Looking at this image it’s no wonder John Velasquez didn’t stay on Bodexpress out of the starting gate in the Preakness. Honestly, I’m amazed how well jockeys stay on during all the shenannigans with such short stirrups.
The style that we see today, was popularized by American jockey Tod Sloan in the late 1800s. Prior to that, jockeys rode with much longer stirrups. In 1897, he moved to the UK to ride and, while he was initially ridiculed for riding like a “monkey on a stick”, his success made converts of his fellow jockeys. It should be noted that he didn’t invent what was called the “American Seat”. Similar positions were used in Quarter Horse dashes in the colonies and, two years before Sloan rode in England, African American jockey Willie Simms had used the same style to win England’s Crawfurd Plate at Newmarket.
Over the past century, jockeys using this technique have improved their race times by about 6%, mostly because the position is so much more energy efficient. Researchers at the Structure and Motion lab at the University of London’s Royal Veterinary College in conjunction with the British Racing School in Newmarket analyzed the best and safest ways for jockeys to ride their horses by attaching sensors to the horse’s saddle and the jockey’s belt. As the horse raced around the track, the sensors recorded the movements of both horse and jockey. In the crouched position, jockeys remain more stationary; their vertical displacement during a horse’s stride is only about 60 millimeters. By “floating” above his horse, the jockey reduces the amount of energy the horse would need to expend by pushing the weight of the rider off the saddle with each stride.
According to an article in Science Magazine, rider position has exerted the single most dramatic improvement in racing speed. The average times–almost 109 seconds per mile in the 1890s–fell dramatically and settled at less than 103 seconds for most of the 20th century.
Tune in tomorrow with a report from a “regular” rider who tries riding jockey style! My knees and ankle hurt just thinking about it.