Every year, between 1200 -1500 licensed jockeys race at tracks across the United States. This is a tough and unforgiving career – at the bottom rung, you may earn less than $20,000 a year, if you race regularly.
Jockeys who don’t get to ride winnings horses only take home the riding fees, which can be anywhere from $30 to $100. But once you ride into the top three, the equation changes drastically – now we are talking about a cut of the prize money.
This is usually 10% of the owner’s share, which translates into 6% of the total purse (winning owners get 60% of the prize purse in most races). For jockeys placing second or third, the cut is 5% of the owner’s share.
Highly successful jockeys at the top can easily earn over a million dollars a year. Don’t get confused if you see tens of millions of dollars in the annual winnings of a jockey – that is the amount his/her horses won – the jockeys take is usually around 10%.
Keeping this in mind, let’s take a quick look at the top 5 winningest jockeys in North American thoroughbred horse racing in 2020, and look at the big races where they earned a lot of that money:
5. Tyler Gaffalione – $14.98 million
At 26, he is one of US racing’s rising stars. Son a former jockey Steve Gaffalione, Tyler has made an excellent start to his career since 2015. He has over 200 wins each in five of his first six years in racing. Like many top jockeys, he usually works on the New York and Florida tracks.
Gaffalione’s best career performance to date came in 2019 when he won the Preakness Stakes with War of Will. In 2020, he had a spate of Gr. 1 wins in the Alabama Stakes, American Oaks, Maker’s Mark Mile Stakes, and the Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational.
He also placed second in the 2020 Breeder’s Cup Juvenile race atop Hot Rod Charlie. Tyler Gaffalione’s career earnings to date exceed $66 million, with 1400+ wins from over 8000 starts. His winning percentage is close to 20%. In 2019, his earnings rank was 10th – he has improved it by 5 places this year.
4. John R Velazquez – $15.09 million
At 49, he is one of the senior jockeys on this list. A native of Puerto Rico, Velazquez arrived on the New York racing scene in 1990. His best years in terms of earnings were in the mid-2000s when he was the US champion jockey in 2004 and 2005.
Velazquez has a list of formidable wins at the top of the sport, including 5 Triple Crown races, 15 Breeders’ Cup races, and other big events like the Kentucky Oaks and the Dubai World Cup. He had a memorable 2020, with 5 Gr.1 wins, including the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic with Authentic.
Another Breeders’ Cup race he placed first in 2020 was the Filly and Mare Sprint, riding on Gamine. Velazquez had just 644 starts, the lowest among the jockeys in this list. Yet here he is on the top 5 list, improved from his 6th spot in 2019. He has won a whopping $430 million across a 30-year career.
3. Luis Saez – $15.79 million
The 28-year old Panamanian native started racing in the US in 2009, at the recently closed Calder racecourse. Saez has already amassed 14,700 starts, with over 2500 wins in an 11-year career racing career. In 2014, he lost his younger brother, apprentice jockey Juan Saez in a tragic racing accident at the young of 17.
He has several notable performances over the years in Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup races, placing second in Preakness in 2018, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Filly and Mare Sprint races (both 2013). In 2020, he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Essential Quality and placed second in several other Breeders’ Cup races like the Distaff, Sprint, Dirt Mile, and the Filly and Mare Sprint.
In 2019, Saez was ranked 7th in the US jockeys’ annual earnings charts. Despite the COVID-affected racing calendar, he has improved it by 4 spots in 2020. To date, he has won $129 million, with an average win rate of 17%. A regular at the New York racing scene, Saez also has another younger brother who is a professional jockey.
2. Joel Rosario – $17.85 million
Rosario is a 35-year-old pro jockey who was born in the Dominican Republic. He arrived in California in 2006 and quickly made a name for himself in the West Coast racing circles. He moved to the New York and Florida racing scene in 2012.
2013 was a big year for Rosario – he won the Dubai World Cup and the Kentucky Derby that year, winning his first-ever Triple Crown Race with Malibu Moon. He has won the Belmont Stakes twice (2019 and 2014), and at least 13 Breeders’ Cup races. Two of those thirteen wins came in 2020 –the Juvenile Fillies astride Vequist, and the Dirt Mile astride Knicks Go.
Rosario has 16,400+ career starts to date, with over 3000 wins at a rate of 18% wins. His career winnings exceed $230 million. Ranked 4th on the earnings chart in 2019, he has improved it slightly this year. His best year was 2013 when he ranked second.
1. Irad Ortiz Jr. – $20.32 million
Ortiz has been breaking US jockey records in recent years – he has been at the top of the wins and earnings charts for three consecutive years now. In 2019, the Puerto Rico native set the record for annual winnings at $34 million. The 28-year-old jockey has been racing pro since 2012.
His big wins include Belmont Stakes in 2016 on Creator, and 11 Breeders’ Cup races, starting in 2014. In 2019 alone he had 4 wins in the Breeders’ Cup. Ortiz has continued that winning form in 2020, coming first in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint and Juvenile Turf Sprint events. Other Gr.1 wins this year include the Whitney Stakes, Hollywood Derby, and the Just a Game Stakes.
Ortiz has already participated in 14,000 races in his career, placing first in 2600+ events, with a win rate of 19%. His total career winnings stand at $198 million. Right now, he is the undisputed champion jockey in the United States