The Kentucky Racing Commission recently approved a $5 per-mount fee increase for jockeys whose horses finish fifth or lower in races with purses of less than $10,000.  This change brings the minimum compensation to $50 for an also-ran result.

There are several ways to look at this 11 percent increase in compensation.

First, racehorse owners are already struggling to break even, given the costs of keeping a horse in training and the stagnation of purses.  Second, no one forces an individual to become a jockey; he or she could choose to pursue another line of work that pays more and is less hazardous.  Third, some of the highest-risk occupations do not pay well.  Combat soldiers, firemen, and policemen risk life and limb for wages that are not commensurate with the perils.  Fourth, the income of independent contractors, like jockeys, normally depends on how well they perform rather than on simply making an effort.  Some might argue that a jockey whose horse finishes out of the money deserves nothing, just as the horse’s owner receives nothing.  Finally, a jockey who is consistently not able to finish in the top four places in race riding is not good enough and probably needs to find another occupation.

All of these are valid points.  However, consider the following.  Suppose a jockey rides five races a day six days a week.  Say that he or she rides 1,320 races per calendar year over 44 weeks.  In this scenario, his or her basic jockey fees at $50 per race would be $66,000, excluding commissions from purses.  The median household income in the United States is approximately $51,425 and the median income for a person with a high school degree is about $27,272.  One could look at these figures and conclude that this hypothetical jockey with base earnings of $66,000 is doing very well relative to the U. S. population and to people with his approximate educational level, especially when the basic compensation is enhanced with commissions from purse winnings.

Of course, most jockeys do not come close to riding 1,320 races a year or earning $66,000.  Jockeys are idled periodically from injuries, so consistently riding five races a day, six days a week, for 44 weeks a year is unlikely.   In addition, the job is dangerous in terms of non-injury side effects owing to the rigors of dieting.  When these factors are weighed, a per-mount fee of $50 seems like a bargain.

Horse racing is a team sport involving owners, trainers, jockeys, and caretakers.  Owners have considerable financial risk, trainers are under intense pressure to win or else they lose clients and income, and caretakers work long hours around often high-strung animals.  Yet jockeys must perform well to get mounts and earn commissions from purses, pay an agent and travel costs, be responsible for his or her own health insurance, and assume the physical gamble of race riding.  The owner and trainer might go broke but the jockey might literally be broke for life or worse. 

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business.

Originally published in the Blood-Horse.  Used with permission.