Sooner or later for every jockey life in the saddle inevitably comes to an end through retirement, injury or lack of opportunities. Jockeys start young, with little in the way of academic qualifications, so what happens after they cross the finish line for the final time?
Rory MacDonald of the British Racing School tells his pupils: “Nine out of 10 conditional jockeys will not even reach professional status.” With such a large dropout rate, even at this early stage, thinking ahead is vital.
Retirement came earlier than expected for former flat jockey Neil Varley, when in the summer of 1997 an injury led to the end of a nine-year riding career. Neil notched up 82 winners, including the high-class sprinter Splice, but this did nothing to prolong his racing career.
“While I was injured, I lost all my rides and contacts,” says Neil. “I tried to return to racing, but found myself going up and down the country for very few rides and eventually called it a day.”
Like many former jockeys, Neil found a job work-riding — in this case for Godolphin in Dubai — but he also ended up gardening in his spare time. In 2001, he decided he could make a career out of this sideline.
“Gardening seemed the natural thing to do,” explains Neil. “But I hadn’t even considered it as a career while I was a jockey.”
Four courses later, ranging from garden design to pesticides, Neil realised his future lay in estate management.
“I sent my CV to all the big studs round Newmarket, but nothing came of it because they all wanted three years’ experience,” he explains. “So I set up my own gardening business.”
In October 2005, Juddmonte Farms in Cheveley approached the green-fingered entrepreneur about a vacancy they had in estate maintenance.
“It’s a totally different lifestyle,” says Neil. “I work Monday to Friday for a start. My day begins at 7.30am and I’m finished by 4.30pm, unlike the early starts and long hours I was used to. I feel much more relaxed. I don’t miss race riding so much because I’ve got so much to do.”
According to Neil there is the common mindset among jockeys that “until you retire, racing is all you think about”. His advice is to plan ahead because, as he found out, you never know when retirement might happen.
“It was such a shock at first. I was really scared about what I was going to do with the rest of my life,” he says. “For most of us, racing is all we ever wanted to do, so it doesn’t even enter your head that you will have to do another job sooner or later.”
Neil received help from the Jockeys Employment and Training Scheme (JETS), which provided training and careers advice for those jockeys who have never had to compile a CV in their life.
Jets manager and career coach Lisa Delaney explains: “It’s really a self-help scheme. The jockeys fund it by donating a percentage of their prize money, so they reap the benefits.
“It was ground-breaking when it was set up in 1995, but similar schemes have now been introduced in other sports, such as cricket and rugby. Jockeys are now recognising that they won’t be riding forever and do need to plan for the future,” says Lisa, who speaks to about 60 jockeys every year, placing them on around 70 courses, covering everything from equine therapy to large goods vehicle driving.
“I’m able to help most people. The most difficult request I had was from a jockey who was setting up a Chinese restaurant and wanted to learn Cantonese,” she recalls. “I eventually found a distance-learning course for him.”
This NAGS/careers feature was first published in Horse & Hound. NAGS membership is available to all bona fide grooms and students. Benefits include Horse & Hound subscription at £1 per copy and eligibility for NAGS-only competitions and offers. For a membership form (tel: 020 7261 6993) or e-mail: email@example.com