Oisin Murphy trying to make the weight with an orange for breakfast

Rider has discussed the difficulty of boiling back down on his return from a drugs ban

Oisin Murphy is set to return from a three-month ban from racing. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/PA

Oisin Murphy is set to return from a three-month ban from racing. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/PA

 

An orange for breakfast, a protein shake for lunch, vegetables for dinner. Only the overground vegetables, not the underground ones, so lots of cabbage, spinach, broccoli, and mushrooms. And watch out for that chubby face.

Not something from the 46-page verdict into the methods of marginal gains preferred by former Team Sky and British Cycling doctor Richard Freeman, which far more damningly found him guilty of ordering the banned drug testosterone “knowing or believing” it was to be given to an unnamed rider to improve their athletic performance.

Instead, this is the self-declared daily diet of two-time champion jockey Oisín Murphy, as he “struggled” to get back to his racing weight after a three-month racing ban, resulting from a positive test for cocaine last July. That wait was meant to end on Friday, with three rides at Lingfield, only for Murphy to be told he hadn’t yet completed the necessary tests before a return to riding (something he said on Twitter was up to the British Horseracing Authority, as he’s made himself available and completed all the tests thus far).

Freeman’s hearing before the Medical Practitioners Tribunal (MPTS) will continue next week, where he’s likely to find out if his “fitness to practise is impaired”; in February, Freeman was also charged by UK Anti-Doping with “possession of a prohibited substance” and “tampering or attempted tampering with any part of doping control”, and if found guilty there could face a four-year ban from sport.

It’s no secret that in certain sections of modern elite sport it’s not just about being super skinny but unattainably thin, or in the case of those Team Sky riders that Freeman was looking after, positively skeletal. One of the main reasons he would have been ordering the Testogel product in 2011 is because the body’s natural production of testosterone can shut down on a strictly low-calorie diet, which is not what any rider wants or needs if they’re trying to win a three-week Grand Tour.

Dangers

It’s rare for any rider to speak out about these dangers, even if the culture in cycling right now is perhaps not as embedded as Team Sky tried to make it: last month, Italian sprinter Davide Cimolai, now in his 12th year as a pro, said he wasted several years at the beginning of his career because of an obsession with racing weight, saying some coaches had an “old mentality” regarding nutrition, particularly within Italian cycling, and he “learned that the hard way.”

Cycling and horseracing aren’t the only sports that share this occasionally dangerous obsession with riding and racing weight, often resulting in this unbearable lightness of being unattainably thin, only both sports seem to be constantly coming to grips with it.

The details of Murphy’s curious case are already well known, the 25-year-old Kerry jockey insisting he never took cocaine, but made “a massive error” in allowing himself to be exposed to environmental contamination, following a sexual encounter, the night before riding in Chantilly last July. His original six-month suspension was reduced to three, following a semi-successful appeal, and Murphy last week described in candid detail how that experience continues to take its toll, and not just in dealing with the implications of his ban.

“I felt like the world had turned against me, over something I didn’t really mean to happen,” Murphy told Charlie Webster on the My Sporting Mind, a mental health podcast: “I probably spent a couple of weeks thinking about what I should do and when I say ‘I wouldn’t get back on a horse’, I’d obviously go riding on the roads and watch show jumping and ride as a hobby, but whether I wanted to race-ride again is something I wasn’t entirely comfortable with.”

Later Murphy, talks of “ballooning” to around 65kg, or 10 and a-half stone, during his racing ban, that it become a daily struggle to get down below 55kg: “So I’m pretty limited at what can eat at the moment, you’ll see my face is still quite chubby.”

Like most of his racing colleagues it appears he’s learned to live with, recounting an episode early in his career when he was essentially told he was too fat to make it: “I was 15-years-old, maybe 14, at Killarney. A very famous horse racing guy, let’s just say that, told me I was heavy to be flat jockey, when he asked me what weight I was.

“And I was seven stone 12, about 49kg, and that really broke my heart. So I stopped eating a little bit, a lot, actually, I used to try eat one meal a day, then not eat anything for two days. Then you have a binge, and create this cycle, and then what happens is your metabolism slows down, your mood deteriorates, and at 14, 15, 16, those three years initially, you’re not eating the right things, your body is starving...”

Startling

It’s not yet as startling a tale as Kieren Fallon, British champion jockey six times, who in his 2017 autobiography ‘Form’ laid bare an extreme diet that might well have killed him, had he not been so naturally strong, crediting his early life on the family farm near Crusheen, in Co Clare, suitably nourished by “vegetables from the garden, eggs from the hens, and milk from the cow”.

At times during his riding career, Fallon was surviving on more alcohol than food, and became well versed in the “dark art of starving... getting down to the weight by any means necessary”, known in racing as “wasting”. And rather than throw up in a restaurant toilet, he would typically head out to the parking lot, describing one night where he met another top jockey projectile vomiting, like a scene from the movie The Exorcist.

Others were luckier, Joseph O’Brien, who at just 24 moved seamlessly into the gilded stable of his father, Aidan: Irish champion jockey in 2012, three years later O’Brien retired from that trade, realising he was fighting a losing war against the weighing scales, his career as a jockey predestined to be a short one.

Perhaps like professional cycling, it takes a rare breed to make it or even survive in the jockey trade, and which puts the achievements of Rachael Blackmore into perhaps further context, the pioneering women’s jockey winning three times in the last two years at Cheltenham, and out to remind just how good she is this coming week too.

Cheltenham should be another reminder too that after all the talk of the welfare of the horses, and also the welfare of their trainers, the welfare of the jockey is perhaps the most fragile of the three, their lightness of physique, given the demands of the sport, certainly the most breakable. Especially after nothing more than an orange for breakfast.

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