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The lot of a conditional jockey

29-September-2022 20:59
in General
by Peter McNeile

In this week of glamorous races at Longchamp, you might be forgiven for thinking the life of a jockey is all international travel and fast horses. Well, certainly for brief glimpses of our sport, that is indeed the case. But for most, it's a rather smaller sportlight - if one at all - that shines upon you as you ply your trade as a rider. 

Conditional jockeys are apprentices over jumps, most likely working for a trainer, who takes some of their riding fees in recompense for the loss of working time doing evening stables. There are conditionals destined for greatness - one A P McCoy was briefly one - and there are those for whom the fast track to the top is more convoluted. 

Take Lilly Pinchin, one of our own, and a daughter of the family business that runs Gotherington Cross Garage outside Cheltenham. Besotted with horses, Lilly persuaded her parents to support a burgeoning career between the flags, that morphed into a job with Fergal O'Brien and a role as conditional rider, one of several for our Championship - leading trainer in Withington. 

Lilly scored her tenth winner of this season at Bangor on Tuesday in an unmemorable handicap hurdle for conditional riders only on the well-backed 6/5 favourite Midnight Jewel for Charlie Longsdon. The owner took home £4,683 for his troubles, his rider barely paid the expenses of turning up. 

A jockey earns £194.63 per ride. At first glance, this sounds OK. But unless you're Brian Hughes with four or more rides each day, it's more a game of diminshing marginal returns. From this fee is deducted insurance, prefessional indemnity, valet's fees, and the jockey's own expenses in getting to the event. Considering the life-threatening nature of the career, this looks rather less attractive, especially if a jockey is travelling to a meeting for one ride.

Whilst the conditional remains a 7lb claimer, the riding fee is shared equally with the trainer, but the ancillary costs remain the same. So that's less than £100 for risking your neck. Winning races is a bonus, adding as much as 11% of the winning prize fund, less than 3.5% if a placed runner. This is also shared equally with the trainer. That sounbds exciting for a Saturday card of big races, rather less so for midweek fare.

Lilly's mounts to date this season have earned the trifling sum of £45,676, earning her something rather less than £4,500 in win and place prize money over a period of 5 months. 

This is not to denigrate Lilly's achievement. She is forging a path is what remains predominantly a man's world, with 42 winners to her name overall and a good reputation as a responsive and forceful rider. She has ridden for no less than 14 trainers this season, meaning she is expanding her acquaintanceship and people are noticing her. But it's a tough way to earn a living.

Once a conditional reaches 25, or 75 winners, whichever comes sooner, any claim is dropped, meaning this is not a career you want to join late, unless with precocious talent. The history of racing is littered with conditionals who couldn't make the grade once they lost their claim. Thereafter, you're on equal terms with lads (and girls) with stronger reputations and a wider client base. 

And inevitably, as the season escalates in momentum from its moribund current state, the greater share of conditional rides are snapped up by those leading their age group, a morrior image of what happens in the full jockeys' championship.

Our aspirant riders need plenty of encouragement, and there is every reason not to use a conditional when a fully fledged rider is available. But it's worth remembering the convoluted route by which every rider reaches the top of their profession next time you're booking a rider or criticizing from your armchair.

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