Animal Planet bills the new series “Jockeys” as a docu-soap, and it’s too bad the mix doesn’t include a bit more “docu” and somewhat less soap. For anybody mildly interested in horseracing, details surrounding the sport — the high risk to jockeys, their diminutive size, how they get paid — are fascinating enough, but the program also focuses on personalities and characters, from the cocky young guy to the couple balancing their shared vocation with a relationship. All told, the show still looks pretty good out of the starting gate, but one suspects it may fade down the stretch.
Weighing less than 115 pounds, jockeys have virtually no protection as they hurtle down the track atop 1,200-pound thoroughbreds. Less understood, perhaps, is that their livelihood relies directly on finishing in the money, with one rider noting that he clears roughly $18 on a losing mount.
With $350 million wagered during an event like Oak Tree at Santa Anita, the stakes are high — yielding, as the second episode captures quite literally, the thrill of victory and agony of defeat. The track setting also produces plenty of colorful characters, among them a gambler named “Jimmy the Hat.”
Yet “Jockeys” plunges beyond its documentary elements to highlight soap opera-ish matters and the customary reality-TV tics, determined to turn parts of the storytelling into “Desperate Horsewives.” These flourishes include tensions involving certain riders and the plight of Chantal Sutherland, a Canadian who has relocated to try making a go of things with boyfriend/fellow jockey Mike Smith. To further emphasize the point, each jockey is given a handy label (“the icon,” “the hotshot,” etc.) to shorthand them in recognizable boxes.
For all that, “Jockeys” is a clever concept for Animal Planet — finding a way to connect human quirks with the channel’s four-footed niche, as it has with such recent series as “Living With the Wolfman” and “Whale Wars.” And presented in a half-hour package, it at least has the advantage of moving fast — a pretty good idea, come to think of it, not just for those within the show but for those producing it.