‘Split Second Reaction’: The Anatomy Of A Jockey’s Fall

by | 06.25.2017 | 12:43pm
Dean Butler was uninjured when he fell over his mount's head, but Canterbury's Leg Up Fund provides a sense of security for those jockeys unable to work due to injury

Father's Day was winding down at Canterbury Park.  There had been three stellar stakes that day as well as one of the strangest series of events in a race you'll see.  The crowd was thinning as the ninth was getting ready to be sent off from the gate, positioned in front of the remaining fans for the one mile race.  The odds on favorite was Malibu Max, out of leading trainer Mac Robertson's barn, owned by the powerful Novogratz Stables and ridden by one of Canterbury's perennial leading riders, Dean Butler.

The gates opened and the horses sprung out.  Malibu Max, however, stumbled out of the gate, his nose hitting the ground.  Butler's momentum carried him over the top of the horse and he found himself in the dirt, watching the field – including his mount – head off without him.

Butler wasn't hurt.  This time.  But he could have been.

“In this race, the first jump he went down to his knees and I was going over his head,” said Butler. ” In that case the next thing going through my head is get out of his way. Most of the time horses will try and avoid you on their own, but everything happens so fast, in a split second, and even a horse can only react so fast. It's a split second reaction and I look at that [the pictures below] and I think that I was really fortunate; somebody was looking out for me.”

Some jocks are not that fortunate.

A California study in the early part of this century pegged the accident rate for jockeys at a little more than 1 incident per 1000 rides and that 51% of all incidents result in injury to the jockey.  Dozens are seriously injured every year and, sadly, deaths are not uncommon.

“You try to hit the ground the best you can,” said Butler.  “Every fall is different. There are times that it happens so quick that if you're spread out you really don't stand a chance because you're hitting the ground fast.  There are other times where you can see something happening or feel something happening that I can prepare myself.

“There really is nothing you can do except hope for the best.  Being fit and good athletes help.  When I came off, I was sore the next day, but not as much as I thought I would.  As you get older, when you hit the ground it's harder to get up,” said the forty six year old veteran.

For those jocks that are seriously injured and miss significant time, life is hard.

“We don't ride, we don't get paid.  And when you're out and hurt any source of help is great,” said Butler.

In 2014, The Leg-Up Fund was created with the express purpose of helping jockeys injured at Canterbury Park make ends meet.

“Years ago we had the Don McBeth Fund and we were always the top fund raising track in the country,” recalled Butler. “We'd raise 30, 40, $50,000 a year.  I think that goes to show you what a close family we are here. The Leg Up Fund was set up to help our jockeys should something happen to them here, there would be something here that could help them out.  And there certainly was a need for it.  In this business the top 100 riders in the country make all of the money.  The rest are just making a living or just getting by.

“The Leg Up Fund can get you some extra money to pay the bills and put food on the table,” continued Butler. “Some riders have disability policies but a lot of guys can't afford that.  The Fund helps them.  The Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund doesn't help folks if you get hurt. If you're a member of the Jockey's Guild you can get a couple of hundred dollars a week.  The racetrack policy is similar.  But if you have a mortgage payment, that takes all of that.  There are still bills to pay and the Leg Up Fund helps with that.”

On Sunday, Canterbury will be holding the annual Leg Up Day, a day of fun and fundraising at the track where horsemen and fans alike can pitch in to help.  There will be a silent auction, the opportunity to sponsor a jockey for the day and other activities all day long on the Fund's primary fundraising day of the year. Butler's own daughters will be selling home made, tie dyed t-shirts, so be on the lookout for their stand on Sunday.  They also combined for a beautiful tie dye quilt that will be part of the auction.

Gates open and Malibu Max springs from the gate with Dean Butler aboard – for the time being.

The stumble starts. While the horse's momentum slows, Butler's does not.

Malibu Max goes nose first into the dirt while Butler heads over his neck.

Malibu Max begins to recover but it's too late for the jockey as the momentum carries Butler over his head and towards the track.

As Malibu Max rises, Butler goes vertical.

Malibu Max is up and Butler is now completely unseated, his boots scraping the horse to his inside, eventually winner and stablemate Politicallycorrect.

The 360 nearly complete, the rest of the field continues on as Butler prepares to hit the ground.

Shaken but not broken, Butler watches the field depart – including Malibu Max – without him. Amazingly Butler was not injured in the spill.

“In this circumstance when I went over he was so close to the ground that I didn't have far to go,” recalled Butler.  “It wasn't like I was thrown way up in the air and then hit the ground.  I hit hard, yeah, but not as hard as I could have.  When you're in the middle of the race and they fall out from underneath you, that's a different story.”

