Such injuries mean idle weeks while other men get your rides. And, despite the danger and the injuries and the meager pay, there are many candidates. More than 400 riding licenses are issued to professionals each season, and there are also about 600 unpaid enthusiasts who ride occasionally as amateurs. These amateurs are the source from which most top jockeys come. Mellor and Biddlecombe rode in hunts and shows as children, in point-to-point cross-country steeplechases (which is the way the sport began 200 years ago in Ireland) and, finally, as amateurs in competition with established stars. A smaller group started as flat-race jockeys, grew too heavy and turned to jumping. Piggott himself rode 20 winners over hurdles in his younger, less affluent days, and recently men like Josh Gifford and David Mould have brought flat-race style and polish to the sport.
However, style, polish and ability to judge pace and inspire a horse to run all out from the last fence to the finish are not enough. The essence of the sport is jumping—getting a horse to jump fast, flat and clean, and staying on his back when he does. A fine jump rider needs that skill and the courage that will drive an exhausted horse into the last fence when it would be easier to sit back and play it safe, the sort that carried Fred Winter around four twisting miles and 25 fences to win the Grand Steeplechase de Paris with the bit hanging broken and useless from his horse's mouth.
Such legends help to explain the hold jumping has on Englishmen, but it still is not easy to put into words why a man chooses the life of a professional rider—and sticks to it. You would understand it better, I think, inside the jockeys' changing room at a track. Here you see happy men, ready to laugh at anything, including the very real fear they often feel. There is no room for jealousy and bitterness. As Biddlecombe says, "There's quite enough trouble out there without making any of our own. If someone asks you for a bit of room at a fence, you bloody well give it. Next time you might be asking him."
So they have this, the comradeship of dangers shared and understood. And they have the matchless thrill of days when things go right, when your horse stands back and flies at every fence and you come to the last one full of running, flick over it and sail away.
One such moment makes up for an awful lot of falls and pain and disappointment. The memory of it lasts, and while it lasts no jumping jockey willingly gives up the chance of knowing it again.