Imagine doing all the training and conditioning of an AFL or NRL player heading into a grand final. And then imagine doing it on an empty stomach while dehydrated.
Welcome to the life of a jockey.
Melbourne-based jockey Dale Smith, 35, retired in July after he and his five-year-old daughter Aleahra witnessed one of his mates fall in a race.
“I hope that doesn’t happen to you, Daddy,” she said, and the decision was made. Frighteningly, statistics have shown that more than a third of Australia’s jockeys are involved in a fall each year.
For 20 years Dale’s day began with his alarm going off at 3.30am, up to six days a week. He was at the track by 4.30am, riding by 5. By 10am he might have taken up to 20 horses through their paces, reporting any injuries or improvements back to the trainers.
If there were races that day the next stop would be the scales, and if weight needed to be shed, Dale would go home to sit in a 40-degree bath.
Other jockeys might opt for a sauna or run, but regardless, there would be no eating or sips of water.
“The old saying is racing is a game of inches and centimetres. It’s also a game of grams,” Dale says. “The scales are either your best friend or your enemy. There would be moments where I’d be shutting my eyes when I got on.”
Without energy or hydration, jockeys rely on adrenaline. Dale recalls arriving at one track to discover he needed to shed a kilo before his race. He used the Queensland heat to sweat it out and scraped in, “but I knew I only had one good race in me. I was parched. When I got back to the rooms I was absolutely spent”.
Even today, three months out of the game, he counts calories like a Real Housewife of Melbourne.
“It just becomes a way of life. It’s all implanted in my mind and it’s hard to let go of that,” he says.
After racing, depending on where it was, there might be hours of driving to get home.
After 20 years of this, Dale can’t help but react when he hears punters criticising a jockey’s ride, or worse, their pay. “You hear them bagging a jockey or saying we get paid too much. I always say `How much is your life worth? Is your life worth $190? Because that’s how much we get paid per ride to risk our neck’.”
It’s clear the life of a jockey can take a toll, but it can equally affect partners and families. “Behind most jockeys there’s always a backbone and it’s usually their partner. What we put them through with our bad moods when we’re sweating…,” he says, citing his fiancée Melissa Taylor as his rock.
Dale is now starting a career as a real estate agent. He’s been involved with the Australian Jockeys’ Association, which assists jockeys after they hang up their breeches, providing career counselling, guidance and support.
Dale says real estate is a natural spot for an ex-jockey. “Their work ethic is second to none and their adaptability in dealing with everyone from Joe Blow to Lloyd Williams makes them great with people,” he says.
On 2 July, Dale had his final race, and despite carrying some injuries, won for his long-time trainer Mick Price. “You couldn’t have written the script,” he says. “It will be something I’ll remember for the rest of my days.”
This content was proudly sponsored by LUCRF Super.
LUCRF Super is the proud principal sponsor of the Australian Jockeys’ Association (AJA). Through the sponsorship of jockeys’ breeches, LUCRF Super makes a financial commitment to the National Jockeys Trust to ensure strong ongoing support for injured jockeys and their families.
Look out for the LUCRF Super name on the backside of every jockey this spring. For more information visit lucrf.com.au.
L.U.C.R.F Pty Ltd ABN 18 005 502 090 AFSL 258481 as Trustee for Labour Union Co-Operative Retirement Fund (LUCRF Super) ABN 26 382 680 883.