Somewhere in a corner of the jockeys’ room at Santa Anita Park hangs an old set of forgotten silks. Veteran rider Mike Smith thinks they’re only about 20 years old, but when a few other jockeys found them and tried them on, the silks didn’t fit.
“I think society in general is different and we don’t make [people] as small as we used to,” said Smith. “Times have changed.”
Darrell Haire, regional manager for the Jockeys’ Guild, remembers when 6’2 or 6’3 was big for a basketball player, and 200 pounds was a reasonable weight for a professional football player. The human frame is taller and larger than it used to be, especially for professional athletes. As professional athletes have grown bigger, it’s expected they will weigh more. Unless those athletes are jockeys.
A fragmented system
As is true for so much in the racing world, there is no enforced standard for assigning weights to jockeys. The RCI model rules suggest a jockey should not carry less than 118 pounds with the exception of apprentices, but legally, that code remains a suggestion in most places. Instead, the amount a rider may weigh is up to the racing secretary at an individual track. Weights have evolved over the decades but not as much or as quickly as some say they should.
A look back shows progress in steps, not strides. A flip through a chart book for 1929 shows weights as low as 95 pounds, with most hovering between 110 and 120 pounds in non-handicaps. A sampling of weights from charts on Jan. 28 of this year shows weights as low as 115 for journeymen at Gulfstream Park and 114 at Oaklawn Park, with high weights at those tracks ranging up to 123 and 124, respectively.
In most cases, a racing secretary chooses a maximum weight for a given race condition and subtracts different allowances for each horse based on its individual profile. Three-year-olds running against older company are generally assigned slightly less weight early in the season, as are females running against males. At one time, a scale of weights published by the Jockey Club was the generally-accepted starting point for secretaries.
Jockeys’ Guild National Manager Terry Meyocks is a former racing secretary and said he has seen a gradual evolution in the scale of weights since at least the 1980s.
“Since 2007 we’ve had a good rapport with the ARCI Model Rules Committee in changing the rules and getting them updated,” said Meyocks. “At the same time, it needs to be adopted throughout the country. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do, to get our industry to pull together and work on something that would be beneficial to all parties.”
Ben Huffman is racing secretary for Keeneland and Churchill Downs and previously served the same role at Ellis Park and Fair Grounds. During his tenure in Kentucky, the state became one of the only racing jurisdictions to pass a rule stating riders may not be assigned less than 118 pounds unless they were apprentices, riding fillies against colts, or aboard 3-year-olds racing older horses.
Since the rule was enacted, Huffman sets weights using almost the reverse of the usual practice; his maximum weight for a race is based, in part, on making sure allowances don’t take a jockey below the 118 minimum.
“There’s an obvious recognition in the industry I think, for the health of the riders to be a little higher than they were say, 10 or 15 years ago,” said Huffman. “I like where we’re at in Kentucky, I really do. I think it’s reasonable. Jockeys still need to be small for the health of the horse and the jockey. At first, I didn’t agree with it, when this change came about but over time as I’ve watched it, I’ve watched some of our jockeys change their lifestyles and exercise more, I’ve grown to appreciate where we’re at in Kentucky with the weight allowances.”
In most places, apprentice riders are still expected to carry the least amount of weight, sometimes seven to 10 pounds less than their colleagues, despite being the same size. The original philosophy behind the practice was to give apprentices a better shot at getting work, since trainers might be willing to go with an unfamiliar face if they perceive an advantage on the scales. They do have the option of riding over weight, however, and trainers are sometimes known to instruct that they don’t need to make the full allowance.
Many jockeys get on a variety of horses throughout the day, and as a result are assigned a variety of weights. If a lower-weight assignment comes late in the day, that often means making weight early in the day and not eating or drinking until the end of the card.
“If you tack 118, you get to weigh 115. That’s not bad. Three or four pounds down lower than that, that’s when it really gets to you,” said Mike Smith. “And you can do it for one race, but you’ve got to remember you might be riding five others before that one. You’re not at your best. You can’t be.”
