Tom Marquand bears a cheery smile as he arrives at the British Racing School in Newmarket, England.
The affable jockey is a familiar face around these parts, having earned his apprentice license here in 2014. But this is not a social visit. Today, Marquand is preparing to race at the nearby Newmarket Racecourse.
An idyllic English country town that’s home to the National Horseracing Museum and thoroughbred breeding farm the National Stud, Newmarket is packed full of sporting history. It was here, after all, that the undefeated wonder-horse Frankel was trained by the late Henry Cecil.
Unfortunately, there will be little time for the 18-year-old Marquand, or those he will be competing against, to admire their surroundings.
As soon as his races are over, Marquand will be changed and driving home in order to give himself as much prep time as possible for a 5 a.m. start the next day.
“I’m at Haydock tomorrow and that’s a four or five hours in the car. Then on Saturday I’m at Chester which is another four-hour drive,” he says.
Grabbing sleep when you can is the key, he says, to staying stay alert and focused for competition in such circumstances.
“If ever you’ve ever got two or three hours in between rides, like today where I’m racing in the first race and the last race, I’ll flatten myself out after the first one for a good hour. That passes the time, stops you eating and helps you get a bit of rest before driving home.”
“Even if you might not get it (sleep) one day, if you can catch up the day before you’re kind of on level par with your own body.”
Punching a Sat Nav
For the vast majority of professional or amateur jockeys operating in the UK, lengthy car journeys are an occupational hazard — and very far from the oft-perceived glamor of life on the track.
While some elite riders will fly between races in helicopters or private jets provided by wealthy racehorse owners, this is a luxury only a tiny few will be afforded. And such extravagances will likely be just for the biggest meetings.
Most jockeys spend their days on motorways, figuring out where they’ll be appearing next and punching faraway racecourse destinations into a Sat Nav.
According to Irish jump jockey Aidan Coleman, who had 750 starts in 2016, “the race riding is the easy bit.”
“Away from the track it’s very busy,” he adds, talking to CNN via a hands-free device from his car as he drove to another race meet.
“It’s tough, lot of driving involved. You seem to always be on the road.”
A jump jockey will typically drive 70,000 miles a year going to and from races, according to Great British Racing, the sport’s promotional body in the UK. That’s equivalent to driving around the earth along the line of the equator just under three times.
By contrast, in 2015 England’s car users averaged 7,900 miles, according to RAC stats — and in the US the average mileage per driver is just under 13,500 miles.
Making racing pay
Yet it’s not just the seemingly never-ending grind of life on the road that jockeys have to contend with away from the racecourse.
There’s the stress of making weight, keeping fit to ensure they are strong enough to control a half-ton animal that can reach speeds of 40 mph, as well as meeting and greeting the sport’s key players.
“You’ve got to meet the owners and the trainer and talk about the race,” says Hayley Turner, a retired flat jockey who rode over 750 winners in her 15-year career. “You can’t be grumpy. That’s another big part of it, being pleasant to people.”
Financial matters are also far from straightforward.
Flat jockeys are paid £118.29 ($146.33) per race, the British Horseracing Authority riding manual states. Jump jockeys receive more at £161.51 ($199.86).
On top of that, a percentage of the race’s prize money will be reserved for the winning jockey and those placing in second, third and fourth.
It is often reported that riding a winner in the UK guarantees 10% of the prize money available for a race, while those that place receive 5% of the total.
However Marquand told CNN that those figures are a popular misconception. In actual fact, riding a winner guarantees only 6.9% of the purse and placing gets only 3.5%, he says. “Just under 7% (for a winner) is quite a big difference (than 10%) on a daily basis.”
In 2016, Marquand rode over 650 races, with 63 wins and 108 placings.
After agents’ costs, valet fees and petrol expenses are accounted for, the price of simply turning up for a race can add up if winning percentages are not forthcoming.
Hard figures on precisely what jockeys earn are hard to come by. But a report by the UK’s Racing Post newspaper cited 2013 research carried out by industry organization the Professional Jockeys’ Association (PJA) which found that average earnings for someone who had 100 or more rides a year clocked in at just £25,110 ($31,200) per annum.
CNN was not able to obtain these figures despite putting in numerous requests to the PJA. The Racing Post also stated that most top-level jockeys will earn many times this average.
Earnings can be augmented with other income generators such as sponsorships and taking on ambassador roles at racecourses. “It all just adds up slowly,” Marquand says. But he adds: “I think people think there’s a lot more money involved (for jockeys) than there actually is.”
Some jockeys have long pointed to the potential riches available for those who choose to ply their trade in the likes of Hong Kong or Dubai. Meanwhile, flat jockey Dougie Costello told the Racing Post that he couldn’t believe the money that was up for grabs compared to the UK when he started competing in France.
In the US, jockeys may settle in a region with numerous racecourses or travel between regions at different times of the year to make the most of seasonal opportunities, according to the North American Racing Academy.
And while data from racing statistics firm, Equibase, states that close to 300 jockeys have accumulated over $1 million in prize money 2016 so far, only a fraction of that would have been kept in the shape of winning percentages.
Love of the sport
In a sport where the risk of serious injury is a daily concern, such commitment to the cause in spite of the barriers and fluctuating earning possibilities emphasizes just how committed jockeys are to what they do.
At races in the UK, ambulances and a team of medical staff usually follow the riders.
In October, flat jockey Freddie Tylicki was put in intensive care after a fall at Kempton racecourse in England. In June, meanwhile, former leading amateur rider JT McNamara died aged just 41. He had been paralyzed since breaking two vertebrae in his neck after a fall at the 2013 Cheltenham Festival.
The PJA looks after jockeys in numerous ways, offering injury insurance and pension schemes as well as negotiating with all “racing authorities and other trade bodies to improve the jockeys’ standing.”
But for the likes of Marquand and Coleman, the love of the sport is what keeps pushing them to get up in the early morning to exercise horses at their respective stables before hitting the road to get to the races.
“There’s plenty of bad days. More bad days than good days,” Coleman says. “It’s very tough so you need to love it.”