Confessions of a racing jockey

PHOTO: Confessions of a racing jockey

Like a runway model, he puts on his game face and struts in the presence of men and women, who are mostly fashionably dressed.

As macho as Jim is (not his real name as he didn't get the official nod from his bosses and horse owners to speak on record), he, like a model, often wears colourful "silks" - soft, shiny tops that catch the spotlight at the track.

Many think that jockeying, like modelling, is glamorous. After all, a rider gets admiring glances all the time, especially from the lovely lasses.

Well, not quite that glamourous, Jim replies.

In less than 30 minutes, the bright racing silks will be pelted with sand and rainwater.

Says Jim, who has been in the saddle for more than 10 years: "(The racing silks) are designed to be bold and loud so that race callers (commentators) can easily identify us when the race starts.

Like models, jockeys obsess about their weight.

Jim, who weighs a svelte 52kg and is about 1.5m tall, says: "I really have to watch my weight and what I eat because an extra kilo gained will slow down my horse."

But skin and bones will not cut it: Jockeys need muscle, strength and endurance, so Jim runs three times a week and hits the gym to strengthen his thighs and calves.

Oily and fatty foods are out of the question.

So are late-night parties. Rest is vital as Jim reports to work at 6.30am for the daily trackwork. He rides about 10 horses, one after another.

He listens to his trainer's instructions on how to "run" the horses during training.

This wiry, macho man suddenly becomes tender at the mention of his horses, calling them Mother Nature's "works of art".

Before the race, Jim calms his horse by gently stroking its mane or shoulders.

Its nervous ear twitching stops the moment it hears Jim's familiar voice, he relates.

He constantly whispers encouragement like "you can do it, boy" as the horse is led to the track.

But, ultimately, it boils down to the race.

That's when everything else - the screaming punters, the blaring public address system and camera shutters - fade into the background.

The moment the starting gates crash open, it's like "going to war", adds Jim, who is in his 30s.

Fellow jockeys whom he was joking with just minutes before become fierce rivals.

Even the horses aren't the same docile-looking animals previously shown at the parade ring.

They're now aggressive beasts, hard breathing and skilfully steered by jockeys who have only one thing on their minds - winning.

Adds Jim: "There's a lot of pressure to win. If you are successful, trainers will give you more rides. And with more rides, you have the potential to achieve more wins and earnings."

First place entitles Jim to five per cent of the winnings. Then there are bonuses and other allowances.

On average, a local jockey can earn between $10,000 and $20,000 a month. Apprentice jockeys earn less, Jim says.

Jockeys also know it's a game of minds and strategies. Lead a horse too quickly to the front of the pack and the horse might just "run out of steam".

Jim says: "All jockeys take risks. If I see a gap of 60cm between other horses, I will slot my horse into that small opening."

Sometimes the brave attempts lead him to victory.

At other times, it leaves him hurt.

It's common to be thrown off a horse and break a collarbone whenever a horse clips the heels of the horse ahead.

He adds: "Your instincts tell you that it's a risky move, but you need to take the chance."

Likewise at the stands, excited punters, too, take their chances, counting on lady luck and their favourite jockeys to lead them to that pot of gold.

They are quick to ask for tips, yet, when punters bet wrong or lose a lot of money, they focus their frustrations on the jockeys.

Jim often finds himself on the receiving end of such verbal abuse.

He shrugs it off though.

Adds Jim: "The only person who comes close to 'feeling' a horse and recognising its potential is the jockey.

"Unfortunately, we're not allowed to bet," he laughs.

Don't offer tips. Your helpfulness can backfire when the horse doesn't win. Punters can curse you or scratch your car.

Save your earnings or have a game plan in case your dreams end abruptly. Jockeys can get hurt and there's a small window - between 10 and 20 years - to make it big. Not everybody is successful.

Work hard and always be humble. Horse owners and trainers love a jockey who's willing to go the extra mile.

zaihan@sph.com.sg