Jockeys are independent contractors.

Performing their athletic craft at high speed, exposed to the elements and with few “safety nets.”

“We wear helmets and vests. Outside of that, we risk everything to participate in this sport and it’s been my life for over 32 years,” says journeyman Aaron Gryder, a winner of nearly 4,000 races from over 30,000 races. His mounts have accrued earnings of more than $122 million in that time, including a win in the world’s richest horse race in 2009 – the Dubai World Cup.

But as any industry participant knows, the spoils of success can easily alternate with extraordinary lows.

Following the Del Mar meeting, Gryder anticipates riding at Kentucky Downs and making a stop at the University of Kentucky’s Sports Medicine Research Institute (SMRI), adding his own valuable data from a career in the saddle to the SMRI’s Jockey & Equestrian Initiative (JEI).

“I saw news about the work they are doing here and thought – the next time I’m in Kentucky, I want to be a part of that.”

The SMRI outlined research objectives for the JEI:

1. Establish physical fitness, injury and risk assessment profiles of jockeys and exercise riders.

2. Identify factors related to concussions and loss of self-identity in professional equestrian sport.

3. Describe the jockey profession using data on performance, risk, injury and recovery rates.

4. Improve the treatment and management of concussion injuries.

5. Investigate the role of depression, apathy, executive dysfunction and cognitive impairment of jockeys.

6. Integrate available research to create individualized training programs.

Sophie Doyle, who enjoyed a career-high 83 riding wins in 2018, spent a morning at the SMRI’s state-of-the-art facility on the Lexington campus to participate in physical and cognitive assessments to gain a better understanding of her performance capabilities.

“Every jockey should take advantage of what I experienced at the SMRI. With the various tests and exercises, all of which they are tracking, I was able to push my body to the limit and see how it was able to handle the pressure. Whether it is establishing a baseline of performance to understand where you are today, or if you are recovering from an injury and want to be able to test how you are recovering, the data they collect will provide insight which we have never had riding in America.”

Picture: UK SMRI

Doyle (pictured above, seated), who began riding in her native England, suggested the technology offered to jockeys at UK surpasses that which she experienced earlier in her career. 

“I know they have been collecting concussion baseline testing back home for more than a decade, but it’s varies more in the U.S. The SMRI has some marvelous pieces of equipment to establish those baselines and test us which were far better than anything I remember using at home.

“Any athlete always wants to improve themselves, getting the most out of your body, riding at your highest potential. To have a system like this at the SMRI – it’s exactly what we need.”

 “There is a great team behind every horse, but once I get a leg up, it’s just me and my mount,” adds Gryder. “We are all individual competitors, and being so independent and always moving around, jockeys have not enjoyed the benefit of the advances in sports science that you know professional sport franchises are able to provide their athletes to understand and advance performance. We would be crazy not to take a few hours and participate.”

Scott Lephart, Dean of the UK’s College of Health Sciences and founder of the SMRI, has assembled a robust team of experts working on both the JEI and three other key focus areas.

“Our goal is to become a world leader in optimizing the health, wellness and performance of jockeys and equestrian athletes. There’s no better place to do that then right here in Kentucky.”

Lephart came to Kentucky following 27 years at the University of Pittsburgh where he served as chair of the Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition and was the founding director of school’s Neuromuscular Research Laboratory.

“Our testing capabilities include equipment to perform body composition, strength, flexibility, balance and stability, neuromuscular, biomechanical, and metabolic testing, as well as use of an MK racing simulator – the only one of its kind in the country.

“The JEI also seeks to improve the treatment and management of concussion injuries. When it comes to the management of concussion injuries, equestrian sport, specifically for jockeys, is far behind others. Standardized concussion management protocols have been adopted in nearly all sport settings and include cognitive and physical rest, graduated activity, and clinician-monitored return to play.

“The JEI will provide experiential studies to provide the best evidence for the evaluation, rehabilitation and recovery following equestrian concussions, while also exploring the effects of such injuries and concussions on recovery and post-injury performance.”

The long-term impact of the SMRI’s JEI stretches beyond the individual performance of jockeys.

“The benefits of this initiative will reach across the entire industry” said Terry Meyocks, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Jockeys’ Guild. “Very simply, this is a sustainability issue. The work here will directly benefit jockeys and exercise riders, and can help tracks and horsemen in reducing liabilities and the cost of workers’ compensation policies. ”

The SMRI JEI is a recipient of donations directed by winners of the TIF Summer Prop Contest. For more information on the SMRI and JEI, visit their website.


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