At last count there were about 1,300 registered jockeys in the U.S. and many times that number of youngsters working around horses, hopefully awaiting a chance to enter an exacting profession where the glamour and rewards come only to a few and where loss of judgment can mean the loss of life.
The top American riders, as a group, are the highest paid athletes in all of sport (nine of them earned over $100,000 in 1960—compared to probably four in boxing, none in baseball, none in football, basketball or hockey). Because of them, the average young boy sees the practitioners of this dangerous pursuit as athletic Brahmins who ride horses for huge incomes and support stables of flashy cars. Men in racing know exactly how foolish this legend is.
They are also aware that a jockey crisis may be on the horizon. Basically, the problem is not one of quantity but of quality. Caught up in the swirl of racing's general overcommercialization (SI, Feb. 13, et seq.), most owners and trainers use only the established jockeys when big purses are at stake. As a consequence, most of them have become negligent in promoting and encouraging the lower castes of the struggling riding colony, who represent 95% of its jockeys.
For example, last year's 10 leading money-winning riders (representing less than 1% of all active riders) accounted for 16% of the total purse distribution in the U.S. Most of them had more than 1,000 mounts. By contrast, 45% of all riders had fewer than 100 mounts last year, another 41% fewer than 500 and, according to the jockeys themselves, the average income of the 1,300 was an unglamorous $3,500 to $5,000 a year.
April 24, 1961
If some of the blame lies with the trainer, more of it transfers directly back to the owner. "Don't use my horses to give experience to an untried boy," he warns, and the trainer is forced to seek the services of the best rider he can find. Equally guilty are many of the hopeful youngsters. Says 54-year-old Johnny Longden, "Kids today are not interested in working hard. They don't want to go through the long grind and take a couple or three years to learn to ride. I send a boy up to the ranch when I think he has some promise. In three days he's pulling up the stirrups and getting ready to go to the races already."
The hard old days
Since Longden's apprenticeship, and well before it, the ways of prospective young racetrackers have changed. It used to be that potential jockeys would sign up with a trainer and for two years see nothing but the shed row and the back room of the trainer's own house. The contract holder taught the boy, often a lad barely into his teens, sound horsemanship and rigid discipline. Most of the current headliners, like Longden, Eddie Arcaro, Willie Shoemaker, Bill Hartack, Milo Valenzuela, Bobby Ussery and Bill Boland owe their success to the fact that they accepted this sort of training and worked at it feverishly on the minor circuit before daring to dream of getting a mount at Belmont Park or Saratoga.
Today's young riders, in a new cultural setting, seem just as ambitious as their predecessors but less willing to work the grueling hours necessary to assure their own development. In many cases there has been a disturbing lack of discipline. Trainer Moody Jolley notes, "An exercise boy wants to be a rider before he can sit a horse properly. As soon as he thinks he is somebody, a jockey gets that stay-in-bed-in-the-morning attitude. You ask him to work a horse for you in the morning and the guy looks at you as though you'd insulted him. Then, if he feels like it, he'll show up two hours late in his Cadillac and tell you how tired he is!"
In fairness to today's apprentice (about 10% of all riders are apprentices), he is forced to operate under handicaps that never bothered the likes of Earl Sande, who learned to ride at 5 and who was an accomplished horseman by the time he was 14. For one thing, American boys are larger than they used to be. Modern riders start off with a size and weight disadvantage that ends many a career before it has properly begun. Then there are the child labor laws, which generally prohibit employment before the age of 16.
Thus, unless a boy has been fortunate enough to gain experience on western stock or range horses, much of his enthusiasm is thwarted at just the period in his life when he is most readily susceptible to encouragement. In Latin America, because there are few school and labor regulations, boys get an early start in horsemanship and in actual race-riding competition. This has been largely responsible for the recent success on U.S. tracks of an exciting and skilled band of invading riders that includes Manuel Ycaza, Braulio Baeza, Heliodores Gustines, Jose Ulloa and Herbert Hinojosa, to name only a few of the best.
What can be done to develop future jockeys? A year ago New York instituted an occasional race limited to apprentice jocks. Then this year, in an effort to give youngsters more opportunity to ride, it increased the apprentice allowance from five pounds to a temporary 10 pounds. On the first count, veteran official Marshall Cassidy finds that, "A better way to teach apprentices is to let them get their education by riding against proven riders and by showing them their mistakes on reruns of the film patrol movies. That does a world more good for young riders than turning a dozen green kids out in the same field together where they can't help but be a menace to themselves and to their horses."
But, on the same score, Jockeys' Guild President Eddie Arcaro observes, with some justification, "Why should the public pay for the education of a new boy? When the public bets on the races they have a right to get the best deal. In one apprentice race I saw a boy drop his whip and throw away the reins. What would you think if you had put a bet down on that boy?"
Arcaro and most Jockeys' Guild officers are against the increased apprentice allowance. "It has always turned out," says Eddie, "that when you do come up with a good rider, and you give him five pounds, he has a license to steal. Years ago we were spotting Shoemaker five pounds when he should have been giving us five! The point is this: a guy with ability needs no special help. So what good does it do to give 10 pounds to a boy with no ability? It might help some trainer win a few races, but it certainly doesn't teach the jock to be a better rider. Another thing, New York and other major circuits are not the place to 'make' new riders any more than you'd bring a boy to Yankee Stadium to teach him to play baseball. Jockeys are made in the 'bushes,' not in New York. You bring 15 apprentices to New York expecting them to make good, but the majority of them will have two things happen to them: they'll make great exercise boys and great ping-pong players. The allowance you give an apprentice now riding against regular jocks is so great that he can make 30 mistakes in a race and still win. I don't think you should punish a guy who has worked all his life to acquire ability by inflicting that against him. I don't think it is fair in any sport in the world."
If Arcaro and the guild had their way they would put their words into action. The 20-year-old guild (which provides its members with accident and life insurance, supports mandatory use of the Caliente safety helmet, and has encouraged track management to hire retired jockeys as patrol judges on the way to eventual promotion to the steward's stand) wants to establish a special school for jockeys. But when Arcaro went to The Jockey Club seeking $50,000 to help set up the school the response was disappointingly negative.
Pro and con
One prominent racing secretary, acknowledging the fact that public trainers in particular cannot satisfy owners by using untried boys, suggests that the trouble is with the big stables, which, he says, are falling down on their responsibility to make new riders. Calumet's Jimmy Jones, who has long despaired of the lack of ambition among young U.S. riders, has a perfectly cogent reply for the secretary. "It seems to me," he says, "that a lot of us are running schools for jockeys and stable hands without knowing it or without intending to. See what happens when I sign on a green boy: if he gets on a horse I think may be pretty fair I immediately have to take him off that horse and put one of my good boys on. Then the poor kid gets sore and I have to fire him and start all over again with a new boy. This, in effect, is running a school, but certainly not the way I like to run things."
For all the arguments and counterarguments the fact remains that in this age of fast and sometimes frenzied expansion there will be an increasing need for riders of the very top caliber. What is needed now is renewed awareness on the part of owners, trainers and management as well as would-be jockeys of their mutual responsibility for developing the next generation of master American riders. Unless all these people join to produce a solution—and soon—their sport will lose much of its appeal.