By Scott Taylor (@staylorsports)
Jockeys are professional athletes. It’s unlikely anyone could come up with a coherent argument to claim they aren’t.
They might be different from Goldeyes, Bombers and Jets, but by definition, the guys who ride racehorses at Assiniboia Downs have the same job – they compete in a sport for money, and they must keep fit in order to be allowed to take part and they go out onto the field of play and compete to win.
They also bicker, taunt and trash talk even though they have to do one thing that’s totally different from almost all other athletes. Jockeys don’t have their own separate team locker rooms in which to grab some peace and quiet and avoid the opposition. Jockeys all use the same locker room and while they do their best to keep it calm and civil, there are times when it can get heated.
“It’s competition all the time,” said jock Stanley Chadee who led all Downs riders in stakes wins in 2021. “In the jocks room, there will be bickering from time to time, but at the end of the day, we try to get along as best we can. Sometimes it’s difficult but we all do the same job so we try to always keep it safe.”
“A guy might get upset, he might have a few words, but at the end of the night, we always try to go home as friends. Stuff happens and you try to work it out. Sure, some guys carry grudges a little longer than others. Some guys can go two or three days, some even a week, but eventually you have to get along. I’ve never seen a situation between two guys that lasted a whole meet.”
Riding a 1,000-pound racehorse at speeds reaching 35-40 miles per hour is a dangerous game. The athletes who ride the horses must be quick, smart and in remarkable shape. They also can’t weigh more than about 118 pounds. There is no doubt these guys are athletes.
“It’s true, we’re athletes and we’re competitive and we have to stay fit,” said two-time ASD jockey champion Antonio Whitehall. “But sharing a single locker room isn’t a problem. We all get along.
“It is very competitive, and it surprises people that we get along so well, but at the end of the day, we all do the same job and we know that all of us, eventually, are going to win, so why be a dick? In our business, everyone is going to get a chance and at some point, everyone is going to win a race, so why create bad blood and make the room uncomfortable.
“But I have to be honest, we get high on emotions. Winning is very important to all of us. So, sure, some guys might get hot if they lose or if they think somebody cut them off, but 10 minutes after, it’s just water under the bridge.”
Because jockeys must keep their weight down while still galloping horses in the morning and riding competitively at night, training for horse racing is a little different than collision sports like hockey or football.
“I’m not lucky with my weight anymore,” said Whitehall, who had a pair of wins on Tuesday night and three this week. “When I started at 16, I was super-light and I could eat anything. But then I got a little taller and older and I started to gain weight. Now, I keep my winter jacket on every morning when I gallop the horses. I like to get a big sweat going. Sometimes, I’ll even put on my sauna suit underneath the winter jacket. I’ll gallop 15-16 horses every day so I’ll lose three to four pounds in the morning from galloping horses. Then I’ll have a light breakfast – scrambled eggs, a couple of bacon – and take a nap. In the evening session, I go to the jocks room and sit in the sweat box. The sweat box is popular. I need to weigh 116, but I’m a tall rider, about 5-foot-7. It’s hard, but it’s my job so I do what I have to do.”
Renaldo Cumberbatch, 43, has been a professional rider since 1995. He’s always in the Top 5 at ASD and has not only won more than 400 races but has earned his owners $3.5 million in purses. He will admit that some people look at jockeys a lot differently than other athletes.
“It’s a funny sport and very different than any other sport,” he said. “A lot of people look at it and think it’s easy because quite often we make it look easy. But you are on top of a 1,000-pound animal with its own mind and if a horse decides to do what it wants, no matter what that might be, there is no jockey in the world who can stop it.
“I love being on horses. It’s what I’ve trained to do all my life. And I love horses that run as fast as they can possibly run. There is no horse that is too fast. But I still learn about horses every day. I mean, you never stop learning in horse racing because every horse has something about them that only they do. These animals have their own way of thinking. No matter how much experience you have, a horse can teach you something new every day.”
So, yes, horse racing is a dangerous and serious business. However, there has to be a fun side to it. We asked Cumberbatch, Whitehall and Chadee if jockeys trash talk their opponents like basketball, hockey and football players are prone to do.
“That happens now and again,” Chadee said. “We’ll get trash talking each other. I’ve had other jockeys piss me off in the gate and I’ll say something. On occasion, I’ve asked another jock in the gate what he’s going to try to do to me this time. Guys do get angry at each other. That’s just natural. But we’re all in one room so we have to make it work.
“I’ve done it once or twice in the middle of a race, but only with guys, I consider friends. I wouldn’t do it to someone I didn’t know or someone who I wasn’t close friends with. But a couple of times, I’ve come up beside another jockey who is a good friend and said, ‘You aren’t gonna win today!’ or ‘You don’t have enough horse today!’ But I would only do that with people who are my friends because they’ll do the same thing to me.”
“I could do a little trash talk with Renaldo and he’d probably like that,” said Chadee, who is also friends with Whitehall. “Renaldo really loves the competition. It’s fun to do it every now and again because this is a tough job. It’s very dangerous and we do it every day so you have to keep things as light as you can. Some guys take it way too seriously. I just feel you have to enjoy it.”
Cumberbatch acknowledged that a little trash talking is a part of the game. When rivalries are heated, jocks need to let off a little steam.
“Now and again, there is some trash talking because it’s a very serious sport,” Cumberbatch added. “A split second could cause you to be crippled or cause you to lose your life. It gets heated sometimes, but at the end of the day, anything that happened to you could happen to the next person so problems often resolve themselves as fast as they happen. But make no mistake, there are rivalries in every jockey’s room in every track in the world. No matter where you go there are rivalries.”
Whitehall, 28, who has been a pro jock for 12 years, admitted that it’s been a while since he trash-talked another rider.
“To be quite honest, I haven’t trash-talked anybody in the last five years,” he said. “When Christopher Husbands (now a leading jockey at Woodbine) was here, we used to do a little trash-talking, but not anymore. Everyone is now so serious. It’s all game face, all the time.
“And that’s because we play a pretty dangerous game. A baseball player can pull a hamstring, but we can get killed. That’s why everyone is pretty good to each other in the jocks’ room.”