In Australia, being a jockey is considered to be the highest risk land-based job. Other lists I’ve read don’t put riding racehorses in the top 10 and this surprises me. After all, crouching over the neck of a 1,000 pound horse running at 35 mph right on the heels of several other horses, carries with it a high risk of injury.
While reading about Calvin Borel I came across an NPR interview with him about the risks of race riding.
“I’ve been lucky, I’m not paralyzed,” he says.
Borel counts six broken ribs — some of which are now partly plastic. He has a plate and eight pins in one of his arms. He has shattered a kneecap, ruptured his spleen, torn a rotator cuff, and broken both collarbones, both shoulders, both legs, a wrist and almost all of his toes. (“You bang them on the starting gate,” he explains.)
When asked about all this, he says simply, “I’ve had a few spills.”
Borel’s teeth are gone. They were broken in falls, slammed by horses and weakened by stomach acid from years of “heaving” or “flipping” to keep his weight down.
According to an article from the Journal of the American Medical Association, published in March 2000:
- “The most frequent location where injury events occurred was entering, within, or leaving the starting gate (35.1%).”
- “Of all head injuries, 29.5% occurred entering, within, or leaving the starting gate.”
- “Injuries to the upper and lower extremities most commonly occurred at the starting gate. Fifty-two percent of leg and foot injuries occurred when entering, within, or leaving the gate. Of these leg and foot injuries, 36.6% resulted from the jockey being crushed and 27.2% resulted from the jockey being flipped and pinned by the horse.”
- “The starting gate and the homestretch/finish line were the most common sites for injury events. Jockeys and horses are emotionally and physically charged at these locations. The starting gate contains an excitable horse and mounted jockey in a small, confined space, which presents great opportunity for the jockey to be crushed against a rigid surface by the horse. Injuries incurred when entering or in the gate may be reduced by padding or altering the shape of the gate…”
- This report resulted from a four-year study of all reported jockey injuries that occurred during official races from January 1, 1993 to December 31, 1996 at US professional racing facilities
Waller, Anna E. et al. “Jockey Injuries in the United States.” Journal of American Medical Association Vol. 283, No. 10 (2000): 1326-1328
The risks are high; the compensation is, well, uncertain
Borel is one of the lucky ones because he’s made it to the top of the game. In 2009, his earnings were reported to be $3.6 million with 41 wins out of 267 starts. But most jockeys earn just a fraction of that amount.
Jockeys work on commission. Ride a winner and you get 6% of the purse. Come in second and you typically get 1%; third and your commission falls to 0.5%. Finish out of the money and you walk away with a ride fee of $35-$50. That’s not a lot of $ for the risk that a jockey takes every time he rides in a race. Even a top jockey like Borel rides in more than just the big races. On Saturday, Borel had at least one other ride before the Derby (which he won), but one false move could have put him on the injured list rather than in the winner’s circle.
According to an article I read, a successful jockey rides in about 1,000 races every year and averages $40,000 before expenses; $25-$30,000 after paying their agent, valet and other expenses.