The sight of Tony McCoy, racked with exhaustion after his ride on Nordance Prince at Ascot, transformed an exemplary exhibition of race riding into an illustration of racing at its harshest. It could also have been worse; he could have collapsed from the horse yards from the finish. Most athletes maintain a balanced and nutritious diet in the days preceding a competition. Jockeys by contrast endure these days on meagre rations and sit for hours in energy sapping saunas. With this preparation they are expected to give their all, both physically and mentally, in each race.
Exhausted, barely able to stand or communicate, it is not surprising that the media were unable to interview Tony McCoy at Ascot. Is this the image that racing wants to convey to the public? This question is not a new one. Fred Archer is one of racing’s greats and was driven to his death partly due to the pressure of having to reduce his natural body weight of 11 stone to 7 stone 7lbs in order to ride on the Flat. When he was riding, the average height of a man was 5ft 8ns and the average weight was 11 stone. Today, these statistics have increased to 6ft and 12 stone 7lbs. There has been a 14% increase in the average weight since 1950 and this is not reflected in the increase in weights used in racing. For Flat jockeys the increase in weights has only been 3% in this period, whilst the weight for National Hunt jockeys remains at 10 stone. This deficit of 11% has forced jockeys to crash diet and develop alarming dependencies on diuretics and other such drugs.
Weight Watchers is of no use to these men who fight their weight every week - a more rapid solution is necessary. No thought is given to the effect that this enforced starvation has on the body. Medical reports suggest that extreme diets cause exhaustion and extreme feelings of weakness in the short term, but more importantly the effects do not just stop there. In the long term jockeys are risking lowered resistance to infection and muscle wastage. When the use or indeed abuse of diuretics are added into this equation the consequences become even more alarmingly. Initially diuretics reduce fluid levels in the body thereby lowering the body weight, but after long term use in a healthy person they cause irreparable damage to the functions of the kidneys.
Such facts can only be damaging to the image of the sport. Whilst determined future jockeys may not be deterred, the public will be. This is what racing cannot afford. It is the public that increases the possibilities for sponsorship and generates money for the continuance of racing. Although today the public widely perceives racing to be a glamorous industry, this could change rapidly with the abrupt termination of many promising careers due to the pressures of dieting. It is already getting a wide press following Frankie Dettori’s shock announcement about his use of diuretics in 1999. Prior to this was Walter Swinburn’s high profile battle with the weights, which ended in premature retirement. He is once again making a comeback this year, but with little change in the regulations, the pressure on jockeys to diet remains. Many still have not forgotten other examples, such as that of Steve Cauthen. He was a jockey in his prime and at the top of the sport, yet the pressure of dieting forced early retirement. The struggle with weight is undoubtedly more widely publicised on the Flat, due to the lower weights, but it is also dominant in National Hunt weighing rooms. Racing has an alarmingly high turnover rate of jockeys. Publicly this may be attributed to injuries, but weight is a prevalent factor that is all too often overlooked.
Increased publicity about the use of diuretics amongst jockeys led to testing being introduced in 1994. The Jockey Club in England, France and Ireland noticed a marked increase in the number of positive tests at the end of the 1998/9 season and therefore banned the use of diuretics completely in July 1999. However, does this make jockeys suffer more with the increased need to starve themselves for extended periods of time? A review of the weights for jockeys would uncover statistics that speak for themselves. There was public consternation at the popularity of waif-like models such as Jodie Kidd, yet we seem to be actively encouraging such figures to appear amongst today’s jockeys.
The arguments against an increase in the weights throughout the racing industry are well voiced but unconvincing. People look to the history of the sport, suggesting that by raising weights we lose the ability to compare the performance of the top horses with that of previous racing legends. However, it is fair to prioritise this above the health of our jockeys? In evasion of this question, one tends to look to the possible effects on the horses themselves in an attempt to justify the continuation of present weight regulations. With an increase in weights there would be more stress put on the horses’ legs during a race, but this is less likely to cause the horse to break down than bad ground, which is constant and often unavoidable hazard. The necessary increase in weight would have insufficient effect on horses to warrant delaying an investigation into the regulations both in National Hunt and on the Flat.