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The Jockey: Why They’re Needed


Back in 1956, an October 8 edition of Sports Illustrated asked nine readers what effect they thought the jockey had on any given horse. The edition, which featured the Cleveland Browns’ George Ratterman and Paul Brown on the cover, received answers from people in positions like stockbroker, handicapper, trainer, and manufacturer, and reached what might seem like an obvious conclusion.

Noble Yeats

Of course, the conclusion was that the jockey was pivotal in a horse’s performance. However, there are some caveats to the rule that make the answer seem a little more nuanced. For instance, the quality of the horse a jockey ends up with can mean that all their training comes to nothing. Jockeys cannot turn an average horse into a winner but can help a diamond in the stables achieve greatness.

The upcoming Cheltenham Festival will put many of these ideas to the test in mid-March when Galopin Des Champs, Bravemansgame, and A Plus Tard will get the chance to win in the Gold Cup. Currently, Galopin Des Champs is the favourite in the betting on Cheltenham but, inevitably, plenty of casual punters will be wagering on horses further down the field, just in case the impossible happens.

A good example of the latter is the 2022 winner at Aintree, Noble Yeats, who started as a 50-1 outsider only to beat the favourite Any Second Now at the post. Ridden by Sam Waley-Cohen on his final outing, Noble Yeats will now appear in the Gold Cup alongside Galopin Des Champs and co., albeit with the much more appropriate odds of around 8/1.

`Monkey Crouch`

Noble Yeats’ success might be described as the perfect example of a jockey turning a good horse into a winner but this idea does have its detractors. Various sources, including the magazine site Slate, have reduced the jockey’s influence to “only a little” in the past, with a figure of around 5-10% of a horse’s performance going to the rider. More optimistic estimations go as high as 75%.

There’s more than the jockey in a yard, which is where trainers come into a horse’s performance. Trainers target their horses at particular races - and not just because of how they expect them to perform at certain distances and/or ground types. Tracks that require long journeys can prove a mistake if the horse doesn’t have sufficient time to rest, for instance, meaning that trainers may prefer to stay local.

Perhaps the most substantial evidence for the jockey’s role in horse racing actually comes from the later 19th century, when US rider Todd Sloan debuted the ‘monkey crouch’, the rather awkward-looking way that jockeys sit on their horse to this day. The Science website notes that the monkey crouch has added 6% to horse’s race times over the past century. Previously, jockeys rode in a similar way to cowboys.

Overall, the jockey’s influence over the horse is still debatable but, as evidenced by Noble Yeats and Sam Waley-Cohen at Aintree, there’s quite a lot of evidence for the rider and horse working as a unit.

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