Thoroughbred Racing – The Athleticism of Horse Jockeys

No athletes work harder than jockeys’ and few athletes are less understood. According to one study, which ranked sports according to the number of deaths per 1000 participants, thoroughbred horse racing is the most dangerous athletic activity, beating out skydiving, hang gliding, mountaineering, scuba, college football and boxing among others. In an average year, the Jockeys’ Guild gets 2500 notifications of injury, and a typical jockey will be sidelined by injuries at least three times.

It’s not just dumb luck that keeps a great rider in the saddle of a 1400-pound thoroughbred horse as it races at speeds of up to 55 MPH. These highly-coordinated men and women must remain standing in the saddle, striking an exquisitely difficult balance to keep from falling forward or backward in the saddle (which could easily prove fatal). While expending this tremendous effort, they must at the same time keep a cool head, making strategic calculations “and reading” the horse’s mood, processing huge amounts of information from microsecond to microsecond. They must practice a consummate athleticism, combining strength, coordination, and calculation at once.

And then, there’s the whole weight thing.

Like wrestlers, jockeys’lives are ruled by a set of scales. If you don’t make weight, you don’t get to race, and the weights jockeys must maintain are almost unimaginably low for most average-size adults. Horses are assigned to carry riders at different, graded weight classes, called “imposts”, and in the twenties the imposts ranged from 83-130 pounds. Jockeys during this period “the heroic, hard-as-nails era of American horse racing” were known to live on 600-calorie-a-day diets, to deprive themselves of water so badly that they’d have to lie around in tubs of ice cubes to forestall overheating, and to return to work within minutes of near-fatal injuries. Some of them would run for hours in the hot sun under layers of clothing, hoping to lose that last crucial ounce.

And those were the less extreme expedients to which jockeys of the thirties resorted. As Laura Hillenbrand relates in Seabiscuit, her riveting 2001 account of the great late-30s racehorse of that name, jockeys then were known to use homemade diuretics in prodigious quantities, purging away what little they did eat using Epsom salts and water and other concoctions so potent that bottles of them occasionally exploded. Bulimia was common. So were pneumonia and tuberculosis, brought on, some historians think, by weakness due to the traumatic effects of malnourishment. Scariest of all, some jockeys voluntarily swallowed tapeworms. After the intestinal parasite had helped them to “reduce”, they went for a visit to the hospital and lost the worm “until it was time to “reduce” again.

Today’s jockeys still have to watch out for anorexia and bulimia, frequent occupational hazards of this sport as of several others with weight requirements (dance, gymnastics, running, wrestling). Most apprentice jockeys can’t afford to weigh more than 105 pounds, and thoroughly experienced thoroughbred horse racers need to keep it around a hard-to-believe 113. (Naturally tall people are rarely able to participate in thoroughbred horse races.) Other inconveniences include crazy travel schedules’ up to twelve races a day, for some. Most of all, jockeys must love horses, demonstrating the same well-honed intuition and sympathy for them that great trainers are known for. Only such ability can enable them to make the split-second judgment calls that win races. And only such love could possibly make the pain, deprivation, hard work and sacrifice worth it.

Watching thoroughbred horse racing, on the other hand, can be as exciting and pleasant as the practice of it can be draining. Whether you’re a fan of horse racing gambling or just like the thrill of live horse racing, the sport is as full of drama and passion as any other. Tip services can help you maximize your enjoyment of thoroughbred horse racing by clarifying the details and letting you know who the favorites are.