After a traumatic experience, many people have trouble getting back to whatever activity generated the setback.  That's not a luxury a jockey can afford. It takes a certain mindset to literally be able to get back on the horse.

“I've been on a respirator for 4 days,” said Butler. “You come back because it's in you.  It's either in you or it's not. You just can't let that bother you.  Something might happen, something could happen, something will happen; you can't let that get to you.

“It's like people that religiously go to the Boston marathon,” Butler opined. “When you go again after the bombing, it's in the back of your mind but you're not going to let that stop you.  You're going to go and you're going to do it because you like to go and like to do it.  You might take a few more precautions and be more aware of what's going on, but for the most part, if it's in your blood, it's in your blood.”

While it's estimated that 35% of incidents happen at the gate, most occur during a race.  As the incident unfolds, riders draw on all their experience to try and stay safe.

“That's where your experience comes into effect.” said Butler.  “Something happens in front of you that you've seen before you can say to yourself  ‘I've seen this before, something is going to happen' and you can position yourself, guide your horse, into a position that you can avoid it. It's important to pay attention to what's going on around you and ahead of you.  Some guys ride with their heads down – no matter how long you've been riding for, if you're not paying attention you can get in trouble.”

While organizations exist for helping injured jocks, the pros in the room look inward before looking outward when a brother or sister goes down.

“Everywhere I've ever been the first thing we do is put up a sign up sheet in the jocks room for people who want to donate something, a mount fee, anything,” explained Butler. ” You help out because you know that if it were you, you'd want them to help you out as well.  Especially here, we come together pretty good.  The riders take care of each other and help each other the best we can.”

It can be a rough life – moving every few months, keeping weight down, staying in premium shape and riding on the edge of danger every day.  One trainer summed up the dangers of being a jockey simply and effectively, “Show me another job in history where an ambulance follows you around all day.”




























  • robnokes

    I remember riders always saying tuck your head down to prevent breaking the collarbone.

    • Sampan

      You tuck your chin on your chest to prevent jamming your neck into the ground.
      This also helps the body to roll.
      You break your collar bones from holding your arms straight out and jamming them into the ground.

      • longtimehorsewoman

        Not true about the collar bones. I broke mine because i landed on my shoulder. Hold your arms straight out and you break your wrists or arms.

        • Sampan

          My comment is true and applies when the rider has both hands, reins crossed, arms straight out sliding up the horse’s neck.
          The rider is catapulted straight ahead into the ground.
          I have the picture of my father in a steeplechase race landing in that manner. He broke his collar bone and was taken off in an ambulance. People can break their collar bones in various ways but the scenario I mention above is the most common among riders.

  • McGov

    Absolutely incredible pictures. Great to hear everyone is ok :)

    • That photo sequence should be nominated for an award,

      • Virginia Lawler

        I, too, sure hope it will be. It certainly should be honored! Biggest Congrats to Heather R. Grevelis.

  • Bryan Langlois

    I remember the piece PR did on the jockey school in KY and one of the first things they taught there was how to fall and roll properly. They had them all practicing falling down that small hill by the barn. That is where training really pays off and your body just does it, and you don’t have to think about it.

    • Sampan

      Glad to see someone is paying attention to how the jockey was falling, you know about riding. Before I got up on my first horse I was told if I think I’m going to fall off, immediately tuck my chin on my chest.

    • Virginia Lawler

      Your note, and Sampan’s, brought back a memory from when I was 8 and already taking lessons at Edwin Corderey’s School of English Equitation in Champaign, IL. Somehow seem to have to share it–sorry in advance for the long anecdote…. Early every Saturday morn my Dad would take me with him out from town to our farm where he bred and raised the thoroughbreds he raced for decades. I’d saddle up my pet horse and ride the mile to Corderey’s–to groom and muck ’til mid-afternoon in return for a lesson, On THE day–70 years ago now–I was especially pumped because we were in a series about learning how to fall off properly/safely. That day we’d try it over a teeny jump!. I’d neglected to mention any of this to my Mother who often drove out to the farm to bring me back home if my Dad was staying late. That day–for the first time in forever–she decided to come early and see me in class. She got to the rail just as we rounded the turn toward the jump, which was moreorless right in front of her. Everything went perfectly…I tucked my chin to my chest and rolled…even managed to grab the rein as Daisy came to a stop. Thanks Be, Mother’s scream didn’t register until I’d bounced up, thrilled at the success. (My Dad always maintained he’d heard her back at the farm.) We practiced falling, in various situations, off and on for years, but my Mother never again came to retrieve me until it had to be well after my lessons ended. I’m positive the ingrained training saved me serious injury during occasional spills over many decades. Only after I became a Mother and a Grandmother did I truly realize how even such successes still cost a parent.

