Believe it or not, horse racing is a team sport. And not just between one man and one animal.
It all starts with the owners of the horses. These individuals have to write the checks for everything, including breeding rights, facilities, and supplies for day-to-day-care of the horses. The trainers must call on years of expertise and experimentation to somehow mold a raw animal into a surefooted racer in a fairly short time. And of course, the steeds themselves must constantly perform the way that their handlers prepare them to – all without sustaining an injury.
But we mustn’t forget the men and women who pilot these horses to victory (or placing, or showing). The jockeys must be small in stature but big on courage and skill. And their success is based largely on how they perform in a time span of a few minutes. Talk about pressure.
As in most professional sports, there is a small number of very rich jockeys which is not indicative of the average pay for the industry. But unlike the major pro sports, the compensation for jockeys is fairly straightforward.
Each jockey gets paid between $30 and $100 to ride a horse in a given race. Winning jockeys receive 10% of the owner’s winnings (usually 60% of the total purse), and 5% of the owner’s winnings if they finish second, third, or fourth (with the owner’s share usually 20%, 15%, and 5% of the total purse, respectively).
So for a race with a $100,000 purse, the winning jockey would receive approximately $6,000. The second place finisher would earn about $1,000, with third place netting $750 and the fourth place jockey getting just $250 (plus riding fees). But there’s more: as in all sports, the jockeys must pay their agents a cut of their salary of between 25% and 35%. Bottom line: the rule of thumb for jockeys earnings is about seven percent of the total prize money their horses earn.
With that in mind, here are the top earning horse racing jockeys of 2013. These figures are estimates based on seven percent of the recorded prize money their mounts garnered throughout the year (before agents’ fees, of course).
10. Junior Alvarado – $900,451
Like many of the people on this list, Alvarado became a jockey to follow in the footsteps of his father Rafae. This Venezuelan claims that soccer is his favorite sport, but his riding skills were enough for his horses to amass over $12 million in winnings last year. However, 2014 may not be a banner year for Alvarado. Shortly before Christmas at Aqueduct, the horse Miss Narcissist flipped in the starting gate and tossed Alvarado, and the 27-year old broke his ankle. He underwent surgery and is out of commission until at least March.
9. Luis Saez – $917,151
The year 2013 was a breakout year for this Panamanian jockey, who amassed a total purse figure which exceeded his 2012 and 2011 output combined. Saez’s horses eclipsed the $13 million mark despite the jockey winning just 13% of his races last year and finishing in the money in only two out of every five races he entered (the lowest percentages on this list). Saez currently lives in Miami and says his favorite food is shrimp, rice, and beans. (Hey! Who you callin’ a shrimp?)
8. Rosie Napravnik – $926,954
Napravnik was the highest-earning female jockey in 2013 and is the only female jockey to have ridden in all three Triple Crown races. She finished fifth in the Kentucky Derby and showed in the Preakness Stakes last year, marking the highest finish for a woman in the history of both of those esteemed events. In 2012, Napravnik broke the record for most wins by a female jockey previously held by Julie Krone. The 26-year old Mendham, New Jersey native now lives in New Orleans, and notched her 1,700th career victory earlier this year.
7. Mike E. Smith – $965,826
The pride of Roswell, New Mexico has been winning big races for years, capturing the Preakness Stakes in 1993 aboard Prairie Bayou, the 2005 Kentucky Derby atop Giacomo, and the 2010 Belmont Stakes riding Drosselmeyer. Oh, and he rode the defending Belmont winner, Palace Malice, at age 47. So it’s no surprise that Smith was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame back in 2003. What maybe is astonishing is that 2013 was the first year of Smith’s career that he cracked the top-ten earnings list for U.S. jockeys. And he did it with only 422 starts (about a third of Napravnik’s total) during the year.
6. Jose Lezcano – $976,733
Undoubtedly one of the highlights of 2013 for Lezcano was stepping in for one of his role models, John Velazquez, who fell in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile Fillies race and was unable to ride Wise Dan in the BC Mile. Lezcano stepped in and promptly won the prestigious race. Born in Panama and a graduate of the famed Laffit Pincay Jockey School in that nation, the now 28-year old Lezcano claims to have gotten into horse racing “through a friend.” It seems to suit him – Lezcano has amassed at least $9 million in purse earnings in each of the last six years.
5. Irad Ortiz, Jr. – $997,717
This Puerto Rico-born jockey might be the future of horse racing. He’s broken into the top five earning jockeys’ club at the ripe old age of 21. He was certainly busy in 2013, recording almost 1,500 starts. And much of his competition came from his brother Jose, who was a rookie at Aqueduct last year (and who would be on this list if it went to 11 instead of 10). The Ortiz brothers were reportedly encouraged by their grandfather to get into racing, and they both appear to have bright careers ahead of them.
4. Rafael Bejarano – $1,092,032
Bejarano joins the millionaire’s list for 2013, primarily by finishing in the money in a jaw-dropping 57 percent of his races during the year. As the story goes, Bejarano went to see a horse race in his native Peru when he was 19 years old and decided that he wanted to be a jockey. Now 31 and living in Louisville, Kentucky, Bejarano is coming off his tenth consecutive year in the top ten earnings jockeys in America. His best Triple Crown result was a runner-up finish at the 2005 Belmont Stakes aboard Andromeda’s Hero, and Bejarano still yearns to win one of America’s royal trifecta of horse races.
3. John Velazquez – $1,355,540
Talk about a living legend. Velazquez is the all-time career earnings leader among North American jockeys, a title which he achieved in October of last year. In 2014, Velazquez will probably eclipse the $300 million mark in total purse earnings for his career. He has not been out of the top-ten moneymaking jockeys in the 21st century, and he topped that list in both 2004 and 2005. The 42-year old Puerto Rican native has too many accolades to mention; but although he has two Belmont Stakes victories and a Kentucky Derby win, he has yet to finish first in the Preakness Stakes, finishing second last year aboard Itsmyluckyday. (Better step it up, John.)
2. Joel Rosario – $1,511,016
One of only two jockeys to break the $20 million mark in 2013 purse earnings, Rosario is the defending Kentucky Derby champion jockey. He rode Orb to that milestone win and then followed up with a show at Belmont. In fact, Rosario has made a habit out of attaining horse racing success in bunches. On one day in December of 2009, the Dominican jockey recorded an incredible six victories at Hollywood Park, equaling the racetrack’s record. And in 2013, Rosario managed to win two major races in just five weeks’ time, crossing the finish line first in the world’s-richest $10 million Dubai World Cup race (which certainly helped his earnings numbers) before going on to win the Derby. The 29-year old Rosario has earned at least $13 million in each of the last five racing seasons.
1. Javier Castellano – $1,834,945
With a mind-boggling 1,617 starts in 2013, his 2013 earnings mark of over $26.2 million set an all-time record for a racing season, thereby propelling the 36-year old to his first-ever Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey. Born in Maracaibo, Venezuela, Castellano is another second-generation jockey who is the defending champion in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Race. He won the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2004 aboard Ghostzapper (which he calls his greatest achievement), and then captured the Preakness Stakes title in 2006 atop Bernardini. Think about this for a moment: over the last six years, Castellano has won purses totaling almost $100 million. That’s the closest thing to a sure bet there is in horse racing.