The sport of kings and serfs

Andy Newman

According to the Guardian on 21st March: “Their names were briefly recorded in the racing press, accorded much less prominence than stories about a jockey suffering a few bruises and a bookmaker getting robbed on the way home.” He is referring to the deaths of the nine horses during the Cheltenham festival, but in truth these were widely reported in national newspapers, TV and radio. The callous reference to jockeys “suffering a few bruises” reveals a metropolitan contempt towards workers in the racing industry: the most class-riven and dangerous sport in Britain.

Jockeys falling from shoulder height at speeds approaching up to 50 miles an hour experience more than “a few bruises. Twelve jockeys have been killed since 1980 in the British Isles. There were no headlines, and no anguished Guardian articles.

The Injured Jockeys Fund cares for 800 living beneficiaries, including 20 quadriplegics. Most jockeys have broken several bones, and often have head and facial injuries. The 2005 annual report of the Fund lists as examples the cases of Tim Sprake recovering from brain damage and Patrick Brennan whose teeth were smashed out by a horse rearing its head back. Tom Halliday was killed in July 2005 from a fall at Market Rasen. With the number of events expected to rise to around 1500 per year, the safety record is expected to worsen.

The impact of the injuries can be appreciated by the tale of Jonathan Haynes, a paraplegic who has been in a wheel chair for the last 20 years after a fall at Southwell, who can now “stand” only because he has a new vertical “balder” wheel chair.


A world apart

My brother-in-law, Philip Barnard, was a jockey. He was unusual because he was quite a good rider before he took it up professionally. For the most part the racing industry trawls for small, wiry, young men in orphanages or recruits from the most disadvantaged; often friendless and alone in the world. A small number of these succeed as jockeys, and only a tiny minority of those make a decent living at it: the rest are trapped into the fore-lock tugging indignity of a life as a “stable lad”.

Newmarket is a town full of lost, short young men, with all the soulless desperation of a garrison town. It is home to 17000 people and 4000 racehorses. The horses are exercised every day out on the gallops, and the apprentice jockeys and stable lads start work in the small hours of each morning. In 2003 Rebecca Cassidy, an anthropologist from Goldsmiths College published a study based on 15 months in Newmarket, during which time she reports two riders killed on the gallops. When they first start, most of the young 16 year olds lads have never seen a horse, and they perch on the thoroughbreds they exercise as tiny appendages to the horse’s tackle. Flat racing is as much about hanging on for dear life as it is about skill and horsemanship.

If they get too heavy jockeys are likely to move to steeplechase, which requires more skill, and has more chance of falls and injuries. The Oxfordshire village of Lambourn, a centre of steeplechase racing, is even more dominated by horses than Newmarket, with a population of 4200 people and over 2000 horses, but because it has no race track, it is less well known.

Newmarket is surrounded by the palaces of the racehorse owning rich, with their helicopters and Bentleys. Rebecca Cassidy describes how class even divides Newmarket into distinct physical populations: “There are two obvious body shapes valued by Newmarket racing society, and they can be described in mutually opposing terms. The ideal jockey is short, thin, tough, quiet, hunched, and reticent. The ideal trainer is tall, elegant, straight-backed, self-assured and charismatic. The lad's body is not valued at all, and is generally lightweight, but not sufficiently so to be a jockey. His hands are rough and large, his face chapped and wind-burnt. Lads often look tired from their early mornings and late nights, but they are not credited with any definitive qualities. When I asked my trainer the favourable shape for a lad he replied: 'Nondescript'”



Most sports promote the illusion of meritocracy, the dream that through skill and determination a talented individual can triumph. The racing industry thrives instead on patronage – and the deference and snobbery that go with it.

Obviously a good horseman can get a marginally better performance from the horse and, at the top level of any sport, marginal advantages make the difference between winning and losing. But it is horses that run races not jockeys, and being chosen to ride a good horse is vital to a jockey, and that decision lies in the gift of the trainers.

Clearly if you ride winners you will be given more winners to ride, but the trainers have no shame in exercising a perverse feudal domination over the jockeys. When he was just a teenage apprentice to Lester Piggott (who was later convicted of tax fraud), Phillip Barnard had to fight in the ring, along with other young hopefuls, at a London club, leered at by owners and trainers in evening dress over their after-dinner brandy and cigars. Of course it would have been possible to refuse the indignity, but only at the expense of leaving the profession.

Cassidy’s academic study also points out that the slight build of Jockeys is worked at: “Naturally lightweight jockeys have less of a struggle than those who are tall or heavy, but almost all jockeys have to 'waste', a combination of dieting and sweating, that is potentially debilitating. Ex-jockeys told me that their appetites were permanently affected by their need to waste. In one case the jockey had gained four stone when he gave up race riding through bingeing, returning to ten stone through a diet of oysters, jalapeno peppers and raw onions.”

Jockeys will lose weight on their way to a race by sweating in the car: turning the heater on full and wearing sports-clothes that increase sweating. Quite apart from the long term health effects, remember these men often have very long days exercising horses, and are likely to lose concentration while driving. I have no statistics, but looking at the racing papers there does seem to be a disproportionate number of car crashes.


