At last count there were about 1,300 registered jockeys in the U.S. and many times that number of youngsters working around horses, hopefully awaiting a chance to enter an exacting profession where the glamour and rewards come only to a few and where loss of judgment can mean the loss of life.
The top American riders, as a group, are the highest paid athletes in all of sport (nine of them earned over $100,000 in 1960—compared to probably four in boxing, none in baseball, none in football, basketball or hockey). Because of them, the average young boy sees the practitioners of this dangerous pursuit as athletic Brahmins who ride horses for huge incomes and support stables of flashy cars. Men in racing know exactly how foolish this legend is.
They are also aware that a jockey crisis may be on the horizon. Basically, the problem is not one of quantity but of quality. Caught up in the swirl of racing's general overcommercialization (SI, Feb. 13, et seq.), most owners and trainers use only the established jockeys when big purses are at stake. As a consequence, most of them have become negligent in promoting and encouraging the lower castes of the struggling riding colony, who represent 95% of its jockeys.
For example, last year's 10 leading money-winning riders (representing less than 1% of all active riders) accounted for 16% of the total purse distribution in the U.S. Most of them had more than 1,000 mounts. By contrast, 45% of all riders had fewer than 100 mounts last year, another 41% fewer than 500 and, according to the jockeys themselves, the average income of the 1,300 was an unglamorous $3,500 to $5,000 a year.
If some of the blame lies with the trainer, more of it transfers directly back to the owner. "Don't use my horses to give experience to an untried boy," he warns, and the trainer is forced to seek the services of the best rider he can find. Equally guilty are many of the hopeful youngsters. Says 54-year-old Johnny Longden, "Kids today are not interested in working hard. They don't want to go through the long grind and take a couple or three years to learn to ride. I send a boy up to the ranch when I think he has some promise. In three days he's pulling up the stirrups and getting ready to go to the races already."
The hard old days
Since Longden's apprenticeship, and well before it, the ways of prospective young racetrackers have changed. It used to be that potential jockeys would sign up with a trainer and for two years see nothing but the shed row and the back room of the trainer's own house. The contract holder taught the boy, often a lad barely into his teens, sound horsemanship and rigid discipline. Most of the current headliners, like Longden, Eddie Arcaro, Willie Shoemaker, Bill Hartack, Milo Valenzuela, Bobby Ussery and Bill Boland owe their success to the fact that they accepted this sort of training and worked at it feverishly on the minor circuit before daring to dream of getting a mount at Belmont Park or Saratoga.
Today's young riders, in a new cultural setting, seem just as ambitious as their predecessors but less willing to work the grueling hours necessary to assure their own development. In many cases there has been a disturbing lack of discipline. Trainer Moody Jolley notes, "An exercise boy wants to be a rider before he can sit a horse properly. As soon as he thinks he is somebody, a jockey gets that stay-in-bed-in-the-morning attitude. You ask him to work a horse for you in the morning and the guy looks at you as though you'd insulted him. Then, if he feels like it, he'll show up two hours late in his Cadillac and tell you how tired he is!"
In fairness to today's apprentice (about 10% of all riders are apprentices), he is forced to operate under handicaps that never bothered the likes of Earl Sande, who learned to ride at 5 and who was an accomplished horseman by the time he was 14. For one thing, American boys are larger than they used to be. Modern riders start off with a size and weight disadvantage that ends many a career before it has properly begun. Then there are the child labor laws, which generally prohibit employment before the age of 16.