Meet The Shortest And Tallest Jockeys To Ever Win The Kentucky Derby

Written by Kellianne Matthews
Updated: May 2, 2023
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The Kentucky Derby is one of the most prestigious horse races in the entire world. Only the best of the best compete in this race, and like many athletes, a jockey’s size can be a major factor in their success. In many sports, a tall and muscular physique is an asset, but for a jockey, a large size can actually be a burden. When it comes to horse racing, there are very strict weight restrictions, so every pound counts. Most jockeys are pretty short and only weigh between 105 and 119 pounds! But who are the shortest and tallest jackets to ever win the Kentucky Derby? Let’s take a closer look and find out!

What Is The Kentucky Derby?

With a history that spans over a century, the Kentucky Derby is the grandest and most sought-after horse racing event in America. In fact, the Kentucky Derby is one of the three races that make up the coveted “Triple Crown” of American Thoroughbred Horse Racing. The Kentucky Derby is an annual race held on the first Sunday in May each year. Like its name, this prestigious horse race takes place in Louisville, Kentucky, at the Churchill Downs Racetrack. It is a 1.25-mile long race and only three-year-old horses and their jockeys can compete. 

What Is The Height Requirement for Jockeys At The Kentucky Derby?

If you have ever watched a horse race, you’ve probably noticed that the jockeys riding the horses are pretty small. There is no height limit in horse racing, but there is a weight limit. For taller jockeys, their extra height translates to more weight, making it a challenging task to stay under the weight limit. In the Kentucky Derby, jockeys and their equipment must weigh 126 pounds or less. That’s not very heavy, which is why many of these athletic horse riders are very short!

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Who Was The Tallest Jockey To Ever Win The Kentucky Derby?

Most horse racing jockeys average around 5 feet tall, although there have been a few exceptions. The tallest jockey to ever win the Kentucky Derby was Johnny Sellers in 1961. Sellers was 5 feet, 7.25 inches tall! That may not seem like a giant for many professional sports, but it is a very tall jockey!

Sellers won the Kentucky Derby in 1961 with a horse named Carry Back. That same year Carry Back was named an American Champion Three-Year-Old Horse, an honor given to outstanding American thoroughbred horses. During the 1961 Kentucky Derby, Carry Back actually started the race toward the back and at a slower pace, but with the horse’s incredible speed and Sellers’ skill, the two were able to make up a large stretch and take the win. Sports Illustrated even featured Sellers on the cover of their magazine in August of 1961 — an honor given to very few jockeys. 

Although Sellers only won the Kentucky Derby once, he competed six times from 1959 to 1968. His professional horse racing career ran from 1955 to 1977, and he had 2,797 victories during that time. Sellers joined the United States Racing Hall of Fame in 2007, and the Oklahoma horse racing Hall of Fame in 2011. 

Fun Fact: In 1978, someone broke into Sellers’ home and stole his Kentucky Derby trophy! The award was missing for 21 years until it resurfaced on eBay in 1999.

Who Was The Shortest Jockey To Ever Win The Kentucky Derby?

As we’ve seen, most horse racing jockeys are pretty short. The shortest jockey to ever win the Kentucky Derby was Bill Shoemaker (born William Lee Shoemaker). Born in 1931, Shoemaker came into the world weighing only 1 pound, 13 ounces! As an adult he didn’t grow very big either, measuring just 4 feet, 11.5 inches tall. However, his small size served him well as a jockey, and even today Shoemaker is considered one of the greatest American jockeys of all time. In 1958 he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. He was even featured in a series of paintings by the famous pop artist Andy Warhol. 

Shoemaker first started riding horses when he was just six years old and entered the professional arena when he was 18. Not only was he the shortest jockey to ever win the Kentucky Derby, but he actually won this prestigious race four different times and competed 24 times! Actually, Shoemaker was super close to winning the Kentucky Derby a fifth time in 1957 with his horse Gallant Man. Unfortunately, however, he misjudged where the finish line was and stood up in his stirrups before he had actually finished the race! 

In addition to winning the Kentucky Derby four different times, Shoemaker also won 11 Triple Crown Races, although he never did capture the Triple Crown itself. He retired from racing in 1990, with a total of 8,833 wins over the course of his career. However, Shoemaker did not leave horse racing entirely and went on to train racehorses. As a horse trainer, he had 90 wins from 1990 to 1997. During this time he also wrote three murder mysteries about a character named Coley Killebrew, a jockey who uses his racetrack experience to solve crimes.

Bill Shoemaker’s Kentucky Derby Wins:

Shoemaker won the Kentucky Derby in 1955 (with his horse Swaps), 1959 (with his horse Tomy Lee), 1965 (with his horse Lucky Debonair), and 1986 (with his horse Ferdinand). When he competed in the 1986 Kentucky Derby, Shoemaker was 54 years old and became the oldest jockey to ever win the Kentucky Derby. 

Summary Of The Shortest And Tallest Jockeys To Ever Win The Kentucky Derby

TallestJohnny Sellers5 feet, 7.25 inches
ShortestBill Shoemaker4 feet, 11.5 inches

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Unknown (AP WirePhoto), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons – License / Original

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About the Author

Kellianne Matthews is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on anthrozoology, conservation, human-animal relationships, and animal behavior. Kellianne has been writing and researching animals for over ten years and has decades of hands-on experience working with a variety of different animals. She holds a Master’s Degree from Brigham Young University, which she earned in 2017. A resident of Utah, Kellianne enjoys creating, exploring and learning new things, analyzing movies, caring for animals, and playing with her cats.

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