The world of Sumbawa's child jockeys

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E:60 preview: The child jockeys of Sumbawa (0:58)

E:60 examines the child jockeys of Sumbawa, Indonesia, where children as young as five years old are the only jockeys on a remote island. Watch the full feature Sunday at 9 a.m. ET on ESPN. (0:58)

ON THE ISLAND of Sumbawa, in the Indonesian archipelago some 200 miles east of Java and Bali, race day looks a lot different than the familiar scenes at Churchill Downs and Belmont Park. The horses are smaller than Western thoroughbreds, and all the jockeys are children. National Geographic correspondent Mariana Van Zeller traveled with E:60 across the Pacific Ocean to examine the world of Sumbawa's child jockeys. Here is some of what they found.

The reporting team arrived on a Saturday morning in May 2017 and headed straight to the track. The races had already started.


Racing sessions of about a week long are held on Sumbawa roughly once a month during the dry season, from April to October. The child jockeys, their families and others who work at the races follow the events to different parts of the island, not unlike a traveling circus. Fathers often carry their jockeys to the starting gate to preserve their energy. Above is 7-year-old star jockey Sila and his father.


The view inside a starting gate. Sumbawa ponies have been an integral part of the island's culture for hundreds of years. The animals, descended from ancient Chinese and Mongolian horses, are agile and fast, with short necks and heavy heads. They average about 4 feet high and 440 pounds. They've long been ridden by children, but in recent years, some jockeys have been as young as 5.


Jockeys, all of whom are boys, are paid the equivalent of about $7 per race. They race multiple times per day and can earn around $300 per week -- about as much as the average Sumbawan farmer can earn in four months.


This racing event involved about 20 young jockeys. Approximately 26 races were held each day for a week, meaning many of the riders had dozens of mounts.


Not all the jockeys wear helmets. In four days of filming at the horse track, our reporting team saw that near-accidents -- fallen riders or colliding ponies -- were a common sight.


It isn't just parents who profit from their children's efforts. Horse owners, such as this woman, can earn the equivalent of about $600 if their horses finish among the main winners in a race week. There also are "fixers" who connect horse owners with jockeys and get a cut of the purse.


A rider holds on tight during a race. At this track in 2016, an 11-year-old jockey was seriously injured after falling off his horse. Racing organizers said the boy later died at the hospital.


In a country where many families cannot afford school supplies and dropout rates are high, jockeys miss a lot of school during racing season. During our reporting team's visit, organizers provided on-site teachers to tutor the boys.


Egi, an 8-year-old jockey, prepares to race just a few hours after he was rolling around on the ground, wrestling with his friends.


Sila suffered an arm injury after his horse slammed into the starting gate. His father poured water on the boy after he was thrown to the ground and his horse bolted, riderless. Thirty minutes later, Sila was back on a horse for another race.


After each day's races, the ponies were bathed in this man-made watering hole. Many jockeys took a swim too. Most of their families were camped on-site in large tents.


Gambling is illegal in Indonesia, but in the stands, it was easy to see large sums of money being openly exchanged. Military personnel directed our crews not to film the gambling but were not seen interfering with it.

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Inside the life of a child jockey

Mariana van Zeller takes a look at the life of the child jockeys who travel around the island of Sumbawa racing horses.