LEXINGTON, Ky. - Imagine downing a juicy cheeseburger, fries and a milkshake — then going to the bathroom a few minutes later, sticking a finger down your throat and vomiting.
No, we’re not talking about teenage girls with bulimia, or models struggling for the high-fashion gaunt look. These are grown men trying to keep their jobs as jockeys, those diminutive athletes in colorful silks sent out to ride 1,200-pound racehorses worth millions of dollars.
The quest to ride in next Saturday’s Kentucky Derby begins long before 3-year-old thoroughbreds take to the track. All across the country, jockeys compete to get the best mounts, the most victories and establish their reputations.
A big part of their success is making weight, staying light enough to ride based on limitations set by racing officials. In an age when sports seem all about bulking up with steroids and human growth hormone, race riding is about slimming down. It’s been this way for more than 100 years, although minimum riding weights have started to rise — to much approval by the jockeys.
“The other professional athletes have to be stronger, bigger, faster,” top rider John Velazquez said before the races one morning at Keeneland Race Course. “We have to be smaller, skinnier and lighter — and stronger at the same time. There’s a lot of discipline involved, and not everyone can do it.”
Jockeys can weigh a luxurious 126 pounds for the Derby, as much weight as many of these horses will haul around a track. When it comes to everyday racing, however, weight assignments can be 110 pounds and lower, quite light in today’s bigger and stronger world even for a man of short stature.
The never-ending weight watch has led jockeys to resort to extraordinary and often dangerous means in an attempt to shed pounds quickly and keep them off.
In addition to vomiting, also known as “flipping” and “heaving,” jockeys spend hours in a hot box sweating off pounds, jogging in rubber suits or popping diet pills. These unhealthy practices can lead to major medical woes such as esophagitis, osteoporosis, heart problems, dental issues, electrolyte disturbances, drug addiction — and even death.
In 2005, Emanuel Jose Sanchez, a 22-year-old jockey, was found lying on the floor of the shower in the jockeys’ room after riding a horse named Bear on Tour at Colonial Downs in New Kent, Va. He went into a coma and died a short time later. The official cause of death was listed as undetermined, but The Washington Post reported at the time that the rider had shown signs of dehydration, basing its report on accounts that Sanchez had been battling weight-loss issues.
Since there are no set rules in racing addressing weight-reduction methods, many jockeys’ rooms are equipped with “heave bowls” for flipping and hot boxes — saunas, steam rooms or whirlpools — for shedding pounds.
Garrett Gomez, the Eclipse Award winner as the nation’s leading rider in 2007, will be aboard Court Vision in the Derby. The 36-year-old Gomez eats when the urge hits. “I flip,” he says. “I like food. I like to eat. I see McDonald’s, and if I crave it I’ll eat it.”
Then he’ll regurgitate.
“You make sacrifices,” says the 5-foot-3, 114-pound Gomez, who dropped more than 30 pounds several years ago to make a comeback after a two-year absence to deal with a cocaine and alcohol problem. “No one said I had to come back and be a jockey. The flipping, the wear and tear on your teeth (from flipping), and your body sitting in a hot box for long periods of time ... you’re always under constant stress to make sure of your weight.”
Velazquez, who will ride Cowboy Cal in the Derby, chooses the strict diet route to maintain his 114-pound riding weight. No flipping or daily sweating for him. He virtually starves himself until dinner. He eats a half-cup of dry cereal in the morning, sips coffee, sucks on an orange or bites into a banana, and drinks water before eating his one normal meal of the day.
“It’s my way of keeping my weight down,” says Velazquez, an 18-year veteran who years ago learned his nutrition lessons at a riding school in his native Puerto Rico. “Is it normal? No, it’s not normal. It’s part of my life. It comes with the territory.”
Shane Sellers, who won more than 4,000 races before retiring in 2004 due to injuries and a constant battle with weight, has criticized racing officials for years for ignoring riders. In his newly released autobiography, “Freedom’s Rein,” he estimates more than half of American jockeys “battle life-threatening eating disorders and push themselves beyond their personal boundaries to lose weight.
“Almost every jockey utilizes the hot box. ... Almost every jockey has heaved or resorted to diet pills at least a couple of times so that they can make weight for a race. Almost every jockey has done things that other professional athletes would never consider doing because that is just part of the sport.”
Jockeys are not the only athletes to deal with weight issues. Wrestlers and boxers also often have to drop weight before competing. But when 20 of the world’s top jockeys climb aboard their horses for the Derby, it’s a safe bet that just about every one of them — at one time or another — resorted to some type of harmful practice in a desperate effort to drop weight.
“I’d say nine of 10,” says Gomez.
There is hope. Racing finally began to address the weight issue three years ago, and tracks in California, Florida, Kentucky, New Jersey and New York have raised minimum weights about 3 or 4 pounds or more to 115 or 116 pounds. It could go higher. Nutrition and healthy weight management programs are being introduced and research is being sought to examine the problem in more detail.
“The industry has to take some responsibility,” says Martin Panza, Hollywood Park’s racing secretary, who helped initiate the weight increase in 2005. “The good news is racing is talking to each other and raising weights will continue. It’s a gradual process.”
Kentucky Derby champion Animal Kingdom was unable to go out a winner, fading quickly in the Queen Anne Stakes on Tuesday in his last race before retirement.
Ramon Dominguez, a three-time Eclipse Award winner as the leading jockey in North America, retired on Thursday due to a head injury suffered in a fall earlier this year.