Jockeys and weight in the Kentucky Derby

April 30th, 2024

Being the most identifiable human participants on average in Thoroughbred racing, jockeys will be a major focus in this week’s 150th edition of the Kentucky Derby (G1). Some will nervously be riding in the race for the first time, while others are savvy veterans. For example, 52-year-old John Velazquez, who has the mount on probable post-time favorite Fierceness, will be attempting to win the Derby for the fourth time since 2011.

As the Kentucky Derby has risen in global stature in recent decades, jockeys who have established themselves as superstars abroad have zeroed in on adding it to their list of achievements. Frankie Dettori, an iconic figure in European racing for more than three decades, recently moved his tack to the U.S., partially with the hope of securing a Derby mount. He belatedly got one this year, albeit on longshot Society Man.

JOHNSON: Kentucky Derby pedigree profile: Society Man

Although jockeys vary in age, accomplishment, temperament, and other qualities, the one commonality they all have as far as the Kentucky Derby is concerned is the weight their mounts must carry. All horses in the Derby will carry 126 pounds, which includes the jockey’s actual weight, their tack (i.e. saddle, etc.), and any extra “dead weight” in the order of lead pads inserted into the saddle to make up any difference.

Why is the set weight of Derby participants 126 pounds and where did it come from? As is the case with the Derby itself, and Thoroughbred racing in the U.S. in general, we must go back to the mother country of the sport, England, to find the answer. 

In the middle of the 19th century, The English Jockey Club’s public handicapper, Admiral Henry John Rous, devised a Scale of Weights that was intended to equalize competition between males and females and horses of different ages while considering the distances they were competing over and the time of year. As the season progresses and as the distances increase, the weight concession mature male horses must give their younger rivals, whether male of female, decreases as the latter physically mature.

After the American Jockey Club’s formation in the late 19th century, they, too, instituted a Scale of Weights, one more finely tuned to the vagaries of American racing, with its emphasis on shorter dirt races than longer turf ones as in England.

To put this into perspective, assume the Kentucky Derby was open to all horses regardless of age, rather than restricted to three-year-olds only. Based on the Jockey Club Scale of Weights, in races over 1 1/4 miles in May, horses aged four and older would be required to carry 127 pounds, while three-year-olds would carry 111 pounds, a 16-pound concession. There is also a sex allowance to consider, with fillies and mares getting an additional five pounds off.

The Jockey Club Scale of Weights is rarely used in day-to-day racing, except for the most important races like the Kentucky Derby and the other Triple Crown events. Among the nine exceptions the Jockey Club notes on its Scale of Weights table is that in races exclusively for three-year-olds, all participants are to carry 126 pounds (fillies carry 121). 

The Kentucky Derby was inaugurated in 1875, but only in 1920 did it become a scale-weight race whereby all male entrants carry 126 pounds. The Preakness followed suit in 1924, while the Belmont Stakes adopted the present scale as early 1900 (1913 being a one-year exception).

There is hardly a jockey alive today that could make the weight carried by some of the earliest Kentucky Derby victors. The inaugural winner in 1875, Aristides, carried a mere 100 pounds over 1 1/2 miles when piloted by Oliver Lewis. A year later, Vagrant carried the lowest impost ever to victory when toting 97 pounds. 

Even some of the most celebrated Derby winners of the early 20th century got off easy by modern standards. Regret in 1915 carried only 112 pounds, nine pounds less than later filly winners Genuine Risk (1980) and Winning Colors (1988). The maiden winner of the 1919 Derby, Sir Barton, who was retroactively acknowledged as racing’s first Triple Crown winner, also carried a mere 112 pounds and change.

The jockey will be among the myriad of factors handicappers will consider when determining who to back in this week’s Kentucky Derby. But thanks to the efforts of Admiral Rous some two decades before the Derby came into being, the weight factor will not be among them. 

The racing adage that all are equal on the turf and under it, in this respect, contains a kernel of truth.