A death in the family

It was Boxing Day in 1991 when my wife’s mother rang to say that Philip had been taken to Frenchay hospital after a fall at Wincanton. This was just a few miles from our home so we were the first there. When you watch medical dramas on TV the fictional doctors reel off technical babble to relatives, and you wonder how people are expected to understand. It was the same in real life. Having established that my wife was a relative, the ICU doctor spoke incomprehensible medical jargon for 4 minutes before walking away. I remember having to explain to my wife that she had just been told her brother was dead. He was just 24 years old.

When the very young die, and when death is accidental, grief comes differently. Firstly, the hospital kept the body alive until the family agreed to organ donation, which means that there was no experience of a moment of death. Secondly there is no emotional preparation. The last we saw of Philip alive was when we went to a Chinese restaurant in Bristol with him, and the waiters were inexplicable rude to us. His last words to us were, “Next time I will choose the restaurant”


Horses more important than people

The animal welfare charity, Animal Aid, have published a damning report on the mistreatment of horses in the industry. They point out that the “racing industry … now has much in common with livestock production. Both enterprises are committed to profit-driven mass output of progeny and the acceptance of a high 'wastage' rate. In both industries there is an excessively heavy burden on breeding stock and high rates of endemic disease and musculoskeletal injury.”

The argument they make is persuasive. For example: “Serious racing-related illnesses such as bleeding lungs and gastric ulcers are now endemic. 82% of flat race horses older than three years of age suffer from exercise induced pulmonary haemorrhage (EIPH), which can cause blood to leak from the nostrils. Gastric ulcers are present in no fewer than 93% of horses in training, in whom the condition gets progressively worse.”

Tragically there has been no equivalent study of the human costs of the industry, and no equivalent lobby group for jockeys' safety.. The Injured Jockeys Fund is a grace and favour charity that doles out money to the injured, but because it relies on patronage from the racing industry itself it does not question or campaign for improved safety. It shows the bizarre priorities of our sick society that British animal charities raise £63 million a year for horses but the Injured Jockeys Fund can spend just £1.25 million.


There is power in a union

Unlike many other professional sports, the racing industry has no union. Racing is the 8th largest industry in the UK, with an annual turnover of £6 billion, a roughly similar turnover to the steel industry. In 2003 the unclaimed betting winnings at the Tote alone amounted to an estimated £3..6 million, yet without a union the jockeys do not get a share of this by right, to care for the injured, to pay for retraining for those who don’t make their fortune, and to help out those in financial hardship.

Professional footballers and baseball stars have strong unions, that ensure their members, and not just the owners, get a fair slice of the TV money. Why shouldn’t jockeys organise to get a slice of the betting money for their welfare? It would take a culture shift, but even the individualist world of boxing has seen the rise of the Joint Association of Boxing, led by former WBA light heavyweight champion, Eddie Mohammed Mustafa, and affiliated to the Teamsters.

In March 2005 a steeplechase event at Melbourne’s Sandown racecourse was cancelled after industrial action by the Australian Workers Union, who placed a legally enforceable Provisional Improvement Notice (PIN) on the jumps, preventing their use under Victorian Occupational Health and Safety laws. The PIN allows Australian safety reps much greater power to enforce workplace safety than British trade unionists have, but note this action was taken by ground staff, not jockeys. Poignantly this happened just days after a plaque was unveiled commemorating the 100th death by a Jockey on an Australian track.

The animal rights campaigners are quite wrong when they call for the sport to be banned. But improved animal welfare regulation, improved safety – especially having lower jumps and mature horses in steeplechase – and a weight compensation system that allowed jockeys to maintain a healthy bodyweight would simply mean that the races were a little slower. The outcomes would still be just as unpredictable, and the punters would hardly notice the difference.


Racing Deaths in the British Isles since 1980

(From Sporting Life)

July 3, 2005: Claimer Tom Halliday suffers fatal injuries in a fall from Rush'N'Run in a hurdle race at Market Rasen.

Nov 1, 2003: Irish apprentice Sean Cleary, 22, dies six days after a crashing fall from All Heart in a Flat race at Galway.

Aug 12, 2003: Jump jockey Kieran Kelly, 25, dies four days after suffering severe head injuries in a fall at Kilbeggan.

Oct 29, 2000: Amateur Trevor Radford, 64, dies nine weeks after collapsing with a brain haemorrhage after a fall on Landican Lane at Goodwood.

July 19, 1996: Jump jockey Richard Davis, 26, is killed in a fall at Southwell.

May 6, 1994: Flat jockey Steve Wood, 26, is killed when suffering internal injuries in a fall from Kalar at Lingfield.

Dec 27, 1991: Philip Barnard, 24, dies the day after a fall on Sayyure at Wincanton.

Aug 31, 1988: Vivian Kennedy, 21, dies two days after suffering head injuries at Huntingdon.

Nov 14, 1986: Jump jockey Jayne Thompson, 22, dies six days after sustaining head injuries at Catterick.

May 10, 1986: Amateur rider Michael Blackmore, 30, is killed when kicked after a fall at Market Rasen.

May 1986: Amateur rider Jim Lombard dies three weeks after a fall at the Punchestown Festival.

July 15, 1981: Joe Blanks, 24, dies a week after colliding with a concrete post in a fall at Brighton.



Picture credits:

Injured Jockey fund  and BBC



March 2006

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