Huffman believes more recent information about rider health has driven a gradual, unofficial increase of minimum weights in many places.
Darrell Haire began lobbying for increased scales about 17 years ago, when he asked Guild riders what weight they believed would keep them both healthy and fit. It has been something of an uphill battle, as the industry often resists change, but he reports progress.
“I’ve worked on this for years now, and finally it’s starting to happen,” said Haire, a former jockey himself. “They don’t really know what they’re doing to these riders. It’s not right. This is something that’s a long time coming. And it’s got to be the same throughout the country.”
There could be added equine safety concerns with additional weights, too, but Haire isn’t convinced a few pounds is likely to have a significant impact on horses. Seventeen years ago, riders told him they needed a reliable minimum of around 118 pounds, which puts them at around 115 pounds in body weight – just two or three pounds higher than what many of them averaged at the time. Three pounds is a difference of 2.6 percent of a 115-pound jockey’s weight. Three pounds is .3 percent of a 1,000-pound Thoroughbred’s weight, and represents roughly the difference in weight between a jockey’s racing tack and an exercise rider’s tack.
The results of low numbers
It’s no secret some jockeys have gone to extremes to make weight. Vomiting, spending hours in the sauna, running around the track in plastic sweat suits, or taking furosemide have been common tactics on top of reducing food and fluid intake.
Less commonly understood is that all these methods are focused primarily on quick weight loss and they result in the loss of water, not fat, leading to profound dehydration.
Dehydration is uncomfortable at best, and dangerous at worst, even for a sedentary person. For a rider preparing for the demands of race-riding, it combines miserable symptoms, reduced performance, and a sizable dose of medical risk paired with the safety risk they already assume by piloting a Thoroughbred traveling at 35 miles per hour. When you’re dehydrated, jockeys say, your mouth gets dry. Your eyes and skin become itchy. Your head throbs, and your muscles lose power. Your calves and hamstrings can begin cramping, and since you can’t down a sports drink, they may not relax for hours. Reaction times slow down, balance is reduced, and many people become light-headed and dizzy — a terrible recipe while aboard a horse.
Mike Smith points out the emotional impact of a body starved for food and fluid; not only are reaction times slower, but judgment is impaired. Tempers are short.
“I would like to think so many wrong decisions were made because we weren’t hydrated enough and didn’t have the food in our body,” said Smith. “I don’t think we realized back in the day how important hydrating the body is and how important food really is. It’s fuel, fuel for the body, and I think back then we didn’t think about it much. You just tried to get as light as you could and you didn’t care what you felt like.”
Dr. Kelly Ryan, sports medicine physician at MedStar Sports Medicine, said there could be more serious impacts of dehydration, too. Heart rates increase when the body is dehydrated because there is a lower volume of blood flowing through the body; kidneys can struggle, and may be followed by the liver and other organs in cases of dehydration combined with overheating. Riders may have difficulty maintaining body temperature and may not be able to sweat as normal. All of this is amplified on hot, humid days as jockeys go to the post in long sleeves under a safety vest and helmet.
“This was my first summer covering at the racetrack and I was very concerned about whether or not we’d be seeing organ damage, renal dysfunction,” said Ryan, one of several physicians hired by Maryland horsemen to provide medical consultation and treatment to jockeys and stable workers.
Dehydration and heat stress were blamed for the 2005 death of Emanuel Jose Sanchez at Colonial Downs. Sanchez, an apprentice, collapsed in the shower room after riding on a steamy weekday card at the Virginia track and never regained consciousness. ESPN’s Bill Finley noted the rider had been warned about his unsafe weight reduction strategies earlier in the meet.
