We often hear of the glitz and glamour of sports superstars. However, we seldom hear of the gruelling days of training that athletes invest in their sports.
Some may say that the blows a boxer deals with make boxing the toughest sport out there, but former jockey Dominic Toole, who is currently stable manager at Sandown Racecourse, argues differently.
“Jockeys go through what a boxer does every day,” says Toole. “They’re having anything from up to twelve rides on a horse.”
“It’s like doing a two-minute round twelve times a day on no food and you’re driving for five, six, seven hours a day.”
Toole tells me that for example, a jockey can start their day at four or five o’clock in the morning to drive the two hours from Epsom in Surrey to Newmarket. They then might have to travel another three hours to Nottingham or Leicester before heading up north to Warwick and getting home at half ten, only to repeat the process the next day.
And like with combat athletes, jockeys have issues with weight cutting. “They’re doing it on no food, just energy drinks,” says Toole. “The nutrition side of jockeys has got a hell of a lot better than it used to be.”
“We had this big problem with jockeys flipping which basically means they will eat, go to the toilet and throw it back up again. It’s disgusting but it works. Your brain thinks that it’s been fed, your stomach’s got a little bit of nutrition in it.”
“What you’re actually doing is ripping your stomach lining apart,” he concedes.
Meanwhile, Frankie Dettori’s preferred way to lose weight is power walking on the treadmill. There is also a sauna at every racecourse for the jockeys to deplete the body of excess water.
Despite the dangers jockeys face from cutting weight, Toole tells me that Liverpool John Moores University is working to educate the next generation on effectively keeping their weight down and using sustainable diet plans.
Dealing with the pressures of weight-cutting has also led to jockeys having alcohol problems. “They were light all the time, they were dehydrated and they just found solace in the bottom of a bottle,” says Toole, though the situation these days has vastly improved for jockeys.
For riders on the fringes, there is always the possibility that this sacrifice will one day pay off and make a lucky few millionaires.
The dream of one day becoming a top jockey for Toole started when he left school at 16 – standing 4’11’’ and weighing 6st 10, being a jockey was a natural career choice.
Toole explains: “I was very small when I left school, I didn’t know what I was gonna do. A friend of mine worked at a local stable and everyone kept saying ‘be a jockey’.
“So I went to work at my local stables, a weekend job, I wasn’t paid for it and then I got a full time job there when I left school. I’d never sat on a horse, never ridden a horse. Within 3 years I was race riding,” he says.
However, Toole had to retire in 1996 at just 25 because his apprenticeship came to an end. This was relatively young considering many jockeys will continue to develop into their fifties and sixties but only jockies who were granted a full professional license were allowed to continue racing.
“The more rides you get the better you get and the better you get the more you can judge races but it’s one of those sports where the older you get the better you get,” says Toole.
That’s why once the rules changed in 2008 to allow those who didn’t make the grade after their apprenticeships, Toole, who was in his late thirties, jumped at the opportunity.
Recalling the moment, he said with enthusiasm: “Where do i sign? Definitely jump at it. My second ride back I rode a winner. Now I was riding that season but it just wasn’t making it pay. It just wasn’t viable for me to keep doing it.”
The reality for the majority of jockeys is a mirror of what most other sports are like. A few stars at the top earning the lion’s share of the money, while the rest struggle to make a decent living from the profession. It might be one in every thousand jockeys who strikes gold.
“Probably about 20 out of 1000 will make it as a journeyman jockey which is up and down the country all day and you’re trying to make it pay and it’s difficult,” continues Toole.
The situation for jockeys is even tougher in Ireland.
Ronan Groome of the Irish Field explains: “There are maybe five or six top stables for both codes (flat and over jumps) and the top jobs have long been taken by the likes of Ruby Walsh and Davy Russell – who aren’t going anywhere soon. It takes an exceptional talent to break through – like Jack Kennedy at Gordon Elliott’s. For the remainder, with usually only three or four days of racing a week, it can be a real struggle to make a living.”
He added: “Many young Irish jockeys make the move to Britain for more opportunities. There is also a growing attraction towards Australia, France and America.”
Then again even for those who are lucky enough to make it, there is always the looming threat of career-ending injuries. An injury-ridden career and post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis led to talented jockey George Chaloner retiring last year at just 25.
“That’s one of the unfortunate things with racing because it’s a dangerous sport,” concedes Toole.
At that moment I decide to ask whether Toole himself has suffered any serious injuries.
“No, touch wood,” he replies slapping the table. “I came close a few times but didn’t have anything serious.”
He continues: “I was riding three, four horses every day for 27 years and I never ended up in hospital, so I was lucky.
“I had plenty of falls but never did any damage, you learn to fall, you learn to get back up again, it’s like riding a bike.”
The plight of the jockey seems a bit like life then.
Featured image: Dominic Toole.