5 Dec 2023

What does it take to be a jockey?

From Checkpoint, 5:45 pm on 5 December 2023

Recent suspensions and an exodus of local jockeys to greener pastures overseas means there is a real shortage of jockeys at the moment. 
Now efforts are being ramped up to invest in apprentice jockeys here, with hopes they will stick around to race on home turf.  

Checkpoint joined an early morning training session with 19-year-old apprentice jockey Ace Lawson-Carroll at Shaun and Emma Clotworthy's Stables in Pukekohe.  

Ace Lawson-Carroll is an apprentice jockey at Clotworthy's Stables in Pukekohe.

Ace Lawson-Carroll grooming one of the horses at Clotworthy's Stables. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

Lawson-Carroll said training to be a jockey meant a busy schedule.  

"You're up at 6am saddling your horses and then you're out riding them, do about eight or nine [horses] a day and then head on home have a shower, grab something to eat and then you're back on the road again... just constantly doing things." 

Originally from Whakatāne and going to school in Papakura, Lawson-Carroll had ridden horses bareback before but never like this.  

Then four years ago he met trainer Shaun Clotworthy.

While he is only in his second year of his apprenticeship and the first in his family to pursue this career, Ace has won 36 races already.  

He put that down to a natural connection with the animal.  

On top of that, there are some specific restriction jockeys need to meet, weighing under 55kg.  

For jockeys like Lawson-Carroll who is 147cm it is easier to remain below that weight.  

Clotworthy said for taller athletes the weight restriction could take a toll.  

"They've got to really dedicate themselves to it and it's a pretty regimental type of dieting system they've got."  

RNZ also attended an athlete development day in Cambridge, which apprentice jockeys attend every six weeks.  

Apprentice jockeys at an athlete development day at the High Performance Sport New Zealand's national training centre in Cambridge.

Apprentice jockeys at an athlete development day at the High Performance Sport New Zealand's National Training Centre in Cambridge.  Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

As the athletes trickled into the meeting room at High Performance Sport New Zealand's National Performance Centre their heights and weights were recorded.  

The programme involves everything from intense fitness training, nutrition and financial workshops.  

Once jockeys have completed their four-year apprenticeship, they become self-employed, booking races themselves or through an agent.  

Clotworthy said the promise of bigger races and money overseas was hard to turn down for some athletes.  

"It's difficult to get them staying easy on if they've got opportunities over there." 

Lawson-Carroll confessed he was hoping to head across the ditch eventually.  

"Still got my eyes set on going over to Australia, competing against those good jockeys and try and make a name on myself over there." 

Ace Lawson-Carroll is an apprentice jockey at Clotworthy's Stables in Pukekohe.

Jockeys have to weigh less than 55kg.  Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing head of education, training and recruitment Amy Johnson said that was an issue they were hoping to tackle.  

The organisation is hoping to take inspiration from training regimes that take place in the Australian state of Victoria, where apprentice jockeys do twice as much 'off-job training'.  

"They do up to 120 hours of off-job training, so these type of athlete development days and and that's something we will look to employ in the near future is more of those support classes ... to ensure that they're well set up," Johnson said.

But she said there were many financial perks to the apprenticeship in New Zealand.  

"It's the only apprenticeship you actually come out with money in New Zealand, so you get a weekly wage and any money that's earned via stakes, money from winning races or placing or riding fees goes into a trust account that's held by NZTR.  

"That earns interest over the duration of the apprenticeship and we have average apprentices coming out with over $100,000." 

There is a shortage of jockeys in New Zealand which has led to increased efforts to invest in apprentice jockeys.

Apprentice jockeys need to learn a range of skills from how to maintain fitness to understanding nutrition and managing finances. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

Controlling a 500kg animal is no easy feat and everything from a jockey's reaction time, speed, endurance and strength are tested.  

But the 20 or so apprentices at the development day said it was just as important to be strong mentally to have what it takes.  

Bailey Rogerson is two years into her apprenticeship, she said her whole life all she had known was racing.  

"It's a very mentally challenging game, but very rewarding at the same time so no, as long as you've got a passion and a good work ethic."  

First year apprentice Simamkele Mxothwa travelled to New Zealand from South Africa to pursue a career as a jockey after being told at 47kg he was too heavy for the programme in South Africa.  

"I've come a long way so I can't lay back and you know I have to give it 100 percent."  

Maria Sanson is in her last year of her apprenticeship but was injured two weeks ago at trials in Taupō after falling off her horse, breaking her ankle.   

"It can be quite up and down like at the moment I'm obviously injured and on the sidelines, which is one of the downs of it, but riding winners is always good and keeps you getting up at 4am in the morning, six days a week."