Who’d be a jockey? I ask the question not in the context of Freddie Tylicki’s awful paralysis nor the broader risk of catastrophic injury riders face daily, writes Tony Keenan. Because, ultimately, the decision to ride horses for a living is theirs and at heart many of them are adrenaline junkies who could do nothing else; the racing bubble they exist in normalises a lifestyle that is anything but.
No, instead I am thinking of the position of the jockey in the racing world. About two weeks ago, AtTheRaces and soon-to-be ITV presenter Matt Chapman launched a GoFundMe page for Tylicki that raised in the region of £270,000. Chapman played an absolute stormer here but one also has to ask the question: why did he even need to do this? Shouldn’t there be more provision within the sport in the event of life-changing injury rather than this sort of piecemeal effort? Yes, there are the various injured jockeys’ funds but they seem to be constantly raising cash through the usual methods charities use; this isn’t really a charity but a fundamental problem in the sport that needs to be resolved. As both a punter and a racegoer, I would like some of my betting and admission euro to go towards providing for jockeys and I doubt I am alone.
The jockey’s life is difficult. For many, particularly over jumps, the pay is minimal and recent times have revealed a mental toll that any sensible person will have been aware has been bubbling under the surface for years. As you will have already gauged, this article is more about questions than answers so I will ask another: are jockeys ‘the talent’ in racing? Because if they are, they most certainly aren’t treated as such. Instead we will ascribe human qualities to animals, calling them ‘tough’, ‘genuine’ and ‘likeable’, when the actual humans are treated as expendable, with all bar the top riders pushed around at the whims of owners and trainers.
This is not the case in most sports and it has become hard to escape the perception that horse racing simply isn’t a modern sporting culture, at least in its human aspect. In the Irish context, some of this might stem from the prevalence of the GAA, a theoretically amateur organisation that has thus far eschewed professionalism, at least publicly. The Irish don’t like people getting too big for their boots which is rarely the case with jockeys given their small stature, and that may even have something to do with their lack of status within the sport; Malcolm Gladwell has demonstrated to us that tall men become CEOs of Fortune 500 companies much more often than random chance dictates they should, so perhaps size does matter.
Of course, jockeys play their part in this too, reinforcing racing’s feudalism whenever possible. Self-deprecation is the jockey’s calling card with ‘keeping their head down’ seemingly the catchphrase of choice when asked how they are getting on; Wayne Lordan said just that when asked about his hopes for the 2017 flat season after his move to Ballydoyle. At least publicly, jockeys seem to have an utter lack of self-regard, perhaps because they are at the beck and call of trainers and owners and with largely non-existent job security (do jockeys have contracts? I’m not even sure but if they do, they seem to be broken over a cup of tea). They are ever-vulnerable to young riders snapping at their heels as a strong ‘next man up’ culture prevails with many speaking of rushing back from injury lest they lose their rides.
Much of this is just backward thinking and, while similar cultures existed in other sports in the past, most of them have moved with modern labour conditions whether it be kicking and screaming or otherwise. Yet racing seems caught up in many of the clichéd views that have existed about the participants in professional sport for decades: “jockeys are stupid and are trained from a young age to always listen to a person in authority like a trainer”; “jockeys don’t pay attention to the world around them, even the world of sports”; “jockeys will always act in their own self-interest when money is involved and won’t make sacrifices for the greater good of the sport or those who come after them”.
While jockeys may be uneducated in the traditional sense, often having given up their schooling early to hone their craft, they certainly aren’t stupid or uninformed about what is going on in the wider world of sport. In fact, they are acutely aware of how much other sportspeople are being paid and how strong their unions or agents are, what endorsement deals they have and how much the media contributes to the player pot.
But again, jockeys play their part in reinforcing these stereotypes. AtTheRaces did a feature sometime in the last year where they asked jockeys ‘who is the smartest person in the weigh-room?’ The consensus response was ‘there isn’t one, we’re all stupid in here, sure you’d need to be an idiot to do this job.’ This is complete rubbish and jockeys should be encouraged not to present themselves as such. Intelligence is important in a jockey, from knowledge of opponents (equine and human), to awareness of pace, to knowing how to ride a certain track. They are doing themselves a disservice and you’d just love one of them to respond to a post-winner interview with ‘you know what Gary [O’Brien], I gave that a brilliant ride and here’s why’. There is nothing wrong with being proud of doing something well provided it doesn’t become hubris.
Perhaps this is just the nature of the dressing or weighing room but in other sports preening and self-belief is not only tolerated but often encouraged; these players have brands to build after all, something that seems to be foreign in horse racing. That is why individuals like Frankie Dettori stand out in a room of jockeys that all seem the same in appearance and attitude; there is no sign of the hipster jockey. Blandness seems to be a quality – they are almost like Kilkenny hurlers in terms of being indistinguishable – and while of course we don’t want the utter narcissism of some sports, we are still too far toward the other extreme.
For jockeys to get more status, they need to get more money. I must stress I am no expert on racing finances but it is seems fair to say that while the sport is not quite awash with money, there is plenty around and it is easy to see the haves and the have nots. Jockeys obviously fall into the latter group and must look jealously at other sportspeople who receive a much bigger slice of the pie in their respective professions. Oftentimes, this money comes from media fees and racetracks are certainly perceived as being one of the ‘haves’ in Irish racing in terms of the monies they receive for allowing SIS access to their pictures. Ruby Walsh recently commented that this should be a source of funding for the Injured Jockeys Fund and questioned whether tracks should be ‘the sole beneficiary of TV rights’. He has a point but it could be argued that racecourses are an obvious and visible ‘have’ which might be too easy a solution.
Bookmakers are another big ‘have’ and in general racing is far too easy on these firms, extracting nothing like the benefits they should be accruing from them. Their donations to the Tylicki fund mentioned earlier were generous but are all too piecemeal and while not wanting to go down the road of finger-pointing (though I do want to do a little of that!), it seems reasonable to believe that those who can pay, should pay. But, as we see regularly in business, people will exploit you if they can.
Increased status and wages for jockeys would not just improve their standard of living but also the standard of the sport. When money comes into something, it generally makes it better and there are many areas where jockey standards can improve. Take food and nutrition: all too often we hear of riders stopping at service stations on the way home from an evening meeting to grab a Burger King when tracks can provide healthy and free food; this needs to be called what it is, pathetic. Sportspeople should be able to focus entirely on the job at hand at their place of work and not have to think about paying for food while there. Or consider the nature of silks which is totally backward. Sam Waley-Cohen uses skin-tight gear when riding, the sort of marginal gains approach that has paid off in other sports, yet the vast majority of jockeys persist with silk and even wool in some cases! Would an Olympic swimmer get into a pool without shaving their body hair? This is only the thin end of the wedge in terms of improvements that could be made.
Realistically, there hasn’t been a jockey revolution nor is there any sign of one in the near future; racing still awaits its Jean-Marc Bosman. That rider, or even retired rider, would need to have a sense of the greater good and be willing to give up their own standing in the sport for the benefit of jockeys now and in the future. Instead, we remain in a culture where it is every jockey for themselves and that applies from getting rides and retainers right through to the ethically ambiguous position of writing blogs for bookmakers. Perhaps someone needs to stand up against the deeply ingrained acceptance of their role as staff and begin to recognise that they are, at least on some level, the talent of the sport, and with that comes great value.
– Tony Keenan