x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A jockey's globetrotting lifestyle is not as glamorous as it sounds

It may sound like a jet-set lifestyle, but the men in the saddle at the world's biggest horse races have an arduous time.

Christophe Soumillon, after winning the Qatar Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in 2008. Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images
Christophe Soumillon, after winning the Qatar Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in 2008. Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images

It used to be said that status within racing was inversely correlated with the degree to which people were physically associated with the racehorse. That is, stable lads at the bottom, jockeys and trainers next, and then the owners.

Now it is undeniably the jockeys who receive the most acclaim.

Racegoers have always marvelled at their daring feats of dexterity as they perch on two iron stirrups in perfect sync with a thoroughbred galloping at 64kph. But as racing has evolved with the onset of global competition, a new order has arisen. Please stand up for the super jockey.

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These men showcase their skills around the planet and are fought over by trainers and owners for the major international races.

Super jockeys often ride on two continents in as many days, and squeeze into their schedules appearances at golf tournaments, Formula One races and football matches.

They travel first class all the way, dine in celebrity-filled restaurants, build property portfolios and drive fast cars.

Where journeyman jockeys strive to earn a living through modest riding fees and an occasional win, super jockeys negotiate fees in the thousands of dollars, win or lose. When there is US$10million (Dh36.7m) on offer, as there is on Saturday night in the Dubai World Cup, there is no doubt that many of them will be riding.

"When you compete against the best, we are like Formula One drivers," said Gerald Mosse, a Frenchman who rides primarily in Europe and Asia. "We compete around the world as an elite."

If there is one rider who helped kick-start the phenomenon, it is Frankie Dettori, the gregarious Italian who is the No 1 rider for Godolphin.

The Dubai-based operation was set up in 1992 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, with a view to racing horses internationally. Wherever the blue banner of Godolphin has gone, Dettori has been there to coax Sheikh Mohammed's horses to their best possible placing. So far Godolphin have raced in 16 countries, winning Group or Grade 1 races in 12 of them.

Last year, a new recruit joined this band of brothers in spectacular fashion when William Buick, the English jockey, declared his hand by winning the $5m Dubai Sheema Classic aboard Dar Re Mi. Buick was 21 at the time.

That victory was the catalyst to a year in which the Norwegian-born jockey steered Debussy to victory in the Arlington Million in Chicago, followed by a victory aboard Dream Ahead in the Prix Morny in Deauville, France, the following day.

"It is my greatest memory," Buick said. "I was in Chicago on Saturday and I was a bit pushed as I couldn't get a flight from Chicago to Paris. In the end I had to fly to London, and then from London to Paris. I only just made it. It was one of the best weekends of my life, two Group 1s in two days."

Every member of the brotherhood has a story of close shaves. Kerrin McEvoy, the Melbourne Cup-winning jockey, rode for Godolphin in Europe for four years. In 2006, McEvoy and Dettori were scheduled to ride in the Group 1 July Cup at Newmarket, and then were required in Paris to ride in the Grand Prix de Paris, also a Group 1, just four hours later.

"We jumped in a [helicopter] and flew to Longchamp," McEvoy said. "It was just remarkable to do that. It wouldn't happen in Australia."

If the jet-setting lifestyle sounds a bit too "boys and their toys", it masks what is essentially a gruelling schedule that can detach these riders from their family for long periods.

Johnny Murtagh first came to work in the UAE during the 1992/93 season when he rode for Sheikh Ahmed bin Rashid. Since then Murtagh, 40, has ridden Group 1 winners in seven countries and has also won the UAE Derby and the UAE 2,000 Guineas.

"You don't have time to get jet lag," said Murtagh, who rode Gitano Hernando at Meydan Racecourse in the final round of the Maktoum Challenge earlier this month before flying to Hong Kong to ride at Sha Tin three days later.

"I left Dubai on the Friday, arrived in Hong Kong on Saturday, and I rode there on Sunday," he said.

Like Dettori, Murtagh has found it increasingly difficult to keep his family nearby.

"This year I went to the UAE and back to Ireland for the first few weeks of the Dubai Carnival," Murtagh said. "But I stayed in the UAE for three weeks during my latest stint. I like to have my family around me, but it is harder to get them out of school. In the early days they used to spend the winter with me."

The payback for all the travel, of course, comes in the form of bigger paydays for bigger races. It is difficult to determine specifically what jockeys earn, because their incomes often include retainer fees as well as differing percentages of prize money.

On average, however, jockeys receive around 7.5 per cent of the winning purse, plus a small fee for riding the horse (Dh600 at Meydan).

Dar Re Mi won the Sheema Classic with a purse of $2m, resulting in a six-figure payday for Buick.

He rode 99 winners in Britain last season, which yielded him a share of another $2m in winning prize money. Buick also earned a portion of the $285,000 purse in the Prix Morney aboard Dream Ahead and a share of $600,000 at Arlington while riding Debussy.

Many of the top riders have a retainer with a certain stable or owner, but are still allowed to freelance. It is an arrangement that has benefits as well as drawbacks.

"You are living in hope that you'll get called up," Murtagh said.

"My record is in the book, and you get a name for yourself for being a big-race rider so when the right horse comes along, and they are looking for someone to ride it, you just hope your name is top of the list."

Jockeys know that even when they get an important ride, they remain subject to the capricious nature of owners.

Kieren Fallon was aboard Gitano Hernando when finishing sixth in the Dubai World Cup last year and rode the horse on six consecutive occasions.

But then Team Valour, the owners, decided they wanted a new rider and Weichong Marwing got the call for Round Two of the Maktoum Challenge.

When Marwing had to leave for commitments in Hong Kong, Murtagh got the call for Meydan Racecourse earlier this month and the Dubai World Cup.

"You've just got to be at the right place at the right time and perform on the big stage when you get your opportunity," Murtagh said.

"I don't [care] how good a jockey is, if you don't have good horses you're going to struggle."

Why do jockeys put up with it all? The money aside, the thrill of riding in big races is an adrenalin fix that is hard to give up. Mosse, who was in the vanguard of the international scene during the 1980s, has won every Group 1 race in Hong Kong, where he resides for half the year.

The 44-year-old has also amassed more than 50 Group 1 victories in Europe.

In November, he became the first Frenchman to win the Melbourne Cup, the Australian handicap that is billed as "the race that stops a nation".

The race was watched by a crowd of 110,253 packed into Flemington Racecourse.

"I know I haven't won the World Cup yet, but you will be hard pressed to find an atmosphere like Melbourne," he said.

"It was just unbelievable. The whole country stops to watch that race. The kids don't go to school, and they were all watching me win.

"I'm very lucky, it was an incredible feeling."

 

sports@thenational.ae