By Susan Poizner
Special to The Toronto Sun
For jockeys, the ability to make split-second decisions comes down to more than just winning or losing. As they race at speeds of up to 40 mph, protected by just a helmet, safety vest and goggles, it's also about respecting the sport's inherent risks and the power of the horses they ride.
"The horses bring everyone together," says Frank Todd Jr., a jockey who races at Woodbine and Fort Erie racetracks, Ontario's only two thoroughbred racetracks. "Once the trainer puts the saddle on the horse, gives me a leg up and says, 'Have a safe trip,' I know it doesn't matter if I win or lose.
It's a risky job, but they love to do it: Jockeys, like the ones above at the Fort Erie Race Track, can sustain serious injuries for a sport that doesn't always pay. But as Richard Gawal, manager of the jockeys' room at the track says: "The jockeys are here because they love what they do. Their reward is to ride the horse."
"It gives me more confidence knowing he's thinking of me and the horse. You can always have another dance another day if you don't win that race," says Todd, 39, winner of the Adena Springs Matchmaker Stakes at Fort Erie in June.
In a career that has spanned 15 years, Todd has seen his share of injuries.
"Getting hurt is part of the business. It's not if you'll get hurt, but when," he says. He broke his neck in a spill during his apprenticeship. Five years later, he broke his back, collarbone and ribs and punctured his lungs in another spill.
Confidence is key. "When I came back after my first injury, I won my first race," says the Toronto resident. "The horse equalled the track record and that gave me my confidence back. I knew I'd be OK."
He credits contact with horses with giving him the incentive to keep going and holds a special place for those with character.
"I won six races in four provinces on this cheap claimer that had travelled the country. He wasn't on the same level as some of the horses I've raced, but he had character."
Jockeys know horses may get injured, sometimes fatally. "It's part of the business. It's not a good part of the business ...
Horses love to run, but you can't prevent everything."
Understanding the nature of racing is a must for anyone interested in becoming a jockey.
Before you can even begin an apprenticeship, you must have at least two years' experience exercising horses at a racetrack.
"You need to familiarize yourself with the daily routine. There is no school per se in Canada that can teach you how to become a jockey," says Irwin Driedger, manager of the Jockeys' Benefit Association of Canada.
The association represents about 125 jockeys in Canada, a growing number of whom are female.
After completing an apprenticeship, determined by the number of winning races, a journeyman jockey is licensed with the Ontario Racing Commission.
Jockeys are self-employed and are usually represented by an agent who solicits mounts, or races, for them.
Some jockeys get paid for exercising horses, but most rely on mounts, which generally range from $60 to $100, depending on the purse.
Winning jockeys collect a percentage of the horse's earnings.
"There's a big incentive to win races," Driedger says. "If you don't win races, you won't ride."
Being able to maintain the correct weight is critical to becoming a jockey. Each race has its own weight restriction, determined by such factors as a horse's experience, but generally, a jockey weighs between 115 and 130 lbs.
In Ontario, the thoroughbred horse racing season runs from early spring until late fall.
Some jockeys take a break over the winter, while others keep fit on a 'workingman's holiday', exercising horses south of the border.
A jockey's ability to maintain the correct weight and the type of injuries they've sustained can determine the length of their career. "Some guys are close to 50. They're at the twilight of their career but are still riding well," Driedger says.
But it's determination and love of the sport that carries a jockey the distance. "Jockeys are very resilient and hard working," says Richard Gawal, manager of the jockeys' room at Fort Erie.
"They're here as early as 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. exercising the horses and stay until after they finish racing. It's their life. The money has gotten better, but the jockeys are here because they love what they do. Their reward is to ride the horse."
(Reach freelancer Susan Poizner at (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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