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The most exciting two minutes in sports are almost here. The 2023 Kentucky Derby is set to be a special one, with the biggest purse yet. For jockeys on this side of the world, it’s one of the top opportunities to bolster their careers, including their reputations and wallets.

Jockeys must be a particular size; they need to be great athletes capable of working repeatedly throughout short periods. Most make middling pay for their work, reducing their jockeying to more of a hobby. But the most successful Kentucky Derby jockeys rake in incredible fees for their skills.

How much does a Kentucky Derby jockey make?

Success among jockeys is defined in two ways: earnings and wins. Depending on the tier of the jockey, these metrics don’t always line up as one might assume. Due to the mounting fee system, the middle class of jockeys is often populated by people who work more often rather than the most elite talent.

Mounting fees, as Go Banking Rates reports, are the payments jockeys take for each ride. They make $160.90 for working flat terrain and $219.69 for jumps. There are varied payouts for track fees and tips to valets. Alongside the 10% agent fee, they usually spend about a quarter of their riding earnings before they leave the track.

A career jockey working often will usually end up earning about $38,000 per year after fees. That’s nothing to sneeze at, considering most live well outside the urban areas that command higher living costs.

Still, many in the profession make much less. Their racing is more of a hobby or a bit of moonlighting rather than their main career. But the ceiling in the profession is incredibly high. 

The winningest Kentucky Derby jockeys

The best jockeys — those with major wins under their belts — have their earnings bolstered by the massive purses of huge events like the Kentucky Derby. Once a jockey proves their ability to get the best out of elite horses, their careers rapidly evolve into some of the most lucrative in sports.

Racing Post reports that the Kentucky Derby is one of the most lucrative events in the horse racing world. The top five winners, many of whom are tied, are some of the highest-earning jockeys in the western hemisphere. Here are the five most successful Kentucky Derby jockeys:

  1. Bill Hartack: 5 wins
  2. Eddie Arcaro: 5 wins
  3. Bill Shoemaker: 4 wins
  4. Earl Sande: 3 wins
  5. Angel Cordero Jr.: 3 wins

This top list is, of course, missing some familiar names. Ron Turcotte was the jockey for Secretariat, one of the most famous racehorses of all time. Their Triple Crown-winning tour in 1973 was adapted into the famous 2010 Disney film Secretariat.

John R. Velazquez is one of the most famous active jockeys. He regularly takes first at events, including the 2020 Kentucky Derby, while riding Authentic.

The highest-earning Kentucky Derby jockeys

Tyler Gaffalione and Santin win the Old Forester Bourbon Turf Classic Stakes at Churchill Downs in 2022
Jockey Tyler Gaffalione rides Santin at Churchill Downs in 2022 | Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

If you measure the most successful Kentucky Derby jockeys by earnings, not winnings, then the results change. According to Twinspires, these are the five highest earners at Churchill Downs:

  1. Tyler Gaffalione: $11,353,909
  2. Florent Geroux: $9,457,247
  3. Brian J. Hernandez Jr.: $9,396,491
  4. Joel Rosario: $8,319,029
  5. Rafael Bejarano: $5,813,728

These total earnings go well beyond the usual yearly fees your average jockey pulls in. Like all sports, the elite of the elite earn on a very different level from almost everyone else in their profession. For jockeys, few opportunities are more lucrative than the Triple Crown circuit.

Japan is the true global home of horse racing in terms of pure gross income for jockeys. But in the western hemisphere, events like this Saturday’s event at Churchill Downs are akin to the Super Bowl of the sport. There aren’t many two-minute events with the prestige and drama inherent to the Kentucky Derby.


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