Book of the week: Warriors on Horseback by John Carter

John Carter is as keen to explore the daily round of the journeymen (and women) jockeys as he is to celebrate the exceptional talents of the few who have reached the pinnacle

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The Independent Online

At first glance, the list of interviewees for this “inside story of the professional jockey” seems notable mainly for its absentees. True, the leading British female rider, Hayley Turner, figures, as do Frankie Dettori, Martin Dwyer and luminaries from the past such as Steve Smith-Eccles and Bob Champion. But no sign of the respective reigning Flat and National Hunt champions, Richard Hughes and AP McCoy, or other stars of the current scene.

These omissions turn out not to matter much, though, as John Carter is as keen to explore the daily round of the journeymen (and women) jockeys as he is to celebrate the exceptional talents of the few who have reached the pinnacle. In fact he regards all the 450 or so professional riders in Britain as exceptional for taking on such a punishing way of life, and the statistics he quotes back up his view. At any one point, around 10 per cent are injured and another 10 per cent suspended, and as concerns about concussion grow across sport in general, consider these figures: the rate of concussion per thousand athlete hours is 3.9 in rugby union, 13.2 in boxing, but rises to 25 in jump racing, and over 95 for point-to-point competitors.

Yet the rewards for a routine of dawn starts, continual weight worries and relentless travelling – one jockey he quotes clocked up 160,000 miles in 19 months – can be meagre; average earnings for Flat jockeys are around £30,000 a year.

The book has its flaws; placing a lengthy historical section midway through rather than at the beginning or end breaks up the narrative, and a few errors have crept through the editing process: if Gerry Wilson, who partnered Golden Miller to a unique Gold Cup-Grand National double in 1934, was indeed born in 1797 as stated, his feat would have been even more remarkable.

But Carter’s admiration and affection shine through as he conveys the love practically all jockeys have for their work, and how they struggle to replace the camaraderie of the weighing room – notably strong in National Hunt racing – when their bodies tell them it’s time to hang up their saddle. It may be a tough life, but then these are tough people.

Published in hardback by Bloomsbury Sport, £17.99

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