There is a great misunderstanding about the importance of the jockey in a horse race. For some, the jockey is just a small person in brightly-colored clothes that hits a horse with a whip to make it go faster. This is highly inaccurate. Others look to blame the jockey exclusively when their horse loses. This is usually not the case either.
A popular horse racing maxim is that the jockey is about 10% responsible for a horse’s performance. This means that regardless of the rider on a 99-1 shot, that horse still doesn’t have much of a chance. But the jockey can make a huge difference when there’s no clear favorite in a race, and the contenders are separated by just a few speed figure points. They can also be vitally important in a race like the Kentucky Derby, where 20 horses are fighting for position across the track.
You can figure out who the best jockeys in the country are by looking at the standings at a given track. For example, at Santa Anita, Rafael Bejarano is currently leading the meet with 72 winners, well clear of the recently-injured Santiago Gonzalez at 47 wins. Flavien Prat and Edwin Maldonado are also doing fairly well, checking in at 44 and 43 wins, respectively, while staying above what I consider to be the cutoff point between a good and average rider, a 15% winning percentage. Elite riders, like Bejarano, generally win over 20% of their races.
Javier Castellano has been the best jockey in the country for a while now, as evidenced by his three consecutive Eclipse Awards. Generally splitting his time between Gulfstream, Belmont and Saratoga, some of the most competitive tracks in the country, Castellano has won at an impressive 23% clip the last three years, and has raked in over $50 million in purse money (jockeys generally receive 5-10% of that).
But there is no standard formula to being an elite jockey. In fact, most play to their strengths. Some riders are better on turf than they are on dirt; Julien Leparoux and Corey Nakatani quickly come to mind. Some riders are known for excelling on frontrunners rather than closers; C.C. Lopez and Paco Lopez fit that description.
Some riders, usually younger ones, are given instructions on how to ride a horse by either the trainer or owner. This can occasionally lead to a jockey giving a bad ride because he or she is not reacting to what’s going on in the race. Lester Piggott, a famed English jockey, never cared much for taking orders, saying, “A good jockey doesn’t need orders and a bad jockey couldn’t carry them out anyway; so it’s best not to give them any.”
Smart jockeys understand how to allow the horse to be itself and to let them race the way they want to. Riders have access to the Daily Racing Form just like the racing public does, and they can interpret it to see who they have to watch out for on the track, or if they have to change tactics.
Learning which jockeys to trust will take time, and your opinion of certain riders will probably vary significantly from others’ depending on your experience when betting on or against them. Just don’t let a negative opinion of a jockey get in the way of cashing on a horse you think is a good bet.