer?

Did the previous rider of a race contender jump ship for another mount?

Check each horse/rider combination, and figure out who may have landed in the right seat in this game of jockey musical chairs.


Photo by Eclipse Sportswire

1. Tough on turf? 

The quality of the rider is magnified in turf routes, where roughly 55% of all races are won by less than a length. All the qualities mentioned above are that much more important.

Good jockeys are born with natural ability but there is no substitute for experience and approach. Some of the very best riders are well into their 40s.

When analyzing a race, it is most important to have a handle on why a jockey is riding a particular horse.

Handicap the horse AND the jockey.

Remember, with knowledge comes horsepower!

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