JOCKEYS: INDEPENDENT CONTRACTORS IN A HIGH-RISK BUSINESS

Avid bettors on horse racing know how to get the best Grand National or Kentucky Derby odds but may not know how the jockeys who pilot the horses are compensated or how much they earn.

Jockeys are independent contractors and don’t receive a salary, similar to professional golfers and tennis players.  In this respect, they are one-person businesses.  A jockey must pay his or her agent, who is responsible for obtaining mounts, as well as pay a valet…and also has outlays for expensive health insurance, taxes, and incidentals.

A jockey gets a modest fee for riding a horse (between $30 and $100 in North America) and receives additional cash if the horse finishes in the money.  For instance, when jockey Sonny Leon recently won the 2022 Kentucky Derby aboard Rich Strike, he earned 10% of the winning owner’s share of the total purse.  The Kentucky Derby purse was $3 million and the winning owner grossed 62% of this amount, or $1.186 million.  Leon received 10%, or $186,000, for his ride.  After paying his agent 25% and his valet 5%, he netted about $130,000 pretax.  The jockeys on the second and third-placed horses received, respectively, 5% of $600,000 (20% of the $3 million purse) and 5% of $300,000 (10% of the $3 million purse).

This was the biggest payday ever for Leon, as he had never before won a graded stake, which are the most lucrative races.  Leon’s career has been spent mostly at racetracks that don’t offer many graded stakes, if any at all, where jockeys ply their hazardous trade out of the spotlight.

Premier jockeys like Mike Smith and Irad Ortiz are in high demand for graded stakes and have the opportunity to earn large sums.  But the vast majority of jockeys don’t get mounts in top-flight races.  According to Career Trend, average annual earnings for jockeys in the United States are between $30,000 and $40,000, which is a range skewed to the high side by the million-dollar-plus earnings of the best jockeys.   

More realistically, Career Trend estimates that half of the jockeys in North America earn less than $12,000 annually.  Betting USA puts the figure at less than $20,000 per year.  Either way, most jockeys are in a dangerous occupation and earn very little for the risks they incur. 

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