Ireland’s jockeys face ‘big cultural change’ as racecourse saunas shut down

IHRB say evidence on dehydration before racing no longer supports practice

Ireland’s jockeys will have to cope with “big cultural change” after the decision to shut all racecourse saunas.

From May, weighroom saunas, traditionally a vital tool in allowing jockeys to lose weight, will close permanently. They have been closed since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 due to infection fears.

On Monday the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB) confirmed an extra 1lb will be added to the 3lb body protector safety allowance to make up for the move.

The prospect of permanently closing racecourse saunas has been a contentious issue with fears that jockeys will still sweat to lose weight, although earlier than before, at home or while travelling to the races.

Earlier this year, former champion jockey Ruby Walsh argued they should remain open and said: "Saunas on site are a blessing because the later you leave it, the shorter the period you are dehydrated."

However, the Irish Jockeys Association (IJA) has gone along with the IHRB's senior medical officer, Dr Jennifer Pugh, who has argued that medical evidence regarding dehydration immediately before race riding, and the longer term effects of weight management, no longer support the methods previously used.

In a statement, Dr Pugh said: “Jockeys have adapted incredibly well over the last two years with the closure of the saunas for infection control purposes.

“The introduction of 48-hour declarations and the 2lb increase in the weights since March 2020, which was made permanent last December, were beneficial changes arising from the pandemic.

“However, it is clear from our research that a significant number of jockeys continue to dehydrate on race day to make weight and the increase in a safety allowance at the scales aims to reduce this, along with ensuring appropriate riding equipment and racing tack can be used.”

The IJA's secretary, Andrew Coonan, admitted the move has not received unanimous approval from riders but said it was hard to argue that dehydrating before a race was a good idea.

He also pointed to the implications of December's High Court case in England where ex-jockey Freddie Tylicki was awarded damages against another Irish rider, Graham Gibbons, after being left paralysed in a fall at Kempton in 2016.

“I said at the time the Tylicki case would have major repercussions and one of the things you have to consider here, if you are the chief medical officer, and you’re overseeing a situation where fellas are going in and knocking off a huge amount of weight, and if they then do come out and create an accident scene or cause an injury to another rider, the CMO’s position is very much compromised from that point of view,” said Coonan, a solicitor and former amateur rider.

“Does this come as a surprise? No; has there been a lot of debate? Absolutely; is everyone in agreement with it? No.

“But the reality of it is the doctor’s view was ‘I don’t want to open the saunas because it’s not to your benefit in the long term’. I have to respect that. A lot of jockeys understand that we’re all going to struggle with that readjustment in some respects. It is a big cultural change.

“It has been the way for jockeys for generations to sweat it off, be it at the track or be it at home or wherever.

“The way the doctor put it to us was that every bit of research she has seen – and we know this ourselves – no piece of research says that it’s a good idea to sweat or dehydrate before a race.

“In light of that, she felt, and I don’t think unreasonably, that’s she couldn’t condone the reopening of the saunas,” he added.

Coonan also said progress is being made in securing personal indemnity cover for IJA members.

The lack of such cover for riders in Ireland was highlighted by the Tylicki case and how jockeys based in Britain have such liability insurance.

“The broker I’ve been dealing with has come back with and believes he has potentially three companies that might be interested in quoting for this.

"But it's going to be expensive. I've raised this issue with both the ceo of Horse Racing Ireland, Suzanne Eade, and the interim ceo of IHRB, Cliodhna Guy, to say this is not a jockeys' problem exclusively.

“This is an industry problem we all have to deal with,” he said.

On Monday, the British Horseracing Authority announced its scheduled 2lbs rise in weights will go ahead as planned in May, although, like here, jockeys will get an extra 1lb added to the 3lbs allowed for back protectors.