Like elite athletes in any major sport, a winning jockey has abilities that other riders don’t. Here are five tricks of the trade that all elite riders possess.
The best jockeys in the country often earn a reputation for being particularly gifted at a certain type of race, be it turf or dirt, or sprints or routes. Sometimes elite jockeys are labeled as frontrunners or closers. Jockeys may have a specialty, but in order to win at a 20-25% clip, he or she has to be well-rounded. Irad Ortiz Jr., a top rider on the NYRA circuit, has earned a reputation as a top rider on turf but he knows he has more to offer than that.
“They say I ride good on the grass, but I just feel like I just do my job and try to do the best for my horse, both grass or dirt,” Ortiz told the Times Union last year. “I think you have to be a little more patient and save more ground [on grass]. On dirt, you can go around some horses a little early.”
Even the best jockeys occasionally fall off a horse; injuries are a common part of the game. Russell Baze, the all-time winningest rider with over 12,000 victories, “has been hurt dozens of times, incurring nine concussions, a dozen or so fractures and 24 contusions,” per a New York Times profile of the rider. He is currently on the sidelines with a collarbone injury sustained in a race at Golden Gate Fields, his home track. The best jockeys in the game are able to bounce back from these kinds of injuries.
Good jockeys study the racing form just like bettors, and formulate a gameplan for every race they ride; they don’t just ride how they feel like riding on a given day.
“[Irad Ortiz Jr.] has a plan,” elite trainer Chad Brown said in an interview with the Times Union last year. “He has a great memory. He takes advantage of riding horses back…[because] he’s learned something about them the first time.”
Jockeys at every level are constantly straining to make weight. An average weight for a jockey is around 115 lbs, which is tough to make under any circumstance but is particularly trying for an athlete that also needs to maintain muscle mass. Stewart Elliot shed some light on the topic of fitness when he was in the spotlight during Smarty Jones’ 2004 Triple Crown attempt.
“I decided to go back to riding [at age 39],” he told the Chicago Tribune. “I was jogging every day and starving myself. Within a month I was ready. The first horse I rode at Suffolk, I did 122 pounds and the horse won. Little by little I got my weight down to where I could do 114 or 115.”
Horses often have to be ridden to their strengths, whether they like to race up front or far off the pace. But if there’s only one speed horse in a race, that horse can get away with a slow pace and take advantage of the field. However, an aggressive jockey can take a mid-pack or closing-type horse and put himself close to the leader in order to prevent that horse from stealing the race. An aggressive jockey might also take the early initiative on a horse when no one else does, and steal a race that way. Aggressive jockeys often get rewarded for their tactics.
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