  • Stephanie Childress Mihalovits

    Can someone give me a breakdown of a jockey’s typical income? I know they get a mount fee of around $100-$200, plus 10% of purse money won. I know the valet usually gets 10% of that and the agent gets, what, 20%? We usually read about the big stakes races with big purses and think ‘how can a jockey be struggling?’ I guess at the smaller tracks with purses averaging less than $50,000 and only winning/ placing 5-10 races a week at best, the money just isn’t there.

    • MaiyaDay

      This is what’s confusing to me. Dean Butler has had 286 mounts this year. A jock’s valet and agent, I believe, each get 10% of what he gets. So at 286 mounts x $100 x 80% = $22,880 just in mount fees.

      He’s also earned $765,045 this year. $765,045 x 10% (a jockey’s cut) x 80% (payout to his agent and valet) = $61,203.

      So if all those numbers are right, Dean Butler has earned $84,083 this year to date. And that is for only half the year.

      I know it’s an unstable job and they’re risking their body every day, and have to pay insurance out of that money, and they don’t ride 365 days a year, but he earns in 5 months what I make in a year. And he’s not one of the top 100 riders that are making bank.

      So what am I missing here?

      • cynicalsteve

        I believe your numbers are correct, to a point. If I’m not mistaken, the jockey makes 10% of the horse’s earnings, and the mount fee is the minimum they make. In other words, if the horse wins a $20,000 allowance race, the winner’s share is $12,000, they’ll make $1200, and the mount fee would be included as part of that share, not in addition to. If they finish 6th, and there’s no winnings, they’ll get their mount fee. They’re also responsible for paying their own Social Security taxes (both the individual and ’employer’ share, since they’re independent contractors, so 7.65% of earnings x2), Federal, state, and local taxes, as well as liability and health insurance. and don’t forget about any safety equipment required. They also pay their own travel expenses. There’s no employer contribution for health insurance, as there is for you and me, and liability coverage for what’s considered a dangerous profession is anything but inexpensive. So, while $61,000 (minimum) gross pay is what the average citizen might consider good money, there is always the looming possibility that their next ride will be their last, and if that’s the case, there’s no employer from which to attempt to collect disability.

        • MaiyaDay

          Ahh, okay. So let’s revise the numbers then, I’m curious now.

          In light of your point that the earnings include the mount fee, Dean Butler has been WPS in 116 races this year, and would have gotten winnings for those that included the mount fee. So subtract 116 x $100 x 80% (his share) = $9,280 that are already included in the winnings. So $84,083 – $9,280 = $74,803 gross pay. Since that’s half the year, let’s double it to $149,606 and do the whole year (works better for taxes).

          From that, he’s paying:
          $22,889 = Social Security (7.65% x 2)
          $10,658 = Minnesota state taxes
          $60,448 = Federal tax (holy mackerel!!)

          So that leaves $55,611 for the year, out of which he’s paying local taxes, health insurance, liability, and basic living expenses, as well as trying to save in case of injury and for retirement. Doesn’t look nearly as good as when I did the math above. And as someone else said above, he’s the track’s second-leading rider, and others are not as well off as him.

          Okay. I get it now.

          • Eric

            Couple of revisions –

            1. the jock fee, aka the losing mount fee that Steve referred to, is not included in the total earnings that you see at Equibase. I don’t know what the losing mount fee is at Cby but its $80 at Prairie Meadows, a track that is fairly similar in the region. That means he is guaranteed $80 (or whatever the number is) per mount, but you won’t see those extra dollars refected in his stats.

            2. Jockeys earn 10% of the purse earned by their horse for winning rides, and 5% for nonwinning rides (and the losing mount fee if the 5% falls under the losing mount fee). All those variables makes calculating the exact earnings difficult, but a rule of thumb is that a rider earns about 8% of the total purses won by his horses.

            3. So Butler has about $61,203 when you estimate that he got 8% of the 765K. But out of that 61K, the valet typically gets 5%, and the agent typically gets 25% (it could vary, maybe its less at Cby). So Butler is left with 70% of what’s left, which is $42,842 before taxes.

            There’s an awful lot of blood, sweat and tears that go in to earning that money, and he is doing OK but certainly isn’t living a life of luxury.

