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Sometimes a horse that "should" win a race does not. This may be due to "pilot error." The jockey might have done something (or more often perhaps, failed to do something) that cost the race. Occasionally the reverse is true: a horse with no clear reason for winning outruns the field. Among the possible explanations for this may be the skill or tactics of the jockey. Usually, however, this outcome also reflects mistakes made by riders on some of the other horses. Thus, it is tough work to be a jockey, as the chances of being a hero are a lot smaller than the opportunities to be the goat. Bettors should know that jockeys typically are paid a portion of the purse won, and that the riding fee alone is fairly nominal. This means that unless the jockey finishes in the money, there's little or no money for the jockey.

The qualities of a good jockey include traits also found in good race car drivers. Mainly this involves knowing the strengths and limitations of the mount, taking best advantage of the strengths, and knowing how to create a victory from strategy and tactics in the course of the race. Unlike a race car driver, a jockey does not have instrumental control of the mount, but rather needs to cajole and direct the mount in the right direction.

Jockeys typically weigh around 110 pounds, and even though they are among the best-conditioned athletes in the world, they can not compel a half-ton race horse to do something against his will. Good jockeys know how to "talk horse."

A cliché applied in all sports is: "Victory goes to the team making the fewest mistakes." This is also true of jockeys. The "shape of a race" can be complex, depending on the cast of characters. If a horse is a "speed horse," the jockey needs to hold on and hope the horse has the gas to make it "wire to wire" to win. While the jockey has a few chances to direct something here or there during the race, it is really the easiest ride to be in front and full out for the whole distance. A "stalker" requires some leadership from the jockey about when to make the move, and how intensely to push once the move is made. A "closer" requires good timing from the jockey, as well as the ability to steer through a lot of traffic. If the jockey gets behind a pokey horse, or is otherwise "shut in," he (or she) could be riding the speediest horse in the world and still not win the race.

Another trait of a jockey is feeling the time or the speed. Each horse has been studied thoroughly, and the trainer will tell the jockey what a good time would be for the horse, and what an excellent time would be. The jockey needs to know how to keep the horse within a pace that maximizes the horse's potential without causing burnout before the wire. This is a combination of science and art.

Success for a jockey also involves the ability to know ahead of time what will happen in the race and be prepared for it. This anticipation is what prevents traffic problems for a "closer," for example. Anticipation involves knowing the other horses in the race and their jockeys, and the probable race tactics of each. Even though a phenomenal "natural" jockey comes on the scene from time to time, the accumulation of experience is probably the main way to judge the ability to anticipate.

Proof of this point is that apprentice jockeys are given a weight allowance until accumulating a certain number of wins and becoming a journeyman jockey. The 10 pound allowance is designed to give a slight compensation to the horse and rider as against the competition, in recognition of the fact that the jockey is new.

At the other end of the spectrum, jockey who have won a lot of money for their horses are sought out for the high stakes races. The reasoning is that when the competition goes to a certain high level, the relative differences among the horses are less. Thus, the qualities of the jockey become relatively more important than in a standard race. This helps to reinforce the winning record of winning jockeys. According to race experts, the top ten jockeys at a meet will win 90% of the races. This does not contradict the earlier observation that the race is mainly about the horse, since the top jockeys find their way onto the top horses. But the point remains that a good jockey will have a positive influence on the outcome of a race.