Jockeys saddled with strict weight allocation


There is a call for change in weight standards that operate in the horse racing industry

HORSE RACING is one of the most popular spectator sports, attracting followers of every age and nationality, and from every walk of life. In Ireland alone, it is anticipated that over 1.5 million people will attend race meetings in 2008.

Horse racing is a high-risk sport, with thoroughbred race horses weighing up to 500kg, capable of speeds in excess of 60km per hour and often ridden by jockeys weighing as little as 50kg, who are positioned in a state of forward propulsion some 2-3 metres above the ground.

An integral feature of horse racing is that of handicapping. All racehorses must carry a designated weight, which is allocated based on the ability of the horse. Accordingly, jockeys must comply with a strict weight allocation which is placed on the horse which they are riding. In Ireland these weight classifications range from as little as 52.7kg and 62kg for flat and national hunt jockeys respectively.

Weight allocations include the weight of all clothing and protective equipment which the jockey requires during the race. To put this in perspective, the average weight of an Irish 14-year-old male would preclude the majority from participating in the sport.

Consequently, the genetic pool of Irish adults who could attain these weight standards is extremely small and would represent far less than 1 per cent of the total Irish adult population.

As a society we are increasing in size - however, weight standards in Irish horse racing have remained relatively unchanged over the past 100 years. Analysis of the records of trainee jockeys entering the Racing Academy and Centre of Education (Race) in Ireland over the past 30 years has shown that the average weight of the aspiring jockey has increased by 37 per cent.

In the same period, the minimum weight for flat jockeys has risen by just 6 per cent. Consequently extreme and potentially dangerous weight control practices may be rendered necessary for jockeys to meet the stipulated weight standards.

Weight allocations in horse racing are based solely on the ability of the horse. Jockeys do not have a specified weight category within which they must compete.

These athletes must align their weight with the mount which they are riding in each individual race, which may be as many as five to seven races per day. The large variability and lack of predictability related to the specific weight targets which jockeys must meet can increase the pressure placed on them.

Unlike other weight category sports such as boxing, wrestling and lightweight rowing, which contain a set number of competitions within a designated season, horse racing may take place seven days a week and has no definable off season.

The number of races a jockey must ride and the weight allocations with which they must comply can vary quite dramatically. This can result in constant "weight cycling" whereby a jockey's weight may fluctuate considerably.

In addition, other weight classification sports are required to weigh-in prior to competition only and this weigh-in may take place up to 24 hours prior to competition, thereby allowing the athlete time to replenish energy and fluid stores depleted in making weight. This opportunity is not afforded to jockeys, who are required to weigh-in immediately before and after every race which they ride.

Current information from athletes competing in a variety of weight category sports suggests that making weight for competition can be detrimental to their health, physiological and cognitive function and performance. The potential health risks in jockeys compared to other weight-regulation sports may be greater due to the length and intensity of the horse racing season, and the lack of opportunity to replenish depleted fuel and fluid stores before, during and after the day racing.

This need to achieve a constant, low body weight can necessitate the use of strict, and sometimes dangerous, weight loss strategies in order to maximise riding opportunities - not only is horse racing a jockey's sport, it is also their livelihood!

The severe weight restrictions placed on jockeys often necessitates the use of extreme measures to achieve the necessary weight to compete. Current methods of rapid weight loss reported to be used by jockeys include restricted calorie and fluid intake; starvation; saunas; exercising while wearing sweat suits; purging; and the occasional use of diuretics and laxatives.

Such drastic methods of rapid weight loss can result in varying degrees of fatigue and dehydration and, if taken to the extreme, can place jockeys at an increased risk of decreased physical and mental performance, as well as a variety of long-term health complications.

The impact of such restrictive practices on the physiological and mental function as well as the health and wellbeing of jockeys are currently being studied by a research team at Dublin City University in conjunction with the Turf Club.

The researchers have found a high incidence of low bone density, regular injuries and fractures, extremely low body fat levels and high levels of dehydration, which appear to be related to the chronic weight restriction practices required to compete.

The findings of this ongoing research has lead for a call for the weight standards that operate in the horse racing industry to be increased as well as the implementation of an education and sports science and medical support programme to be put in place, similar to that which exists for other elite athletes.

• Dr Giles Warrington is a sports and exercise physiologist and lecturer in the School of Health and Human Performance in DCU