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 this year‘s Derby winner, Sonny Leon. From those winnings, Leon likely paid a 25% 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 earning can be $30,000-$40,000, according to Career Trend — and as recently as 2018, paid half of North America’s 1,559 thoroughbred jockeys less than $12,000 per year, according to Thoroughbred Racing Commentary, based on horses’ prize winnings.
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” — often $50-$110 — 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, according to the Covington Reporter. In less competitive races, the jockey’s earnings can be as low as 0.5% for a third-place finish, 1% for placing second and perhaps 6%-10% for first place, Career Trend reported.
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 $452,078,586 in his long career. He started over 35,000 races, winning 6,407. The next highest-earning U.S. jockey is Javier Castellano, who has started over 30,000 races with 5,503 wins, for earnings of over $368 million.
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Daria Uhlig contributed to the reporting for this article.
Information is accurate as of Aug. 10, 2022.