The Most Dangerous Job in Sports

Sep 7th 2011 09:00 pm |

Two of the greatest jockeys in racing history: Bill Hartack and Eddie Arcaro at Delaware Park in 1957.   Photo courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society

News came out over the weekend about the sad fate of jockey Jacky Martin. The legendary quarter horse jockey was paralyzed from the neck down when his mount fell at Ruidoso Downs. Martin joins a long list of jockeys whose career ends as a result of a serious and life-altering injury. Serious injuries are only part of the dangers jockeys face. Since 1940, approximately two jockeys die every year as the result of on-track incidents.

There is no other profession in sports as dangerous as being a jockey. In recent years, safety equipment has been improved, and tracks are now better equipped to respond to injuries, making it somewhat safer. However, the jockey profession, like the mechanics of the sport, hasn’t changed much over the years. It is, and always has been, a career filled with tremendous risk to life and limb.

In 1975, jockey Alvaro Pineda was killed when his horse reared in the starting gate at Santa Anita resulting in a fatal blow to the rider’s head. Red Smith, reflecting on the incident, wrote,

…every time a jockey gathers the reins on a thoroughbred he is taking his life in his hands. He knows it and it is a fact that ought to be remembered, perhaps, by horseplayers who risk only their money and do not hesitate to blackguard  the kid who is putting his life on the line.

At 29, Pineda had spent half his life in the saddle and there must have been times he got off a loser and heard himself reviled as a crook or a coward or both by some sportsman who had dropped $2 on his mount. Chances are when he rode there were clients prepared to give him the treatment if his horse didn’t win.”

Red Smith quoted jockey legend Eddie Arcaro who had been retired for more then a decade in 1975 but still stood as the most well-known rider in America. Arcaro said this to Smith on the possibility of dying on the job:

You know it can happen…but when you’re riding you don’t think about it. You’re doing it every day and everybody else is doing the same thing and — hell, if you thought about it you just couldn’t stand the tension…

…I had five or six of my best friends killed…it’s bad but when you sign your name on your license you know that’s part of it.”

The dangers to jockeys have always existed in racing. In 1887, there was a story written about the life of a jockey. The piece appeared in New York papers at a time when racing was starting to emerge as a big-time urban sport and likely served as an introduction to the profession for readers in its day. With the exception of age (jockeys started in the business at age 12 back then), some aspects of a jockey’s life found in the article from over a century ago ring true today, including the inherent dangers of the job. The unnamed reporter wrote this in 1887:

The dangers of a jockey’s life are very great. They may be thrown in a race at any time and be trampled to death by horses behind them. The horse they are riding may fall down and by rolling on them kill them. Very often they get so crowded in a race against other horses or against the rails that their legs are broken and sometimes the horses they handle are so savage that they kick and bite the boys. When a boy decides to become a jockey he must make up his mind to either make his fortune or to break his neck.

The dangers of riding race horses is as old as the sport itself, as are the qualities of a jockey so beautifully summarized by Red Smith in 1975:

…There are two qualities [jockeys] have in common or they don’t ride; they are athletes and they are brave. When ‘outstanding athlete’ awards are passed around, jockeys hardly ever get a call, yet pound for pound they can match anybody for fitness, strength, quick reflexes, versatility, cool judgment and plain courage.

Try to argue with that. No job in sports matches the dangers of jumping on the back of a racehorse. It’s been true for centuries and it is still true today. As the great Red Smith wrote nearly 40 years ago, this is something horse players should always keep in mind.


Red Smith, “Death at the Starting Gate,” The Day, 20 January 1975

Boys Taught To Ride,” Aurora Daily Express, 24 August 1887

The Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund is a non-profit organization that assists jockeys that “suffered catastrophic on-track injuries.” Contributions can be made on their website — please take a look and consider donating.

While researching this piece, I found an insightful history written by Eddie Arcaro about the Jockey’s Guild  — an organization that has been crucial in representing those in the profession.

A piece at, also published this past week (h/t Equidaily), looks at the same topic: “It’s dangerous riding atop a speeding horse”

Read more about jockey legends Eddie Arcaro and Bills Hartack at Colin’s Ghost

Thanks for reading and good luck!

Filed in Arcaro, Eddie,jockey death,Jockeys,Smith, Red,thoroughbred racing history

Question? Email me at kevin[{AT}]