They are the ultimate free agents of sports, tiny hired guns on horseback who go from track to track and trainer to trainer, in search of a ride and a paycheck.
Their allegiances last for two minutes, or long enough for them to complete a race and earn their 10 percent of the purse before changing into the silks of another owner and heading to the paddock for another mount.
But do they matter? Can jockeys win or lose races, especially Triple Crown races such as tomorrow's Preakness at Pimlico, after millions of dollars have been spent in breeding and training these wondrous thoroughbreds?
"Well, I never have known any horse to win a race without a jockey aboard," trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.
Lukas adheres to the sport's conventional wisdom that says a good jockey can't win a race, but a bad jockey can lose one. But Lukas also makes it clear that jockeys often get too much attention.
Case in point: last Saturday's Pimlico Special. The Lukas-trained Farma Way won the race with Gary Stevens aboard.
"My groom has been working with this horse for 30 days, and so has my assistant," Lukas said. "Worrying about him. Feeding him. Walking him. Come race day, Gary flies in from California, takes a shower, signs a few autographs, rides the race, tells us where to send the paycheck, and heads back to the plane. Two minutes of work. Somewhere in between, we've lost something. I don't want to downplay a jockey's role, but sometimes we give them too much credit."
Despite the tough talk, though, Lukas is picky when he selects his riders. Pat Day, a jockey who has won virtually every major race but the Kentucky Derby, will ride Lukas-trained Corporate Report in the Preakness.
"The good riders ride smooth and don't try to do too much," Lukas said. "A bad rider always has an eventful ride. In big races, I'm only interested in those guys laying 1 through 5 in the national jockey standings. I want the young riders to practice on other guys' horses, not mine."
Jockeys, meanwhile, routinely downplay their accomplishments. After winning the Kentucky Derby aboard Strike the Gold, Chris Antley said any of a dozen riders could have led the colt to victory.
"There are many races that you can put any rider on a horse and they couldn't lose," Antley said. "There are many, many more races, though, where everything is split second, and you have to have the right touch of when to go or when not to go. Every horse has a different style and personality. Many times I have ridden races and not won, but I've gotten to know a horse. And then, I wish I could ride that horse the next day."
Chris McCarron, who will ride Honor Grades in the Preakness, said that timing is everything for jockeys.
"The two most common mistakes are moving too early or moving too late," he said. "You have to be very observant, not only during the course of the race, but you have to be able to watch a replay and decipher what went right and what went wrong. You have to be willing to adjust, and you have to try to do what the trainer wants. A lot of horses are uncooperative. That's where a good jockey can help. He can make the horse do what is required."
Craig Perret, who was aboard 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled, adheres to this simple riding philosophy: "The idea for the jockey is to give the horse a chance to perform.
"When you're riding a good horse, the battle comes from him," Perret said. "I know that jockeys don't get much respect. But if 10 go out there on 10 different horses, I can tell you not everyone will give a perfect trip."
Rarely does a jockey single-handedly lead a horse to victory in a Triple Crown race. But Bill Shoemaker's ride aboard Ferdinand in the 1986 Kentucky Derby is viewed as a classic. After weaving through the field, Shoemaker yanked Ferdinand at an awkward angle through a hole between two horses and onto victory. A performance such as that reminds all that jockeys are more than high-paid spectators.
"You can see these jockeys do beautiful things with horses," said Rodney Rash, trainer of Honor Grades. "I've seen Bill Shoemaker bring horses from dead last to first at the wire with a dead sense of timing. I've seen Laffit Pincay use his strength and literally pick the reins up and ride the horse to the wire. That is power."
A jockey's contribution often goes beyond winning and losing. Angel Cordero, renowned for squeezing horses into tiny holes, is also adept at post-race analysis. Antley, and others, can tell trainers that a horse is being pushed to the limit. With millions of dollars invested in these animals, a jockey's opinion is valued because they can feel first hand if a horse is on the verge of a breakdown.
"You have to think of it like horse psychology," jockey Julie Krone said. "We're skilled professionals, and we communicate with equines. That's our job. That's why we don't pave roads and why guys paving roads don't ride horses. If we weren't out there, believe me, you'd notice."