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Short of stature, but tall in the saddle, they face a demanding and dangerous job

For The Courier-Journal

This Saturday, more than 130,000 people from all over the world will flock to Churchill Downs to cheer for and bet on some of the fastest horses on the planet.

But none of the excitement or the pageantry would be possible without the people on top of it all – the jockeys.

The jockeys, of course, are the slender men and women in the colorful shirts who risk injury while skillfully guiding horses to the finish line.

"Being a jockey is more of a lifestyle (than a profession)," said Robert E. Colton, a jockey and secretary of The Jockeys' Guild, which is based in Lexington. "This has to do with the long hours of work, the constant dieting for most, keeping yourself in shape and dealing with injuries.
The job comes home with jockeys, whether they want it to or not. It is a very hard lifestyle and takes a special dedication and love for the sport of horse racing to become successful."

There's a lot more to being a jockey than simply riding a horse.

Jockeys must be athletic and daring, with quick reflexes. They must be willing to work very hard, and they must always watch what they eat: They can't weigh much more than 115 pounds because horses usually run faster if they carry less weight.

In most states, jockeys can begin working at age 16. Most aspiring jockeys work under a horse trainer, first as a groom, then an exercise person and eventually a jockey.

Can women become jockeys? Absolutely.

Diane Crump was the first woman to ride in the Derby and ride in a pari-mutuel race in North America. That came at Hialeah Park in Florida in 1969 when she was 19, according to the official Kentucky Derby Web site, www.kentuckyderby.com

Patricia Cooksey rode in the 1984 Kentucky Derby. Andrea Seefeldt rode in 1991. And Julie Krone, who has won more races than any other woman rider, has ridden twice. She became the first female to ride in more than one Derby – first in 1992 and then again in 1995. She was the first woman to ride in the Belmont, the first to win a Triple Crown event (the 1993 Belmont) and the first to ride in the Breeders' Cup.

Black jockeys have also been very important to the sport of racing and to the Kentucky Derby.
Some famous black jockeys include:

• Alonzo "Lonnie" Clayton, who in 1892 rallied Azra to an impressive nose victory in a three horse field to become the youngest jockey to win the Derby. He was 15.

• Erskine Henderson became the sixth African-American jockey to win the Derby as he piloted Joe Cotton to a victory in 1885.

• James Winkfield rode in four consecutive Kentucky Derbys from 1900-1904, winning two.

• Marlon St. Julien became the first African-American jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby in 79 years, in the 126th running two years ago.

On June 25, 1980, the 11 African-American jockeys who rode a total of 15 Derby winners between 1875 and 1902, were honored by the NAACP and the Lincoln Foundation. A plaque commemorating the occasion is in the Kentucky Derby Museum's collection.

Once a rider becomes a jockey, there are no guarantees of a comfortable living. That's because jockeys get most of their income on commission. That means when the horse places well in a race, the jockey receives a small percentage of the prize.

The jockey who rides the winning horse receives 6 percent of the "purse," or the prize in the race. The commission drops to 1 percent for the jockey whose horse places second and half a percent for the third-place finisher, Colton said.

Jockeys also receive a fee, called a jock mount, every time they race. Jock mounts are usually $35 to $50, depending on the purse size.

A successful jockey often participates in more than 1,000 races a year, riding several hundred different horses.

In the United States, the average jockey makes less than $40,000 before expenses and takes home $25,000 to $30,000, said Colton, who lives in Delaware and usually races at tracks on the East Coast.

The highest-earning jockey in the nation last year made commissions totaling about $1.75 million before expenses and taxes. But the jockey didn't take home that much. Expenses are considerable.

"Most jockeys employ an agent and a valet," Colton said. "Agents receive 25 percent to 30 percent of a jockey's earnings, and valets receive 5 percent to 10 percent. This means most jockeys pay out 30 percent to 40 percent of their paycheck before taxes."

Top jockeys earn much less than the elite performers in other sports. And day on the job involves considerable risk.

"Riding race horses is considered to be one of the most dangerous jobs there is," Colton said. "With less than 1,000 active jockeys in the U.S., there has been an average of two deaths per year and three catastrophic injuries per year. The Jockeys' Guild, which represents about 40 percent of the jockeys in the U.S, has about 50 permanently disabled members, with most of those disabilities involving paralysis."

Colton, who has been a jockey since 1976, hopes to win his 4,000th race this year. Although he has never competed in the Kentucky Derby, he has been to Churchill Downs twice on derby day and once participated in the race held right before the derby.

"A jockey has to avoid injuries, keep his or her weight down and not become afraid," Colton said. "For many jockeys, the end of their career is one injury or one large meal away."
Despite all the challenges, Colton said that jockeys have a fun job. After all, they get paid to ride horses.

Additional source: Encyclopedia of Careers and Vocational Guidance; The Kentucky Derby Web site, www.kentuckyderby.com.


The 128th running of the Kentucky Derby is on May 4.

The fastest 3-year-old thoroughbreds will run for the roses in the most famous horse race in the United States.

The winning horse is presented with an award of roses.

The derby is the nation's oldest continually run race. It has been held every year since 1875.

Word Up

Catastrophic: Relating to a great disaster.

Dedication: Selfless devotion.

Jock mount: The fee jockeys receive every time they race.

Pageantry: Grand display.

Purse: Winnings of a race. Jockeys receive a percentage of that.

Silks: The colorful shirts that jockeys wear. Each jockey wears a shirt in the color of the horse's owner.

Stature: Height.

Thoroughbred racing: One of four types of racing. In this case, all of the horses are of the Thoroughbred breed. This is the most popular type of horse racing. The other types are harness, Quarter Horse and obstacle.

Write Now


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