Through the Goggles

Through the Goggles

No one experiences life quite like a Thoroughbred jockey. Here are some stories from the Kentucky Derby Museum Oral History Collection that illustrate why being a jockey is so unique:

1. It is a hard life. Jockeys travel from meeting to meeting and track to track and rarely putting down any roots until injury or retirement requires it. In order to pursue a successful career as a race rider, many jockeys travel thousands of miles from home to ride, spend months at a time away from their loved ones, or forgo starting a family altogether.

Laffit Pincay, Jr.: “Panama is very proud of their athletes, especially jockeys and baseball players. But I remember that horse racing in Panama was very big when I was a kid. So coming over here, I just wanted to do good. I didn't think I was going to do this good, but that was my ambition to look good, to make my country look good. And not only for me, for the people in my country, and in Panama, because they were so fanatic. Believe me, they really love horses over there. So, when I started doing good and winning races, and became the leading rider in the country, I was so proud, especially when I went back to Panama, and there were a lot of people that when I started riding, they told me, they used to tease me that I wasn't going to be riding anything. You're going to be riding dogs, or you're going to riding pigs, so it was fun to go back there and be a successful jockey.” (Interview from 2004)

Laffit Pincay, Jr. riding Judger. Photo my Jim Rafferty, Kentucky Derby Museum Archives.

Kent Desormeaux: “Well, it's very difficult to live out of a suitcase mostly. I do have a gypsy life. I move nine times a year. And I'm talking full move. So, that probably is the hardest part to maintain family and keep all of that in order, much less your job. And that you do have two lives. You have your family life and your racetracker life where you have all these families that become a part of your life at work. And to keep this ward proper while the other ward is proper is very difficult. It's a strain. I've learned how to deal with it. I try not to take the bad days home, and not to take home to work. They are separate. Because if you've got a bad day at home, and you leave home disappointed in your family, nobody wants to be around somebody sulking around here. Everybody wants to be around the happy-go-lucky, smiling, can't wait to be beside you rider. And smiling at people when you don't feel like it is hard. And that's the part of the game that takes the most work. How do I deal with it? I just do it. It's me. I'm a people person. I love socializing. So that is definitely helped me I think, more than physical skills out on the racetrack. Because getting the mount is the hard part. And staying happy all the time is what we have to do.” (Interview from 2014)

Kent Desormeaux up on Fusaichi Pegasus. Churchill Downs Racetrack.

2. It is a dangerous life. PBS reported that the Jockeys’ Guild received approximately 2,500 injury reports every year and that most jockeys will, on average, have three injuries within a calendar year. While jockeys often recover from injuries and continue riding, some injuries force an early retirement.

John Velazquez: “I've had my shares of bad luck, if you will. I had plenty of accidents in my twenty-four years riding, and in the last three years has been, last year and a half I should have said, two years, they've been pretty rough. Three falls in less than a year and a half, trying to get back into a routine and get your body back into shape, and everything.” (Interview from 2014)

2004 Kentucky Derby jockey photo, John Velasquez last on second row. Churchill Downs Racetrack.

Patti “P.J.” Cooksey: “Even laying in the hospital, one leg up here, one leg all bandaged up and everything, and, you know, people coming in, and my friends are going, ‘P.J., you know, you really need to retire.’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding me? I can’t retire. And I said, ‘Are you kidding me? I can’t retire my last race being picked up off the racetrack, you know, with dirt all over me. No!’” (Interview from 2020)

Patti Cooksey on Preakness. Keeneland Association Collection, Keeneland Library.

3. It is a variable life. Jockeys must be excellent self-promotors—or have a great agent—in order to build relationships with top trainers and ride enough good horses.

Donna Barton Brothers: “We went by Wayne Lukas’ barn and when we got to his barn he was standing there talking to his assistant trainer at the time (who was Todd Pletcher). So we waited at a respectful distance where we weren’t eavesdropping but he could tell we were waiting to talk to him. So when they were done, he kind of invited us over and I walked over and introduced myself to Wayne, and I said, ‘Hello Mr. Lukas, My name’s Donna Barton. I won three races here yesterday, and that makes me the leading rider. I know you always ride the hot hand, and right now that’s me, and I just thought you’d want to meet me.’ [both laugh] And he said, ‘Well, Donna Barton, it’s nice to meet you.’ I mean, at the time there was obviously a lot of false bravado involved with that, but that’s Wayne Lukas. If you’re going to approach him sheepishly you might as well stay home. If you can’t at least bring false bravado…If you can’t bring real bravado, bring a false one, because you’ve got to bring something.” (Interview from 2019)

Donna Barton Brothers at Keeneland. Keeneland Association Collection, Keeneland Library.

4. But it is an exciting life. Working on the back of another consummate athlete, jockeys must develop a remarkable rapport with horses in order to coax them toward the wire at top speed. Beyond the pure thrill—and danger—of climbing aboard a swath of 1,000 pound horses of varying temperament and ability each day, jockeys have to relentlessly exercise and keep their weight down to ensure they can maintain their strenuous perch atop the speeding animals. Jockeys are widely considered to be one of the most fit classes of athlete in professional sports, packing every available inch of their lean bodies with muscle, but often need to diet and reduce in order to meet strict weight requirements at the track.

Edgar Prado: “The only partner and the only friend that you have during the race is your horse. You can accomplish the goal that you are supposed to do during the race. And if you can work together with your horse, and accomplish that goal, it's a great experience. You ask him, and then he give you that run, as you try to go into the hole, and he's brave enough to do it, or take them outside, he give another run, and things like that. They make you really appreciate that kind of horse that is underneath of you. And the animal have the will to do it, and they compete against others. And it is a great feeling, because it’s another animal, it's not a machine. And if you use it too early, it's going to fade. If you use it too late, it's going to come late. You have to kind of understand it right away as soon as you sit on the horse. And you try to figure out during the race, you know, and it's a great experience. I think it’s unique, very unique sport.” (Interview from 2014)

2008 Kentucky Derby jockey photo, Edgar Prado first from left, front row. Churchill Downs Racetrack 

Jessica Whitehead

Jessica Whitehead

Curator of Collections for the Kentucky Derby Museum