This article appeared in the Sports Dietitians Australia Fuel Newsletter Issue #82 November 2010
Working with jockeys can be a difficult industry in which to make in-roads. I have been lucky to be involved with groups and individual jockeys in Darwin with the Northern Territory Jockey's Association in 2002, and in 2006/07 worked in Melbourne with the Victorian Jockey Apprentices, including lecturing on safe practices for making weight. Medical issues regarding dehydration have prompted jockey associations to take these issues more seriously in the last decade.
As jockeys are required to perform under certain weight categories, and there is often considerable effort to make the weight class, which can be challenging and sometimes dangerous to their health when not done correctly. There is risk of long term damage to the health of jockeys from weight cycling, poor nutrition and chronic dehydration, plus the potential danger from falling off a 500kg horse which is galloping at 60km/hour!
Racetracks set the riding weight requirements for each race depending on the horse's age and sex, skill level, and race distances. Unfortunately the predominant weight scale in use has remained largely unchanged from the original outline set in the mid 1850s, when humans were generally smaller. Minimum weights in Victoria (and similarly elsewhere) are 50kg for the Melbourne and Caulfield Cups, 51kg for group one races, 52kg for group 2, and 53kg for other races.
Jockeys continue to struggle to keep their weight down to race at these weights, and consequently are involved in high risk activities to control it. A study of riders by the Chicago Rehabilitation Institute (1995) found that 69% skipped meals, 34% used diuretics, 67% sweated off in the sauna, 30% "flipped" (self-induced vomiting), and 14% took laxatives. In many jockey rooms of race courses around the world, you will actually find "heaving bowls", large toilets adapted to facilitate the frequent vomiting. Although this is fairly old data, things progress slowly in a traditional sport like horse racing, especially when retired jockeys are coaching the new ones, often giving advice on what they used to do. Luckily for all upcoming jockeys, there is hope that changes will be made. Racing Victoria are looking to increase the minimum riding weight to a standard minimum of 53.9kg, including the Melbourne Cup. They are also looking at increasing the participation of women, as their generally smaller frame size will make it easier to make weight. There is a slight increase in the number of dietitians working within the sport to help change bad habits, and aiming to improve the methods of making weight.
A common way of dropping weight for jockeys, is to reduce body fluid levels by restricting fluid intake and increase fluid losses with the use of diuretics and saunas. Jockeys also limit nutrient intake by fasting (food avoidance), skipping meals and using appetite suppressants, plus eliminating kilojoules by inducing vomiting and using laxatives. Obviously all of these methods are putting their health at risk. In particular, sauna use can cause dehydration, heat stress illness, low blood pressure (fainting), blood clotting changes, heart attack, stroke and thrombosis. Long term food restriction (starvation) can result in unhealthy body changes including osteoporosis, blood disorders, kidney and nerve damage, abnormal heart rhythms, fainting spells, muscle weakness and cramps.
One session I delivered to jockeys was entitled "Safe use of Sauna", and this was compulsory attendance for all apprentices. The session included a range of information from physiological changes and medical risks of dehydration, to safe nutrition strategies for making weight. Sadly, the jockeys often looked disinterested in the information, so keeping the session exciting to get the message across was a challenge.
Another strategy undertaken to change the poor reputation of the industry was visiting trackside to assess food provision for the jockeys at race meets. The food was good, however, the reality was that few of the jockeys were actually eating it for fear of gaining weight! Victorian Racing along with the VIS have implemented the "BOLT pack" to give to jockeys on race day. It consists of high energy low residue foods such as fruit bars, carbohydrate gels, and confectionery, so athletes can consume the carbohydrate and energy they need for racing, without risking their weight. Jockeys are required to weigh-in before every race throughout the day, so eating and drinking much during the day will risk going over their race weight limit. Education was given along with this, and is hopefully making some inroads into the poor habits that exist.
Based on all of this, where are jockeys getting their nutrition information? Nutrition information often comes from within the horse racing industry, such as trainers, fellow jockeys, and retired jockeys, and is often based on hearsay and historical techniques. Other information sources may be publications, the media, physicians, and apprentice training programs. Dietitians can provide professional nutritional advice on safer alternative weight management options, presenting an unbiased view from outside the racing fraternity, and are hopefully able to debunk long standing myths by providing viable alternative methods.
If you're thinking of working in the area, make the jockey / association aware that as a sports dietitian, you can advise about appropriate weight loss strategies, such as:
In addition, some of the keys to effective management of weight on race day hinge on the following:
Even in my limited experience within the racing fraternity, I have seen some really positive changes. Some older and more experienced jockeys have been through the system with good nutrition advice and are now starting to feedback to upcoming riders. This will only help to strengthen our messages, as they have been tried and tested! People working in the industry are also recognising litigation risk is real. Horse racing can be a dangerous sport and jockeys are the ones most at risk, so management need to take care of them. I think better change will happen when the archaic race weights are changed, and when riders are given good career advice about whether they are suited to the low body weight required.
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