The Roar
The Roar


Top jockeys? What the stats don't tell you...

Australian jockey Damien Oliver. AFP PHOTO/William WEST
3rd August, 2014
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Season’s end, a new start. It’s time to give credit to top jockeys of the racing year that finished on July 31. But we all know that statistics lie, they cheat, they withhold the full truth.

Statistics are slippery beasts. Is the top jockey always the best jockey – the one we would like to see riding our horse, supposing we’re an owner or just a punter?

Those of us who ride on the grandstand side of the running rail need to be cautious in rushing to judgement on those who risk their lives on the racetrack. Still, we are entitled to our favourites.

Of course you can’t be top if you’re no good. So we salute Brendan McCoull for winning his 14th premiership in Tasmania; William Pike for his third win in Perth; Dom Tourneur in Adelaide; Timothy Bell who just got there ahead of Michael Cahill in Brisbane; James McDonald in Sydney and Damien Oliver in Melbourne. Of whom, more anon…

Counting Australia wide, Greg Ryan in New South Wales had the most wins for the year, though he never rides in the city. Brad Rawiller, who was just behind him and is based in Victoria, does. The two would not have ridden against each other. Who’s best?

Australian racing is still administered state by state. Within each state, there is usually an attempt to distinguish between ‘metro’ and ‘country’ racing: New South Wales adds ‘provincial’ into the mix.

These are artificial distinctions when it comes to quality. Plenty of country and provincial races are more valuable and coveted than the average midweek city event.

Australia-wide statistics are not much help in deciding who is best. The standard of horses and racing in some metropolitan jurisdictions is stronger than others.

Stats from one state don’t tell you how many rides and wins a jockey has in another state or country.
In Sydney metropolitan racing this season, young New Zealander James McDonald came out on top with 72 wins, beating Nash Rawiller (brother of Brad) with 70.


Ah, but… Nash Rawiller also had five winners in Brisbane for the year where McDonald had one. Then Rawiller had eleven winners in Melbourne while McDonald had eight. Who’s best?

Brent Ford on The Roar a couple of days ago gives his vote to Rawiller who is off to ride for a time in Hong Kong.

On the other hand again, McDonald’s achievement is substantial when you consider he rides independently, not tied to one top stable. Only a few of his winners were for Chris Waller who smashed the Sydney trainers’ season with 158 and a half wins for the year.

A half represents a dead heat. But watch out for those slippery statistics. From this new season in Victoria, a half magically becomes a whole, for the purposes of counting. It avoids a string of ugly fractions but will make future comparisons hazardous.

The statistics can’t tell you how to compare local riders with Australian jockeys doing well elsewhere, such as Brett Prebble and Zac Purton in South-East Asia. They can’t tell you how our jockeys rate with overseas champions who fly in for the spring carnival.

The stats don’t reflect the unwritten rules of racing. The best jockey can’t win on a slow horse. The best jockey doesn’t always get the best rides. It’s hard to be the top jockey if you don’t get the chance to ride the best horses.

The stats tell you how many rides a jockey had in each state, but not how many race meetings at which they rode.

The stats don’t tell you the riding weight of the jockey, which affects their range of options.


The stats don’t tell you which jockeys have the most determined or craftiest agents who help them get the best rides.

The stats don’t tell you whether it is still more difficult to get a good ride if you are a woman, or an apprentice who (by virtue of success) has just lost his or her right to a weight allowance.

The stats don’t tell you whether a jockey has missed meetings and rides because of suspensions, injuries, ill-health, engagements elsewhere, holidays.

Clare Lindop for instance has just returned from serious injury, and still managed more than 30 Adelaide wins for the season.

The stats don’t tell you whether a jockey is suffering from personal problems or depression, substance abuse or bad company.

They don’t tell you whether they have just broken up with or signed on with a top stable. Are they on top of the world or deep down under?

Don’t get stuck on strike rates. Some of us love this simple calculation that tells us the percentage of wins against the number of rides. Surely that’s an indicator of class?

Oh yes, I know I have gone on about jumps jockey Steven Pateman. That’s because his 41 per cent winning strike rate and his top place in Victorian jumping races in 2013-14 is truly remarkable. Veteran Queensland jockey Damian Browne has an impressively high strike rate on the flat.


But strike rates don’t tell you which jockey rode the highest percentage of winners against the number of horses they rode with a real winning chance – as rated in the betting markets.

Most Australian jockeys depend for their bread and butter not on percentages of prizemoney but on race riding fees. Most fees, by definition, are losing fees. Few jockeys have much say over which horse they ride in which race.

It’s no shame for jockeys to have plenty of losing rides – and a low strike rate – if they ride each horse to the best of their ability. As we’ve said, the best jockey finds it hard to win on a slow horse.

The stats don’t reflect how often a jockey gets to ride a horse as it makes its way back into form after a spell, or goes up in distance preparing for a staying race, only to be obliged to hand the ride over to an officially rated top jockey.

The fanfare of the season just passed should sound loudest this time in Melbourne. It was Damien Oliver’s year again – Oliver, determined as only Oliver can be, to reburnish a tarnished reputation and panel-beat the dents in his trophies.

His achievement is the stronger because he was absent from Melbourne racing for five months of the season in total: at the start because he was still serving his much-publicised suspension and at the end because he was taking a holiday of his own choosing.

It is the stronger because of his determined recoveries from severe racing injuries not so long ago. The Damien Oliver we see riding today is a different man from the youth who won the Melbourne Cup on Doriemus in 1995.

Taking a third Cup, on Fiorente last November, places Oliver in a very select group. Only Midge McLachlan, Bobby Lewis, Darby Munro, Jack Purtell, Jim Johnson, Harry White and Glen Boss have ridden three or more Melbourne Cup winners.


Even more select is to top the Melbourne winning list for the ninth time. The only jockeys ever to have won more were Bill Duncan and Roy Higgins, decades ago, with 11 apiece.

Oliver has now been top dog in this town more often than Bill Williamson, Ron Hutchinson, Harold Badger, Scobie Breasley, Jack Purtell – racing legends all of them.

Is Oliver better than them? Not on my statistic-free legend-ometer, not quite yet. But most of them are gone, and none is in the saddle any more. Oliver is. When you get the chance, go and see him ride. Then let’s talk about who’s best.