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All Joking Aside, Is the Jockey Really Necessary?

From the Horse's Mouth

By Mack A. Kniphe and Robert Ullmann

On June 11, the majestic chestnut thoroughbred Seattle Slew may gallop to fame on the brown dirt of Belmont, as he attempts to become the first undefeated Triple Crown winner in racing history. Standing 16 1/2 hands from hoof to mane, Slew is a rarity among race horses in that he never has to be whipped.

Such is not the case with his jockey, Gean Cruguef. However, jockey discipline is a matter of interest to the social scientist, not the sportswriter, and is therefore beyond the purview of this writer's credentials. But the phenomenal success of a thoroughbred who seems to need no guidance raises a question that has long dangled on the tongues of racing aficionados. Namely, how important is the jockey?

In dog racing, the only other regulated high speed animal racing sport (in the matter of speed, both horse and dog put homo sapien to shame) jockeys have been foresaken in the 20th century for the mechanical rabbit. Though the change originally occurred because man had become too large to ride dogs, the jockey's steel and cotton replacement has proved more than sufficient, and in many ways beneficial. Has one ever heard of a mechanical rabbit strike?

True, man has ridden horse for several millenia, and despite his continual growth through medical advancements, has never become too large. The horse has grown with him. But does capability necessitate responsibility? Just because the horse can carry man, that does not mean the jockey has to ride him.

Indeed, the elimination of jockeys would do little to undermine those glorious traditions which sustain the sport of thoroughbred racing. Bold Reasoning, the father of Seattle Slew, was a handsome specimen and a credible racer in his own right; it is possible that Seattle Slew could have gotten into the Kentucky Derby on his father's name, even if he had not won a lot of previous races. But who is the father of Seattle Slew's jockey? It is quite possible that the elder Cruguef has never been to the flats, even for the purpose of placing a friendly wager.

Virtually all available evidence supports an end to the continued use of jockeys in thoroughbread racing. In one oft-discussed event at Pimlico, Fla., in 1959, the palamino Soft Knight, an odds-on favorite to garner the roses, failed even to make the gate because his rider was stuck in traffic on the Florida Turnpike.

Another story, equally indicting, involves the now-famous jockey Valery Giscard-d'Estaing. D'Estaing fell from his horse while taking the second turn at Aqueduct. Despite the dead weight of the rider, hanging unharmed from a stirrup, his horse went on to win by 15 furlongs.


In all the annals of horse racing history, We could only find a single occurrence in which the jockey without any doubt had a positive influence. On August 14, 1927, in Saratoga Springs an untried colt named King Tut froze up at the starting gate at the annual running of the Governor's Cup. Despite all efforts to make Tut run, including the offering of sugar cubes, the horse stood, solid as a statue.

Realizing the seriousness of his dilemna, the jockey leapt from his mount and began a frenzied dash after the pack, which was already approaching the first turn. He finished a respectable fourth, just missing the Win, Place and Show money.

But the jockey's run was aided greatly by poor track conditions resulting from heavy rain, which are a much greater detriment to horses than to human runners. With the possible advent of synthetic racing turf, this one vestige of hope for the jockey will also be lost.

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