Being a pro jockey is a tough gig, needing to perform at an elite level for multiple races, on different horses, week after week after week. Expectations are high with everyone from trainers to owners, to betting punters and bookmakers all expecting great things from the wiry men and women tasked with riding the most finely tuned thoroughbreds on the planet. Whether it is upsetting the odds lines for events like Cheltenham Festival or the Grand National, or whether it is getting the job done on a blustery day at Wetherby or Newcastle, jockeys always need to be on their game. However, no jockey’s journey to the top of the sport is ever smooth going.
Whether it is the draining process of making weight for every single race day or suffering the bumps, bruises, and bone fractures of falling off their mount, being a pro jockey is both a feat of mental and physical endurance. A high pain threshold also helps. Of course, the rewards can be huge as top jockeys rub shoulders with celebrities and royalty, all the while being lauded as heroes by the betting punters who back them week in and week out in bookmakers up and down the land or online.
Here are some of the most compelling stories that jockeys have to tell, about how they rose to stardom in one of the most competitive athletic fields there is.
Jockeys are full-on jet setters these days as the top ranked ones go to places as far afield as the US and Australia to bring home the bacon for wealthy backers and thoroughbred owners
He has been one of the world’s most successful and well-known jockeys for over two decades and continues to operate at racing’s top table despite being well into his fifties. Not bad for a man born in Milan, who came to the UK without knowing a lick of English and who began to build a reputation among the betting community because he continuously delivered results that stunned bookmakers and sent grandstands into raptures.
He managed all this despite occasionally being his own worst enemy, falling foul of the drug testing protocols in 2012, as well as suffering some outlandish bad luck, typified by being in a plane crash, which he narrowly survived, even though the pilot tragically lost his life.
His flamboyant and energetic demeanour is recounted in his memoir that he recently released called Leap of Faith, a title which is an ode to his famous leaping dismount celebration. There he describes the way he managed to emerge from the shadow of previous champion jockey Lester Piggott as well as how he went on to open Michelin star quality restaurants alongside his business partner and friend Marco Pierre White. To add to all this, Dettori is also a close acquaintance of the Queen, meaning she can often be seen in the royal box cheering and clapping the diminutive Italian home.
With Piggott racing professionally right into his 59th year, there is more than likely plenty left in Dettori’s tank. The racing world should therefore expect a lot more flamboyant dismounts and lively interviews before time is finally called on his never ending career.
Most fans and sports bettors do not get to see the incredible hard work and dedication that goes into being an elite level jockey, with only a select few making it into the big time
While Dettori is the head of the racing old guard, Rachael Blackmore is leading the pack of new riders shooting to prominence in the sport, a fact underlined by her winning the RTÉ Sports Person of the Year Award 2021 as well as the BBC Sports Personality World Sport Star of the Year Award in the same year.
She had these accolades bestowed upon her because she came from a tiny Irish farmstead in County Tipperary, to then go on to become arguably the greatest female rider the sport has ever seen, having been crowned the leading jockey at Cheltenham Festival and winning the Grand National. The latter achievement was particularly impressive because she overcame her fear of falling, having previously been unseated while hurdling a giant fence at the same race onboard Alpha des Obeaux.
It is that fearlessness and determination which has thrust her into the sporting limelight, but the great thing about Blackmore is that she is still just as down to earth as she was when she saddled a horse for the first time. More of her career story and rise to prominence can be found in the excellent documentary Jump Girls, which tracks the stratospheric rise of Blackmore and other female trailblazers in the sport such as Hayley Turner and Bryony Frost.
Being a top jockey means knowing when the right moment is to let your stead rush for the line, because bolting from the pack too early can often be a big mistake
While Dettori and Blackmore are still at the peak of their powers, there is a story from the racing annals which is the total opposite, about a jockey who paid the ultimate price for winning his final race.
That jockey was Frank Hayes. Hayes is the only known jockey to have passed the winning post in the lead while being clinically dead. Yes, you read that right. This incredible story came to pass all the way back in 1923 at Belmont Park racecourse in New York City. Hayes had set out from the starting gate and was making good running throughout the race, putting his mount, Sweet Kiss, in a great position to win. However, in a cruel twist of fate, Hayes suffered a heart attack mid-race, only for the undeterred horse to gallop on in honour of its fallen rider to collect the winner’s medal. Hayes’ sad fate was discovered soon thereafter by the horse’s owner and trainer, but nothing could be done to save the jockey. Soon thereafter Sweet Kiss was renamed Sweet Kiss of Death, such is the dark humour employed when naming thoroughbred racehorses.