      • Judoon

        That’s what one of this track’s leading riders makes (very roughly), and it’s before self-employment taxes and tons of other stuff mentioned by another poster that the vast majority of us don’t have to worry about. And it’s not exactly a big amount of money, imo, for such a dangerous job. Plus imagine how the lower-level riders, who make up the majority of riders and get relatively few mounts (and mostly just earn the mount fee on them), must be struggling.

      • longtimehorsewoman

        Jockeys do not make $100 per mount, it’s $45 for average races. so $45-$6.75 (valet) -$9.00 (agent) = $29.25 per ride X 286 rides (for the year) = $8,365.50. How would you live on that?

        • louisville race fan

          go work somewhere where you can make more money

          • cynicalsteve

            That’s why they work horses in the morning too

      • longtimehorsewoman

        Jockeys only get percentage of horse’s WINS, not their total earnings.

        • Lost In The Fog – Robert Lee

          10% if the horse wins, 5% if the horse finishes second or third, just the mount fee for finishing fourth or worse.

      • whirlaway

        The same as what we make at jobs there are taxes, in addition there are expenses for equipment he needs, however there undoubtedly are various tax write offs, last but not least the danger. Like other sports the very top elite riders are doing extremely well
        but I would not be surprised to see many under 6 figures a year. It would be interesting
        to see what is the percent and amounts jockeys make on a scale of income amounts.
        As much as I love horses and riding this is definitely not the job for me.

    • Minneola

      What I would also like to know is whether jockeys can get any sort of medical, disability or life insurance? Are there companies that will cover them? And, if they do, what could those premiums cost the jockeys?

      • MaiyaDay

        There are companies that sell life insurance directly to consumers (source: work for insurance company), and at least in the US you can buy medical insurance through Obamacare exchanges (at least for now). No clue about liability though.

        • Minneola

          True, but are there some careers that make it hard to get such insurance? I’m speaking primarily about disability and life insurance. And, even if they are offered, what might the premiums be for those careers? Careers in horse racing as a jockey have got to be considered a high risk factor, much like cigarette smokers might be charged more for health care. Edit/add: I know that property insurance companies will charge differently for high prone risk areas and, in some cases, will not even provide coverage for property — at all — in some geographic areas.

    • Nason

      I’m going to correct you on a few things.
      1) Jockey mounts aren’t a hundred dollar minimum at all tracks. The minimum Jock mount depends on the purse. It can be as low as $45 at some tracks
      2) A Jockey only makes %10 of a horses earnings for a win. A horse only wins %60 of the purse. After that a rider makes %5 of what the second and third place horse earns or the minimum Jock mount which ever is greater.
      3) The Jockey pays his Valet
      10% to 15% and Agent 20% to 25%
      4) Jockeys have to replace equipment such as. Goggles, whips,boots, girths, and saddles. Which none of it is cheap.
      Besides paying all there own taxes. If a jockey is lucky enough to be making enough money to afford health insurance it’s not cheap. As far as accidentally insurance. Good luck with that. It’s almost impossible to get someone to insure a jockey. So all a Jockey has isthe little bit workers comp from the track.

      • Nason

        To add to the above. For a fourth place or worst finish. A jockey only earns the minimum Jock mount

      • Stephanie Childress Mihalovits

        That’s what I was looking for. Thank you :)

  • Michael Castellano

    The famous quote about “Go for Wand’s” fall during the BC only yards from the finish, it’s just as true for jockeys, “They give their lives for our entertainment.” Never forget that, especially if your rider displeases you and loses a close race that you bet on.

    • wmk3400

      Agree. In anger it’s easy to forget they’re human.

  • OopsyDaisy3

    When first exiting the gate, note every horse shown is looking toward the track in front of them and not down at their hooves. They are so zeroed in on where they have to go they forget to
    exit the gate successfully, sometimes. Their mind is telling them to run like the wind and it takes a minute for that thought to reach their hooves. That is the way i surmise gate issues. Silly though it may sound. A lot of energy is pent up in them waiting in the gates, i take a deep breath and tense up every race i watch beginning when the bell goes off! Linda

  • FastBernieB

    Calculating the income of a rider like Dean Butler was an interesting exercise. What about the rider that gets 2 rides a day on 90 to 1 shots. How do these riders survive? Do they do other paying jobs on the backstretch?

    • Suzy H.

      Morning workouts. Approx. $15/ride.

      • FastBernieB

        How many would a good exercise rider be on each morning? At $15 a ride, it would be tough to eke out a living.

    • 33horses

      Most of the time they don’t get paid, they just hope they get the mount in the race

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