May and June are the highest-profile months for horse racing in the United States with the running of the Triple Crown races: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. Those marquee races are known for their rich purses — the 2022 Kentucky Derby’s purse was $3 million, with $1.86 million going to the winner, Rich Strike.
Far less attention is given to the jockey, the person who travels the whole way with the horse. A winning jockey takes 10% of the horse’s purse at the Kentucky Derby, so $186,000 for 2022′s Derby winner, Sonny Leon.
From those winnings, Leon likely paid a 25% to 30% fee to his agent and a 5% tip to the valet who helped him prepare his gear for the race. That’s still a huge payday in a sport where an average year’s earnings can be around $50,000.
Did You Know?
Jockeys are some of the original “gig workers” because they work as independent contractors. Rather than earn a salary, a jockey receives a “mounting fee” — typically $25-$150 — for each race, riding sometimes eight races per day.
The real money for jockeys comes from prize money, if they can ride a horse to finish first, second or third in a race and earn part of the purse. The percentages a jockey receives for a Thoroughbred race range from 5% for a second- or third-place finish to 10% for first place. In less competitive races, the jockey’s earnings can be as low as 0.50% for a third-place finish, 1% for placing second and perhaps 6%-10% for first place.
Like other gig workers, jockeys often have to pay for their own equipment, which might include helmets, vests, goggles, boots and riding crops.
Certainly, the top jockeys do quite well. The winningest Thoroughbred jockey in history is John Velazquez, who has earned $464,477,470 in his long career. He’s started over 35,000 races, winning 6,494.
The next highest-earning U.S. jockey is Javier Castellano, who has started over 31,000 races with 5,638 wins, for earnings of $379 million.
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Daria Uhlig contributed to the reporting for this article.
Information is accurate as of April 20, 2023.
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- Horse Racing Sense. "How Jockeys Choose the Horse They Ride: All You Need to Know."
- Equibase. 2022. "All-Time Thoroughbred Leaders - Top 200 Jockeys by Earnings."
- Kentucky Derby. "Kentucky Derby Winners."
- Courier Journal. 2022. "How much money did Rich Strike win at the 2022 Kentucky Derby? Here's a look at the purse."
- Deep Hollow Ranch. "How Much Do Jockeys Make? (Salary By States)."
- Comparably. "Horse Jockey Salary."