The French documentary Lads & Jockeys provides a reasonably compelling answer to a question many people might never have thought to ask: Where do jockeys come from? Not, it turns out, from an underground kingdom filled with toadstool thrones and fiberglass trees, as suggested by The Simpsons, but instead from a grueling apprenticeship program out of which only a few go on to professional careers. Benjamin Marquet’s directorial debut tracks a selection of 14-year-olds in their first year training in Chantilly, a village north of Paris famous for its racetrack, as they wake before dawn to work in the stables, take riding lessons, go to class, and eke out time for the more typical teenage distractions of flirtations and fashion choices.
Lads & Jockeys follows boys, though there appear to be girls in the program as well. The film abstains from interviews or direct-to-camera explanations, preferring instead to slice in excerpts from Henri Raschle’s 1969 black-and-white film about the industry, which demonstrates how little has changed in 40 years. Stylistically, the choice makes it easier to give in to the hypnotic rhythms of work, riding, and rest on display, but also leaves questions—Where do these children come from? How many of them actually go on to careers in racing? What happens to the rest of them?—maddeningly unresolved. Rather than “apprentice jockey,” one man from a 1969 clip suggests, people should say “apprentice stable-lad,” given that that’s all most of the kids become, which creates the divide of the film’s title. One of the subjects does debut in a race, though it’s unclear what about his riding made him stand out among the crowd.
There’s a bit of unease to seeing children shouldering workloads and expectations better suited to adults, and Lads & Jockeys admirably leans into this tension, not shying away from scenes of a boy tentatively trying to clean the hoof of a nervous horse many times his size, or another crying as he loses control of his mount and she gallops down the track with him barely clinging to her back. But by giving the boys onscreen room to be goofy and immature, Marquet makes the film something warmer than a formal study in discipline and being made to grow up before their time. When one boy sighs, “You gotta admit, horses are a hard line of work,” it’s endearing, not pitiful.