Are Jockeys Fit?
Enda McElhinney explains why jockeys are some of the fittest athletes in the world.
When it comes to sporting endeavours, few people truly appreciate the level of skill and fitness a top-ranked jockey possesses. For the uninformed observer, racing a horse is no more complicated than putting on a brightly coloured outfit and helmet, sitting on a saddle, and holding on to the reigns. Many people assume that it is the horse doing most of the work during a race. Now, there is some truth in those assumptions. However, what most people fail to realise is that jockeys are elite-level athletes who have to hone their skills over many years of practice and training. Yes, it helps to be a specific build and height, but professional jockeys need much more to make it to the top.
Making Weight is a Skill
According to the British Racing School's guidelines, all aspiring jockeys must start as an apprentice or conditional jockey. Much like an athlete would begin at their local running club or a footballer would join an academy, jockeys cut their teeth as an apprentice rider. Aside from being given tasks to complete around the yard (mucking out the horses, etc.), apprentice jockeys have to watch their weight. Under the terms of professional racing, when an apprentice enters a professional race, they can "claim weight".
This means they can be lighter than their opponents in a bid to reduce their disadvantage. For example, if a three-race novice was sitting beside one of the best jump jockeys of all time, AP McCoy, they would be the considerable underdog. Indeed, with 3,000 career wins by 2009, McCoy will have won significantly more races than the amateur may even ride in their career. Because of this, the novice is allowed to race lighter based on the following table:
Professional Racers Are Bound by Stats
To give these conditions some context, let us take a practical example. The Cheltenham Festival is one of the most prestigious National Hunt (jump racing) festivals in the world. Taking place in March over four days, the event brings together the top jump jockeys in the world. Naturally, with the margins between the top riders so tight, the odds are often close in the big races. For example, if you looked down the race card for this year's Arkle Trophy, you would see that all bar the favourite are fairly evenly matched.
Using Oddschecker's Cheltenham Festival odds database, you can see that the top bookmakers have Altior at 1/3. At the same time, the likes of Yorkhill (9/2), Charbel (10/1), and Royal Caviar (14/1) are all close in the betting. Now, if you were to put an apprentice with 50 wins on Charbel, they would be granted a 5lb claimer. In simple terms, this means they can be 5lb lighter than their more experienced opponents.
The weight allowance for a jockey is 8st 8lb, so this would mean the apprentice could ride at 8st 3lb. Naturally, if the horse has less weight to carry, it can run slightly faster and take jumps marginally easier. Of course, this allowance will not wholly offset the skill differential between a novice and a pro, but it will help. However, making the 8st 3lb is not easy. Making weight is a skill in its own right.
Being Race Ready is a Year-Round Effort for Jockeys
Professional jockeys have to eat well throughout the year. Unlike boxers who can afford to bulk up in between fights then cut down for a six to eight-week training camp, jockeys are required to ride every week. Because of this, they always have to stay on or around their target weight. For a novice, this can be a lot tougher because they will often be instructed to take their maximum claimer.
Looking at the diet of former jump jockey Jim Crowley, high protein, low carbohydrates is the way forward. After starting the day with scrambled eggs and green tea, he will go for a run or work on the horses. From there, a high-protein meal with a cup of sweet tea or some jelly babies will give him a quick sugar hit that allows him to work through the afternoon's training session. However, not a strictly ketogenic diet, the high-protein/low-carb ratio does force the body to metabolise fat for energy. This is what helps keep Crowley and jockeys like him around the weight they need to be.
Speed, Power, and Balance Keep a Jockey Stable
Of course, it is not all about making weight. One thing professional jockey Sam Twiston-Davies notes about his training is the anaerobic endurance he needs. Although jockeys need to be aerobically fit for the bulk of the race, the final quarter is a sprint that requires the rider to tense up and thrust their arms and legs at full power. Because of this, jockeys will do a lot of sprint training. Short bursts of 10m to 25m sprints with short periods of rest in between helping the athletes build up their lactic acid tolerance so they can push their maximum effort for longer.
On top of this, jockeys have to have exceptional balance and grip strength to stay on a horse that is running and jumping at speeds close to 40 mph. When you take all of this into account, it is easy to see why jockeys are some of the fittest sportspeople in the world. Although they might not look like a rugby player or have the grace of a gymnast, they are highly skilled at what they do. So, the next time you think it is easy to ride a horse, just look at a pro like Twiston-Davies and ask yourself if you could do the same.
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About the Author
Enda McElhinney is a sports enthusiast, with a passion for Horse Racing. Away from the racetrack, Enda enjoys researching the sports science behind racing and the training regimes that exist within a sport.