So just how important is a jockey in racing?
One of the biggest questions in horse racing centres around jockeys and their importance to winning a race. It's often said that "good horses make good jockeys" but a good jockey cannot make a slow horse faster. Many people wonder just how much a rider impacts a horse’s performance on the racetrack. Never is this more relevant than in the nursery of Point-to-Point racing, where the next generation of jockeys learns its trade, yet presently, the standard of riding between the flags is higher than it has ever been.
Next month's Cheltenham Festival will feature many of the best jockeys in the world. Punters are already debating which jockey will win top honours and Cheltenham offers gives them the chance to receive bet bonuses in the build-up to the four-day festival.
The importance of a jockey is a contentious subject. There are some horse racing insiders that believe a jockey can have as little as 5% to 10% influence on a horse’s performance. Yet, there are also claims that a jockey can have an influence as high as 75% on the result. Those who witnessed the legendary A P McCoy galvanize Wichita Lineman to victory in one of Cheltenham's big Festival handicaps some years ago may veer toward the latter view.
The jockey difference
If you believe jockey choice is not a factor, then you are ignoring statistical evidence. Compare a race to a motorsports race. You can have the fastest car on the circuit, but if you don’t have the best driver to control that vehicle, then the chances are the day will end badly.
A jockey controls his or her horse from the moment he or she sits in the saddle. Take retired jockey Ruby Walsh as an example. Walsh holds the all-time record for Festival race victories with 59 during a distinguished career riding for the best stables in Britain and Ireland.
Now, outsiders might say, if he is so great, then why didn’t he win more times at the Cheltenham Festival? The answer to that is simple. Top jockeys need top horses to compete at the highest level. When both a top jockey and high-quality horse are paired, the results can be out of this world. Walsh rode for both Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins, the two leaders of their profession on either side of the Irish Sea. He was also a rider to raise his game at the highest level. Need one say more?
If you consider another sport, such as football, great players like Lionel Messi need other world-class players around them to win major honours. They also need good coaches (trainers) to be their best. Look at Messi’s Barcelona compared to his international career at Argentina for further evidence.
What a jockey does
There is a saying in horse racing that states: “A jockey can’t do much with a lousy horse, but a jockey can help a great horse win.” It's a jockey's job to know how to get that little bit extra out of a great horse to reach the line in front. For years in the seventies and eighties, Lester Piggott was the punters' choice of rider, a man with an innate ability to tease an extra effort from a horse, by guile or sometimes sheer force of personality.
Ruby Walsh enjoyed 59 wins at the Cheltenham Festival. Had he not been on those 59 winning horses, he may have ridden another great horse to victory. Walsh may still have 59 career Cheltenham wins, but Kauto Star may never have won two Gold Cups.
The evidence in Walsh, and other top jockeys' importance, can be shown in repeated succes. A jockey who can ride the same horse to major wins is a great example of the importance of a top jockey, top horse relationship.
The Cheltenham Festival 2020 will have some of the best jockeys in the world competing. So, before you place a wager on a horse to win, make sure you know which jockey is in the plate on race day.
The importance of identifying competent jockeys is even more important in Point-to-Point racing. Whilst the standard of riding is higher than ever before, scrutiny of your rider's experience and ability is a more critical factor even than under Rules. Assess the horses in the paddock for sure, but narrow down your choice to riders who ride the circuit on a regular basis, who sit naturally on their mount, and who have a pedigree in the sport.
Plenty of young riders have shown early talent between the flags, like Adrian Maguire, Richard Dunwoody, Marcus and Gee Armytage, and more recently, Dickie Johnson and Charlie Deutsch, or in Ireland, Rachel Blackmore.
There's time enough to identify riders of the future at another time. If you're betting at Point-to-Points, go for experience every time.