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Do jockeys really matter?

How much does a jockey matter in determining the outcome of a race?

Each summer for about 5 years in the mid-1970’s my Dad packed up the family and we would head to Billings, Montana for a couple of weeks for the Yellowstone Exhibition.  There was a female jockey riding there named Susie Wilson.

I don’t know if she was cute or not or if she could ride at all, but for some reason I had taken a liking to her (I was 5-7 years old) and I would wager with the group we were hanging out with $0.25 on every race.  You would think that I would want the horse my Dad was riding, but nope I would pick anything and everything that Susie was riding.

I have seen other gamblers who fall in love with specific jockeys and will back almost anything they are riding.  They can become quite arrogant too and show off the one ticket they cashed but not speak anything of the 10 they didn’t.  One of the great questions in handicapping is really how much weight should you put on a jockey?

The best advice that I received in regards to jockey considerations is that the betting public is aware of these changes and so the advantage that you will get on a “positive” jockey change will already be taken into account in the odds, but if you have a strong opinion of a particular jockey’s abilities and it’s different than what the public perceives, that is where you can find value in jockey considerations.

Being an ex-jockey and coming from a family where my dad was also a jockey, I have spent a lot of time watching races and particularly trying to observe what the jockeys are doing.  Because of that I believe I am uniquely equipped to come up with my own assessment of jockey’s abilities but if you don’t really feel comfortable in your ability to assess jockey’s abilities, that’s OK.  Using the jockey win percent at the current meet is a good place to start.

In my spreadsheet it uses in its main ranking algorithm a jockey win percentage.  The win percent will be the percent at the current meet if they have had at least 20 mounts at the meet.  If they have not had that many mounts it will use the win percent for the current year at all tracks, if a minimum of 50 mounts for the year is met.  If that minimum isn’t met it will use the win percent for current and previous year, this is usually only necessary early in the year at meets that start in January but because of those circumstances it was necessary.

In the point algorithm it uses the jockey win percent AND it will give a small “bonus” if there is a positive jockey change.  One caveat, it can only discern if the jockey change is positive or negative if the previous jockey also was named on a horse on today’s card.

Because I use these in my calculations I also track them in my results database.  The table below is the results of this testing back to August of 2013 after removing all races that were won by a first time starter.

The highlighted blue cells represent the best results for the 3 sections.  You can see that a positive jockey change resulted in a higher win percent and higher ROI (or smaller negative ROI) nearly universally.

Remember that the jockey win percent AND the bonus for a positive change is already included in the point system calculation.  This means that not only is a positive change outperforming the negative jockey change but doing so on quite possibly slightly inferior horses for each ranking.

All that being said, horses and jockeys definitely can build a rapport.  Certain jockeys get along better with certain types and/or running styles of horses. Do not ignore horse/jockey combinations that have had a great deal of success together.

As an example I’ll go back to my riding career.

I rode a horse for Eddie Clouston at Finger Lakes named Virginia’s Slip and let’s just say he traveled a little bit strangely, but growing up riding the bush tracks I had ridden a lot more strange traveling horses than him.

I had ridden him three times and won all three races but then I was sidelined for a month after having my appendix removed.  He raced twice while I was out and was beaten over 5 lengths in both starts with two different jockeys on his back.

When I returned you can see in the past performances below that we were able to return to the winner’s circle.

I understand that once he retired, they shipped him to Cornell University where it was discovered that he had one front leg that was 2-3 inches longer than the other one.  Sometimes it’s just finding the right jockey for the right horse.

This is a picture of me and him winning our fourth race together:

About Craig Spencer

Craig grew up in a horse racing family. His dad was a jockey and is now a trainer in New Mexico. Craig was a jockey for 12 years, has a bachelors degree in Accounting and an Masters in Business Administration.

3 Comments

  1. Doc B. on January 1, 2019 at 3:47 pm

    Great discussion and thanks Craig. I’ll share two jockey examples from yesterday at Santa Anita that could have affected players. In race 6, Joe talamo is on the favorite #7 (Kate’s princess) and coming down the stretch when he realizes that he will not win (or place), he lets up and another horse gets him for 3rd. Not sure how the trainer/ownership will respond, but this looks like a jockey who simply quit riding and cost a position. In the very next race, Mike Smith is on the 5, and even though he knew he was not going to win he continued and finished the race getting 2nd..a very recent example of jockeys making race decisions. Thanks again. Doc.

    • Craig Spencer on January 6, 2019 at 2:43 pm

      Thanks for the comment Doc, I was really expecting you to tell me that Desormeaux was on the first example. I haven’t noticed Joe being a culprit of not riding a horse out for a minor share much in the past but I will play against nearly everything that KJD is on that doesn’t look like an open length winner for that very reason. If it doesn’t look like he is going to win or be in a win photo, Kent will quit riding 100 yards out and end up out of the trifecta. I’ll have to watch for Talamo in that same light. I’ve always thought Joe was a very underrated rider so I might have blinders on that I need to remove and the only thing better than blinkers off is lonespeed.

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