Jockey weights get heavy debate

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Rush hour in the jockeys' sauna at Laurel Park was well under way 90 minutes before the first race on a recent weekday morning.

Nearly a dozen riders needing to lose pounds to reach a minimum weight later that day were in the 140-degree "hot box," reading newspapers, playing chess, discussing current events or just staring into space.

"Most of us have to spend at least some time in here just about every day," said jockey Oliver Castillo, who races at 114 pounds but otherwise weighs 117. "I can lose three pounds in 90 minutes."

Laxatives, diuretics, diet pills and putting a finger down the throat are other typical weight-reducing measures jockeys use, putting a strain on their bodies as they strive for the money and glory of the winner's circle.

"I can make $4,000 on a good day, so whatever I have to lose, I'm going to lose it," said jockey Jose Caraballo, who sheds as much as 6 pounds a day to race at 114.

But do jockeys need to endure such a difficult and potentially harmful regimen? What if they were allowed to weigh 2 to 5 pounds more when they raced?

"It would make all the difference in the world," said Larry Saumell, a retired jockey who now works behind the jockeys' lunch counter at Laurel.

The scale of weights - racing's guidepost for what horses of certain ages should carry at certain distances - hasn't changed since it was imported from England more than 125 years ago. At that time, many major jockeys were African-American slaves denied food.

The prospect of heavier jockeys has stirred divided opinion within the fractious racing industry.

Most jockeys are in favor because they want to avoid strenuous dieting and limit their exposure to potential health risks such as liver damage and mental illness.

The Jockeys' Guild union has lobbied racing organizations for years to raise riders' weight levels, achieving occasional success. In the past year, the Guild has begun developing a plan that would set a minimum body-fat requirement for any new jockey taking out a license.

But change won't come easily. Trainers, owners and horsemen's groups range from noncommittal to adamantly opposed.

"I think it's an absurd idea; I see no reason to change anything," Maryland-based trainer Richard Small said. "Jockeys are supposed to be small. If they can't make weight, they can go chop wood or dig a ditch. It's a job for small people. I guess I'm hardboiled on the issue. I like to sing, but I'm not good enough to be a singer. Sometimes, we just can't do what we want to do."

Most naysayers are opposed because the extra weight would be passed on to the horses, theoretically adding to the strain the 1,150-pound animals must endure when racing.

"Higher weights would hurt the horses; you wreck a horse when you put more weight on," Small said.

Many neutral observers disagree. Most horses race with between 110 and 122 pounds on their backs, the total including the weight of the jockey, saddle, silks and equipment. In handicap races, the better horses carry more than those not as gifted, theoretically leveling the playing field for gamblers. The talented filly Xtra Heat has carried as much as 128 pounds.

Years ago, when champion horses such as Native Dancer, Forego and Kelso competed in handicap races, they were routinely assigned weights that would be considered cruel today: as high as 137 pounds. But they often still won.

The ability to carry such weights over a distance was viewed as the ultimate barometer of equine greatness.

It is widely believed that Samuel Riddle, owner of Man O' War, simply retired him after his 3-year-old season because he didn't want to see the great horse run under crushing weights likely to be assigned.

Many horsemen believe today's mounts wouldn't be able to carry such weights without breaking down. The breeding industry's love of speed has made the thoroughbred more fragile, they say.

"I think there's something to that notion," said Dr. Larry Bramlage, president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

Yet horsemen, vets and track officials also believe that most of today's horses could carry more weight than they do without ill effect. Exercise riders, who gallop horses in the morning, invariably weigh at least 10 to 20 pounds more than afternoon jockeys. Jockeys in steeplechase races weigh up to 160 pounds.

"Two pounds would make no difference," said Lou Raffetto, chief operating officer for the Maryland Jockey Club.

"I don't see any health risk for horses in the idea of a modest weight increase for jockeys," said Bramlage, a Lexington, Ky., veterinarian.

Each state has controlled its racing conditions since the industry was decentralized in the 1950s. There is considerable variance in jockey weights. California's scale is heavier, Raffetto said, because the jockey colony there runs heavier and it became necessary to make adjustments. New Jersey raised its weight levels in some races a few years ago.

Any sweeping change will be difficult to facilitate in a sport that lacks a governing office.

"You would have to make the changes state by state, and in some cases, track by track within those states, and that's a tall order," said Saumell, who pushed for such changes as a Jockeys' Guild representative until 2001.

Retired jockey Randy Romero, who rode based out of Louisiana and Kentucky, has become the poster child for the cause; years of reducing and other excesses have so ravaged his body that he needs a kidney transplant and has hepatitis C.

Although a direct correlation between reducing and many illnesses is difficult to pinpoint, former Pimlico general manager Chick Lang said his father, who rode Reigh Count to victory in the 1928 Kentucky Derby, died because of years of reducing.

"The body just isn't meant to go through what a jockey puts it through," Lang said.

Indeed, the average jockey must weigh from 13 to 23 pounds less than what the American Medical Association suggests for males between 5 feet 1 and 5-6.

As well, while the average fat content in the male human body is between 13 and 17 percent, most jockeys measure between 2.5 and 3.5 percent, according to Albert Fiss, vice president of The Jockeys' Guild. A body-fat percentage that low can result in a lack of muscle mass and strength, and potentially, a dangerously slow metabolism.

"Reducing is a pain, no doubt about it," said Maryland trainer Tom Voss, who used to ride steeplechase horses. "It would be nice to find some way to give them some relief."

Caraballo, who stands 5-5 and is one of the heaviest Maryland jockeys, said when he was younger he tried everything from diet pills to "flipping," which is jockeys' slang for inducing vomiting, but now just uses the sauna to lose up to 6 pounds a day.

Frank Douglas, a Maryland veteran who is 5-3 and races at 114 pounds, said he has "no problem" losing a few pounds a day after doing it for years, but he witnesses daily struggles.

"Some guys really have a problem. I respect what they have to go through to do this," Douglas said. "Sitting in that hot box is no picnic. ... It's not like the health club. It's hot in there."

Vomiting gets the job done more quickly, but according to Raffetto, it was a more accepted practice among jockeys several decades ago.

"When I was at Monmouth Park [in New Jersey] we had a roomful of jockeys heaving their brains out," Raffetto said. "I think they're smarter about what they have to do now."

But they still have to lose as much weight, and "the constant pressure to reduce weight and body fat content is something that needs to be addressed and corrected," Fiss said.

The Jockeys' Guild is working on a plan that would force jockeys taking out a new license to have at least 5 percent body fat.

But it's hard to envision any changes being made when even the jockeys themselves aren't unanimously in support of raising weights. Pat Day, who stands 4-11 and weighs less than 100 pounds, has been outspoken in his opposition to having weights raised. Several other lighter jockeys feel similarly, not wanting to relinquish the advantage of their build.

As the debate goes on, jockeys at Laurel and other tracks across America continue to spend their mornings sweating in saunas, taking diet pills or doing whatever they feel is necessary.

"I don't have a weight problem most of the time," Caraballo said. "Just when I get on the scales."

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