When Sam Waley-Cohen won the 2022 Grand National, it was the first time that many casual racing fans and punters had experienced an amateur jockey winning against professionals in a big race.
But more than a dozen amateur riders have won the Grand National through the years, so now is as good a time as any to celebrate the careers of these men and women who do it simply for the love of the sport.
What is an Amateur Jockey?
In pretty much every sport, you have amateurs and professionals – often the key difference between them is that one gets paid while playing full time and the other doesn’t, keeping their sporting activity to their spare time.
Typically, a professional might be considered a classier operator than their amateur counterpart, but in horse racing that isn’t necessarily the case – some amateurs, like Waley-Cohen, have won some of the biggest races in the business, but have chosen to stay unpaid for their own personal reasons (in Waley-Cohen’s case, that’s because he’s a successful businessman in a number of different fields.
There are designated races for amateurs to compete in, and they are also allowed to take on the pros in any renewals for which they qualify.
How Do You Identify an Amateur Jockey?
There is no visual distinction of an amateur jockey compared to a professional. They wear the standard silks and cloth numbers.
But when you scan a racecard, you will be able to identify amateurs as their names will be displayed differently. Rather than simply having their first initial and surname, an amateur will have their full Christian name written out unless the jockey in question opts not to.
In days gone by, amateurs were known by their title too – whether that be Mr, Captain or even Lord on some occasions!
Differences Between Amateur Jockeys and Professionals
It’s all about the sweet cashola – professional jockeys are paid by a horse’s connections, and handsomely when a rider is sought after like Rachael Blackmore or Paul Townend at the Cheltenham Festival.
Amateur jockeys, on the other hand, don’t see a single penny for their efforts – so Waley-Cohen went home empty-handed even though connections of Noble Yeats, the winning horse, banked around £500,000.
So do amateur jockeys get paid? The answer is no… although they can receive financial help towards insurance and some travel costs.
What are the Rules for Amateur Jockeys?
An amateur jockey has to have a valid permit and license to compete in UK horse racing.
There are two types – Category A allows an amateur to only compete in amateur races over obstacles and on the Flat, while Category B riders are allowed to compete in any National Hunt race that does not require a licence, although they are restricted to amateur-only contests on the Flat.
They do not have to be a member of the Amateur Jockeys Association (AJA) if they don’t want to be, although some amateur-only races do stipulate AJA membership is required.
Do Amateur Jockeys Win Big Races?
Yes they do, and they have done for more than a century.
More than a dozen amateurs have crossed the line in first place in the Grand National, while the likes of Waley-Cohen (2011), Jim Wilson (1981) and Richard Black (1952) have also triumphed in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Generally speaking, the leading owners tend to hand their plum rides to professional jockeys… but you write off the amateurs at your peril.