Retired Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron recently opened the North American Racing Academy in Lexington — the first jockey school in the United States. A nutrition course is required.
“Every jockey in the country should take advantage of the opportunity these racing secretaries have provided by bumping the scale up a little bit, and use that cushion to kick start a development of discipline,” says McCarron, a two-time Derby winner.
He says educating young, aspiring riders about healthy weight management is the most important step in creating change.
“We need to teach them early on about how to eat properly, how to avoid the pitfalls that many jockeys are subjected to,” he adds. “Lasix, hitting the hot box and bulimia are very prevalent problems.”
Pat Day agrees. The retired Hall of Famer was one of the lucky ones with the perfect jockey frame — 4-11 and 100 pounds. He says riders will try almost anything to make weight, whether it’s set at 125 or 160 pounds. But teaching healthy habits is a start to changing that mind-set.
“Educate these riders on what they need to do, how they need to do it so they make weight and retain their health so when they compete, they don’t have to worry about it,” says Day.
The Jockeys’ Guild estimates there are about 1,300 licensed riders in the United States, with about 1,000 riding on a regular basis. The union has been pushing for racetracks to agree to a standard minimum weight of 118 pounds, with body fat levels no less than 5 percent.
Currently, tracks decide on their own weight ranges, a complicated system based on type of race, a horse’s age, gender and past performances.
“We are making progress, but not as fast as I’d like to,” says Terry Meyocks, who took over as manager of The Jockeys’ Guild last year.
The union also is seeking grants to study the consequences facing jockeys with eating disorders.
“We want to find any way to see how we can do better for the jockeys,” says Velazquez. “Any deterioration of your body is not good, especially when it’s going on for so long. How long can you sustain it is always the question.”
For years, the argument against raising jockey weights involved horse safety. Too much weight could put too much stress on a horse, increasing the chance of injury.
In other countries, minimum weights have been higher for years without a rise in injuries to horses. In Australia, the bottom weight is 117 pounds, in Ireland it’s 116. Also, steeplechase horses carry riders weighing 150-160 pounds over 2½-mile courses with jumps. And there are exercise riders weighing over 150 pounds who climb aboard horses for morning workouts.
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A best-case scenario would see riders taking more responsibility for their well being and tracks continuing to make adjustments in weight allowances.
“We should definitely care as the health and lives of the human and equine athletes are at stake,” says University of North Carolina professor of eating disorders Cynthia M. Bulik. “The fear is that there will always be someone out there who is willing to do damage to their body for the competitive advantage, and only a culture change can alter that background acceptance of unhealthy behavior.”
“I don’t know if there’s a perfect solution,” says Panza, “but we are moving in the right direction.”
An aging trainer, an unretired jockey and a 15-1 underdog teamed Saturday to shatter Orb's bid for the first Triple Crown since Affirmed won it in 1978.