20150309

Warriors on Horseback: bravery in the saddle from the champions to the also-rans

HORSE RACING BOOK

  • New book looks at the lure of a life in racing

  • Why jockeys willingly risk life and limb

  • How most riders make only a modest income



Jon Culley

As the horse racing world decamps to Cheltenham for the intensely competitive yet spectacularly beautiful National Hunt Festival, with the richest prizes of the year on offer for the stars of the saddle to pursue, John Carter's latest book considers the life of the majority of Britain's 450 professional riders, those who chase the dream of kicking home the winner of a Gold Cup or a Champion Hurdle but for whom the day-to-day realities are a long way from glamorous face of jump racing on view this week.

Warriors on Horseback: The Inside Story of the Professional Jockey is unashamed in its admiration for all of those men and women who, in the author's words, place themselves "in mortal danger every day".

A P McCoy, riding at his final Festival before retiring next month, is reckoned to be worth in excess of £12 million after winning a staggering 19 consecutive jockeys' championships, shortly to become 20.  He had paid a heavy price in broken bones - ankle, tibia, fibula, both wrists, several vertebrae, both shoulder blades, both collar bones and both cheekbones -- and many would say he has earned every penny.
The champion: A P McCoy

But, Carter argues, McCoy's list of mishaps is not unusual.  Falling from a horse travelling at in excess of 30 miles per hour is not something for which the human body was designed and every rider expects from time to time to be leaving the track in an ambulance.  On any given day, 10 per cent of those 450 jockeys will be out of action through injury.  There has been concern in rugby union lately over the number of players suffering concussion; in jump racing, the frequency of concussion injuries is six times rugby's rate.

Yet the average Flat race jockey -- and they're in the better paid part of the business -- makes only £30,000 a year.

Add to that the daily necessity of rising before dawn to work the horses on the gallops, the constant battle to remain muscularly strong yet with the body weight of a child, and the hours spent on the motorways and it is no wonder that Carter asks why they do it.

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It is the answer to that question he pursues through a series of interviews, some with famous names such as Frankie Dettori, Martyn Dwyer, Steve Smith-Eccles, Bob Champion and the leading female rider, Hayley Turner, and many more with the lesser-known figures who pass through the weighing rooms each day, the foot soldiers who make up the numbers.

What he discovers is that the majority of jockeys, even those who never rise above the status of journeymen in their profession, love racing and the adrenaline rush that comes with competitive race riding almost to the point of addiction.

Buy Warriors on Horseback: The Inside Story of the Professional Jockey, published by Bloomsbury, from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.

The Cheltenham Festival takes place from Tuesday March 10 to Friday March 13.

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