The world of competitive horse racing would be impossible without jockeys, though they are in the limelight only briefly, when they win a Triple Crown race. Most jockeys are not necessarily high earners. These diminutive athletes ride the horse during the race, and while the most successful jockeys earn six-figure incomes, most generate relatively modest earnings. One of the biggest reasons is that a jockey's success determines much of his income — those that win big-purse races make considerably more money.
Jockeys generally work as independent contractors and are hired by horse trainers. The amount that a jockey is paid to ride a horse during a race is called a "mounting fee." This fee is not necessarily very high — in most cases, between $25 and $100. The jockey's income, then, is determined largely by how successful he or she is, making this a risky profession, with high stakes for every race.
The real income for which jockeys compete is the purse. The purse is the prize money that a horse earns for winning first, second or third place, and the jockey takes a cut. The size of the purse and the percentage earned by the jockey varies, but it is a relatively small cut. First place may win about six percent of the purse, for example, with second place taking one percent and third place taking half a percent.
Most jockeys earn a salary between $30,000 and $40,000 per year, but there are exceptions. For example, in 2004, the top 100 jockeys earned an average of $5.7 million. With the variations in prize earnings, though, these numbers are not always consistent. In 2008, for example, the highest paid jockey earned $2.1 million in purse shares, while in 2004 the highest earner made $22.2 million.
Expense and Requirements
Jockeying comes at a price. Jockeys must provide their own equipment, like saddles, helmets and boots, to be able to ride. Out of their winnings, jockeys pay around 30 percent to their agents and valets. They must also meet strict weight requirements to remain eligible and competitive — most jockeys weigh between 108 and 118 lbs. That being the case, most jockeys are also relatively short, while there are no height requirements, a short stature helps a jockey make weight.