The role of jockey techniques in maximizing horse speed

July 6th, 2024

There are many ways jockeys can maximize the speed of the racehorses they ride.

In the late 1800s, jockey Tod Sloan popularized the present-day riding style of crouching in short stirrups, rather than sitting upright on a horse’s back. According to research by the University of London’s Royal Veterinary College, this widespread change in riding posture led to a dramatic 5%-7% improvement in race times.

Many of the techniques jockeys use to improve racehorse speed—hand-riding in rhythm with the horse’s stride, using the whip to steer and maintain focus, etc.—are hard to quantify. However, some techniques can maximize speed in a more mathematical manner. Let’s highlight two examples:

Technique 1: Effectively rationing speed across the duration of a race

A critical skill for maximizing a racehorse’s final time is rationing their speed effectively across the duration of a race. A horse can only run for so long at top speed before tiring.

Effectively rationing speed is easier said than done. A jockey must have a good sense of pace and be able to gauge if a horse is running too fast or too slow. And while many horses will slow down or accelerate when the jockey tightens or loosens the reins, some eager horses get headstrong and fight restraint, which wastes energy and can lead to a poor performance. But when a horse is agreeable, rationing speed can improve final times.

Consider a race held over one mile. If a jockey lets a horse sprint hard early through quarter-mile fractions of :21.50 and :22.50, there’s a good chance the horse will tire badly in the second half of the race and record a final time slower than they’re capable. Decelerating quarter-mile fractions of :25 and :27 to finish the race would lead to a final time of 1:36.

If, on the other hand, a jockey rations his mount’s speed through controlled quarter-mile fractions of :22.90 and :23.60, the horse might be able to run the final two quarter-mile fractions in :24 and :25 for a final time of 1:35.50.

Let’s cite a real-world example. In the 2013 Kentucky Derby (G1) over 1 1/4 miles, Palace Malice ran off over a sloppy track and set blazing quarter-mile splits of :22.57, :22.76, and :24.47. He then tired badly, running his final two quarter-miles in :26.53 and :28.81 to finish a distant 12th. His final time was approximately 2:05.14.

Five weeks later in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont (G1), Palace Malice rationed his speed more effectively. He settled off the lead while running quarter-mile fractions of approximately :23.53, :23.48, :24.17, and :25.39. Even while negotiating a longer distance than in the Derby, Palace Malice had more finishing speed, running his fifth quarter-mile in about :26.57 (for 1 1/4 miles in 2:03.12) and his final quarter-mile in :27.58 to win in 2:30.70. His Brisnet Speed rating jumped from 93 in the Derby to 100 in the Belmont, a 7.5% improvement.

At the other end of the spectrum, running too slow early on can have a negative impact on final time. If a horse runs the first two quarters of a one-mile race in :26.00 and :25.00 and then accelerates the last two quarters in :23.50 and :22.50, it leads to a modest final time of 1:37.00. When you see a horse running fastest at the finish, it’s a good bet that the horse finished with some energy unused and could have run a faster final time if allowed to expend that energy during the slowest stages of the race.

Technique 2: Saving ground to shorten the distance to the finish line

Just because a race is one mile in length doesn’t mean every horse travels the same distance. If the race takes place around one or more turns, racing away from the inside rail lengthens the journey and leads to slower times.

A one-mile race is 5,280 feet long. Depending on how far outside a horse runs, they may actually run 30, 50, or even 80 feet farther than a ground-saving rival. If all else is equal, running 80 feet farther leads to a final time about 1.5% slower.

Racing inside does come with the risk of getting boxed in behind rivals, which can make it difficult for a jockey to effectively ration speed across the race. But if a jockey is good at threading through traffic, the power of saving ground shouldn’t be underestimated, as the 2024 Kentucky Derby illustrates. Longshot winner Mystik Dan saved ground every step of the way under talented rail rider Brian Hernandez Jr. to win by a nose over Sierra Leone and Forever Young, who endured wider trips.

Mystik Dan completed 1 1/4 miles in 2:03.34. If he’d raced a little farther outside and run 20 feet farther, his final time would have been correspondingly slower—perhaps 2:03.70. That would have relegated Mystik Dan to fourth place behind Sierra Leone (2:03.35), Forever Young (2:03.35), and actual fourth-place finisher Catching Freedom (2:03.66), and his Brisnet Speed rating would have dropped from 97 to about 95, a 2% decrease

Now, just as the rail is the shortest path around a racetrack, it’s also the tightest, and some horses actually benefit from racing a few paths off the inside, where the turn is milder. Other horses are more comfortable running in the clear on the outside than inside or behind rivals; a jockey, in consultation with the trainer, can determine the best strategy for a particular horse. A skilled jockey will also watch for track biases (where the inside is slower than the outside, or vice versa) and aim to ride accordingly.

Every percentage counts

Whether it’s changing riding posture, mastering race pace, or threading through traffic to work out a ground-saving trip, the techniques and strategies employed by jockeys can make a major difference in the outcome of any horse race.

Consider this: in a one-mile race, 1% of the distance is 52.8 feet, or approximately 5-6 lengths. If a jockey can improve a horse’s final time by as little as 1% using any technique outlined above, that will regularly make the difference between victory and defeat.