Thaw ends jockeys' thin time

Richard Edmondson on the after-effects of frozen wages on the riding profession
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The Independent Online
There may be some familiar faces selling encyclopaedias or serving behind fast-food counters around Lambourn this summer. The fridge weather of the last three weeks has robbed some of the nation's less celebrated riders of their annual financial harvest and the consequence is likely to be felt after the end of winter racing. The jobs-vacant column is likely to be well thumbed in newsagents in the valley of the racehorse.

Out of the 130 licensed riders over jumps, there are just 29 who each season command more than 250 rides (which pay about pounds 80 each). The rest are scrapping for mounts, and have just had to endure the cancellation of the fertile holiday period when multiple cards mean pickings for all.

"I think we had 100 days off last year so you half expect the weather we've had, but the problem has been that it is all come in one big block," Luke Harvey, who is on the cusp with about 250 rides a season, said. "But last year when the meetings were off they all seemed to be in February when there were only a couple of cards a day. There wasn't a jockey alive who didn't have four or five scheduled rides on Boxing Day and New Year's Day this time. You never get those rides back.

"I've been riding out every morning this week and the fee for that is a cup of tea and a slice of toast. We do it because the unwritten rule is that if you ride the horse out you'll ride it in a race whenever we actually get back on the racecourse. Not many jockeys that don't ride out get rides.

"I've got the fittest Jack Russell in the country, I've been walking him so much in the afternoons recently. He has to catch supper these days."

Bad-weather insurance has recently been explored by the Jockeys' Association, but the premiums were wallet-damaging and the arrangement would also have to include the sort of excess agreement that car accidents carry, with remuneration not guaranteed from the first abandoned day. The association's secretary, Michael Caulfield, said the turn of 1996 had been devastating for many of his members. "It's dire, it's wretched for them," he said. "The main part of their season has been wiped out. If you knock their Christmas and New Year out you are dealing them a severe blow.

"We're eternally grateful for the extra fixtures [sanctioned by the British Horseracing Board] but it still doesn't make up for those busy days over Christmas and New Year. That can make their season financially and also give them contacts they can build on for the rest of the year.

"The only grain of consolation to come out of it is that the jockeys have been investigating JETS [the Jockeys' Employment and Training Scheme] and thinking about the future."

JETS, whose organisers are holding a sportsmen's seminar in York next month, seeks to encourage jockeys to plan a second career. "But, by their nature, these boys are extremely resilient," Caulfield added. "In a curious way, I think they'll be even more determined to keep going."

Resumption is in sight. The King George VI meeting at Kempton on Boxing Day was the last turf card held south of Hadrian's Wall, but now the town at the western end of the barrier is where racing may resume. While Fontwell has failed to thaw out in time to hold today's card, Carlisle and Leicester report they are hopeful of staging sport tomorrow.

The good news for aficionados is that the fare is likely to be delicious when it returns and the good news for the game's journeymen is that the fields are likely to be enormous.