Then there’s the question of concussions. At this year’s Jockey’s Guild Assembly, several riders questioned whether dehydration could increase the impact of head traumas. The brain and spinal cord are protected in part by cerebrospinal fluid, and riders like Smith believe with less fluid, there’s less cushion on the brain during a fall. Ryan says there’s no research to confirm or refute this, but it’s an idea she thinks should be investigated. She knows of at least one jockey who recovered from his concussion and found a trip to the hotbox brought all his symptoms back, worse than ever. That rider still competes, but no longer sits in the sauna for extended periods.
Having worked with athletes in several other sports, Ryan said Thoroughbred racing is like nothing she’s ever seen with regard to its weight restrictions. Even wrestlers, who must weigh in before a match, don’t weigh out afterwards and may have several hours to replenish fluids or nutrition between the weigh-in and the fight. Wrestlers are also given a minimum weight based on maintaining a specific Body Mass Index. Meyocks reports English and Irish jockeys are also assigned a minimum weight required by stewards, per advice from doctors.
“I didn’t grow up in racing so from the perspective of an outsider who manages athletes, everything is so much stricter than in all of our other sports,” Ryan said. “When football players practice, [coaching staff] weigh them before practice and they weigh them after practice. They actually calculate out how much fluid loss they’ve had and tell them how much they’re supposed to drink, what they’re supposed to drink, and what they’re supposed to eat because they’re so concerned about water loss, and they’re so concerned about electrolyte imbalances.”
Change is coming
Haire said racing secretaries in California, Arizona, and Oregon have begun raising the scale of weights by a few pounds to give riders a break over the past year. Race conditions in those states have increased the minimum weights for journeyman riders by two or three pounds and have made them more consistent. Santa Anita’s Jan. 29 card had no weights under 118 pounds for journeyman riders (apprentices still carry far less). California began adjusting conditions last spring, and Haire can see a difference.
“What’s happening here in California is the racing secretaries, by working with us and sitting with us, they really get it,” said Haire. “People are accepting it because they know these riders look healthy and can actually do the weight. In the jocks’ room, the atmosphere is so much better.”
Though two or three pounds doesn’t sound like much in the face of excessive dehydration and malnutrition, Mike Smith said the difference it can make is incredible.
“You’d be amazed what two pounds will do. It’s a meal. It’s a bottle of water and a meal,” said Smith. “It means a lot.
“In California, it’s great. I can eat two meals a day and then work out and feel great and ride strong, if not stronger than ever. It’s so important.”
Having a consistent, reasonable minimum weight also allows Smith to keep his energy levels up. Early in his career, he remembers riders struggling to find the balance between working out enough to maintain fitness for race riding without burning off so many calories as to weaken themselves before first post – most of the time, they couldn’t afford to replace those calories with food until the day’s end.
Critics of raising the scale of weights suggest with higher minimums, larger riders could take extreme measures to make the cut. Haire hopes stewards might step in and refuse to issue licenses to riders who are too big to safely make weight.
“No matter how high the weights eventually go, there’s always going to be somebody that’s bigger trying to reduce. You’ll never stop that,” agreed Ben Huffman. “Regardless of what the weights are, whether it’s 116, 118, or even if it was ever raised to 128, there’d be guys reducing to make that weight. That’s always going to be there, but big picture horsemen want their jockeys to be as light as possible, and everyone’s quite aware we want our jockeys to be as healthy and strong as possible.”
The other problem with keeping riders healthy, in Ryan’s experience, is a lack of basic education about safe diet and exercise regimes. Ryan consults with apprentice riders when they start on the Maryland circuit to do a basic physical and get some medical history. She also uses the time to review safe practices, but not all jockeys get the benefit of a physician’s advice. The lucky ones may be mentored by older riders, which may or may not mean they’re given healthy advice.
“So many riders, this is how they grew up,” said Ryan. “They don’t know the repercussions of dehydrating. They don’t know that if you dehydrate too heavily you could potentially go into kidney failure and then your liver could start failing.
“They don’t think about that type of stuff. They just want to ride.”