By Bob Ehalt
The role of a jockey in a horse race is probably the easiest element in the game for a newcomer to understand.
Just like athletes in a major professional sport, such as baseball, all jockeys are not equal in terms of talent and success. Some are more skilled and more daring and win at a higher rate than others. In a nut shell, that’s why riders play a key role in most handicappers’ search for a winner.
Just look at two baseball players, say the Mets’ Jason Bay, Mr. 150 batting average, and the Yankees’ Robinson Cano, who’s hitting .313 this year. The law of averages says that in any one trip to the plate, either Bay or Cano can get a base hit. But, as reflected in their batting averages, over the course of this season, Cano is twice as likely to get a base hit as Bay.
It’s the same way in horse racing. In today’s sixth race at Saratoga, Rajiv Maragh might beat Ramon Dominguez. But when the meet comes to an end, Dominguez will probably win twice as many races as Maragh.
Of course, picking winners on a regular basis is not as simple as betting on a circuit’s best jockey in all of his races. Even an all-star outfielder in a baseball fails to get a hit in about 70 percent of his at-bats, and a leading jockey will lose 60 or 70 percent of the time. With all of those losers and a high amount of favorites among his winners, playing a jockey like Dominguez in all of his races will not necessarily lead to profits day in and day out.
Instead, it’s best to be selective. A top or hot jockey is a good reason to back a horse but not the only one. Some past performances come with jockey stats, and just like hitters who handle fastballs or curveballs better than others, some riders are indeed better with front-runners, on the turf, in sprints. Matching a horse with the right type of rider can often be a highly rewarding experience.
Another angle to watch involves rider switches. Jockeys do not randomly land on the backs of horses. They have agents who talk with trainers and line up each day’s mounts for them. Think of it as free agency on a daily basis. As you might expect, Dominguez’s agent Steve Rushing is on the speed dial of a lot of trainers. That gives Rushing plenty of mounts to pick and choose from, and he’s obviously going to choose the best ones for his rider.
There might be times when a top jockey accepts a ride on a fairly slow horse to appease one of his top clients, but in most cases an upgrade in the athlete piloting the horse is worth noting. Sort of like Cano pinch-hitting for Bay, something even the passionate Mets fan wouldn’t mind seeing.
It won’t work out all the time, but if you’re looking for improved results at the betting windows, then backing better jockeys is a pretty good way to start hitting the ball over the fences more often.