Who is The Most Stylish Flat Race Jockey in Britain?

Now that the question of who will be champion flat jockey has been resolved, it seems a good time to ask two different questions about jockeys. Firstly, what makes a good jockey and, secondly, why are some deemed by commentators and the racing public alike, to be stylish? These are rather more difficult questions to answer than who will be champion, which is based on the very simple statistic of who rides the most winners in a season.

Readers of this piece will know very well that being a good flat race jockey demands many skills. It’s not simply a question of steering the horse and trying to make it go faster for longer. Looking at what is needed in a good jockey in more detail, there are some obvious requirements: very importantly, the demands of balance, co-ordination and reflex, because in a flat race the jockey has little permanent contact with the horse, the hands on the reins of course, but only the inside of the feet and ankles, everything else is balanced in mid- air, in what has been described as a situation of ‘dynamic imbalance and ballistic opportunity’.

Race riding is tiring, all the more so if the jockey has been ‘wasting’ to make a light weight. Yet jockeys also need to be strong, particularly in a finish or if a horse needs a lot of pushing throughout the race. The need for strength, coupled with a light weight, can be a cruel paradox, but many exercise physiologists believe that flat jockeys are, pound for pound, the best overall athletes in any discipline.

Good jockeys are also master tacticians. They need a highly developed sense of what is an appropriate pace in the prevailing conditions, and also, what is right for particular distances and individual horses, and the best jockeys have their version of a precision clock on their head to judge pace. Combined with this, the positioning of the horse in a race, working out their tactics, knowing when to go for a gap, when to make your run, not getting boxed in, nor running too wide round the field of horses, are all essential skills. A good jockey will not only have these but, very importantly, will be able to apply and adjust them in a split second.

Being able to use the whip appropriately with both hands is important, as is the ability to pull the ‘stick’ through from one hand to the other without losing rhythm or balance. Good jockeys can do this with the minimum of fuss. Two less visible attributes which are essential in a good jockey are a detailed knowledge of the unique contours and characteristics of all the totally different race tracks in the U.K., and in addition, the ability to ‘size up’ a horse which they may never have sat on before, on the way to the start of the race.

This list is probably incomplete and readers will have their own ideas about what makes a good jockey. But, much more controversial than this is what makes a stylish jockey and why are some ‘selected’ by commentators for this accolade?

At its simplest, style is about how a jockey looks on the horse, particularly during the race. But what exactly does this mean? To describe a jockey as stylish inevitably involves making subjective judgements, but I think that there are some key elements we can identify in relation to being stylish. Firstly, stylish jockeys crouch low behind the horse’s neck to limit wind resistance during a race. Secondly, they tend to ride short, that is with short stirrup leathers, with their knees together on top of the horse. Thirdly, nowadays, riding with just the toes in the irons (stirrups), and not the whole foot, is stylish, and, coupled with this, short reins. This constitutes the final element in style. All of this comes together in a position that is neat, distinctive and in close harmony with the horse, with no ‘flapping’ of arms and legs.

Let’s take a couple of examples from the past. Joe Mercer was frequently described as having the classic English style, which he developed copying his late elder brother Manny, who was tragically killed at Ascot. Joe Mercer had many of the attributes I’ve described, and in some respects was ahead of his time as a stylist. He rode closely into the horse, he crouched, he was neat, he could use the stick with both hands and he had great rhythm and balance.

Lester Piggott, in anyone’s book a great jockey, certainly developed a distinctive style, but in my view could not be described as stylish. As a young jockey Lester had what was said to be the perfect seat with an ideal length of stirrup leather, and he rode quite long, but then, so did many other jockeys at that time.

However, as a young man Lester grew, unexpectedly, by six inches, which created the need to adopt his inimitable balancing act, riding very short, at the time unusual in a jockey who was taller than everyone else riding. Nevertheless, Lester had great balance which seemed to help him defy the laws of gravity. During a race he typically rode with his head down behind the horses’ neck but with his bottom in the air. He was once asked in a now famous newspaper interview why he rode with his bottom in the air, and his laconic reply was, ‘Well I’ve got to put it somewhere haven’t I!’ But when things got serious in a race Lester’s body lowered further and further into the horse, a sure sign that Lester was winding up to ride a finish and at that time he was very strong, skilful and powerful.

Lester had his own unique style, which young jockeys of the time sometimes tried to copy, but at their peril, because it demanded incredible balance to be so high on the horse yet in rhythm with it. Despite his enormous skills and achievements, in my view, Lester wasn’t stylish: he rode with his foot fully in the iron, his crouch didn’t totally blend in with the horse and he sometimes had difficulty using the whip as effectively with his left hand as he did with his right.

So, of the present day jockeys who would fit the bill in terms of being the most stylish? Again let me take a couple of examples. Frankie Dettori is an obvious strong candidate, using the criteria of style I have outlined. Of course, Frankie will always be known for his magnificent seven at Ascot, his flying dismount, and for being a great ambassador for the sport. But he is also stylish. In his autobiography he describes how, during trips to California in the early part of his career, he began to model his style on some of the great American jockeys of the time: Willy Shoemaker; Chris McCarron; Angel Cordero; Laffit Pincay; and the young Gary Stevens. He says that he worked hard to ‘streamline’ his position in the saddle, although interestingly, didn’t adopt the toe in the iron style, now popular on both sides of the Atlantic, until much later. It worked. Frankie is now one of the neatest, most streamlined jockeys riding anywhere in the world, although he can sometimes leave one of his knees sticking out at a good 45 degrees in a tight finish, or when he’s trying to keep a horse straight and balanced.

Despite Frankie’s claims, my vote goes to Richard Hughes, who, although narrowly missing out on being champion jockey this year, is, in my view, the most stylish of the current crop. Like Lester, on whom he modelled himself, Richard is tall for a flat race jockey, a good three inches taller than even Lester, and he has had to work out how to tuck a tall frame into a race horse. He does this by riding short, knees together on top of the horse and with an aerodynamic crouch which, unlike Lester, he maintains throughout a race. With only his toes in the stirrups and riding with short reins he is the epitome of style. He uses the whip with both hands equally effectively, smoothly, without fuss or flamboyance. Perhaps added to this sense of style, is the fact that he often wins races coming from behind with a late timed run. After a spectacular late timed victory at Goodwood this year, where he was leading jockey, his boss and father-in-law, Richard Hannon commented “He’s different gear isn’t he? He gets them balanced and they run for him… but if he keeps riding like that he’ll give me a heart attack one day!”

Article Written by Michael Richards