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Diet Dilemmas : For Jockeys, the Cruel Struggle With the Scale Is a Competition They Can’t Afford to Lose

Times Staff Writer

Where most Americans diet for appearance, these individuals have a different motivation: If they don’t, they probably are out of a job.

These prosperous people who can’t afford to eat are the jockeys at the horse race tracks. They are some of the best-paid athletes in the world, especially those at the Santa Anita thoroughbred meeting now in progress.

People earning a great deal less treat their stomachs much more kindly. What jockeys put themselves through can only be described as cruel and unusual punishment.

Call it diet secrets of the rich and famous, accurate in some of the cases. But hardly enviable.

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Consider the case of Fernando Toro, a 48-year-old former Chilean who has been riding thoroughbreds for decades. He is still a master on turf courses, earns a comfortable living--and goes through hell for the privilege.

“For breakfast I have a cup of black coffee,” he said in the jockeys’ room at Santa Anita Park the other day while awaiting the first race. “After the morning workouts, I go home and have fruit around 10 a.m. with my wife, Lola. And, I don’t care what’s happening; the fruit is Chilean.

Fish or Fowl at Dinner

“That’s it until I see my big choice for dinner around 7 p.m.,” he wisecracked.

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That, he explained, amounts to either chicken or fish.

“Before I leave home for the track, my wife asks me what I will want. Sometimes, even after chicken three nights in a row, I’ll request it again. And Lola will reply: ‘Again?’ ”

Not that there isn’t variety: Sometimes his wife does the chicken broiled, sometimes baked, never fried. Sometimes there is a small salad to break the monotony.

“During the week I think about hot dogs and hamburgers, but I don’t do anything about it until Sunday nights,” Toro said. “Then I get the urge out of me and have some. I do have to keep my mind sane. Lola and I might even stop in somewhere for a cup of sherbet.”

It was about two years ago, Toro indicated, that he finally found his Shangri-La, this diet that works and allows him to tack (weight with his gear of saddle, boots, silks, etc.) 115 pounds.

“I tried every diet in every book. I used to spend lots of time in the steam box, but that took too much out of me physically and mentally. I tried ‘flipping’ (induced vomiting), but that made me get dizzy and get the shakes.”

Toro has found his solution to coping with what many feel is an unrealistic, archaic and fiendish weight requirement situation--the 117-pound or so limit that Thomas S. Robbins, racing secretary at Santa Anita, said prevails in many instances for the lesser races (not including stakes).

If they want the money and like the sport, jockeys find a way to comply--be it by inducing vomiting, taking laxatives, taking diuretics, taking prescription amphetamine diet pills, suffering in a hot box or just plain doing without food.

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Laffit Pincay Jr., at 42 probably the best jockey in the nation, gets anyone’s award for perseverance for still being able to tack 117 pounds.

Diet-Pill Addiction

He said the diet pills he at first tried led to addiction, so he stopped. After unsuccessfully trying countless types of diets, plus practically living in sweat boxes (“It took me an hour to lose one pound”), plus flipping (“It left me too weak”), he returned one day from a health-food store with packages of bran flakes and unsalted nuts.

“I mixed them in a bowl two times a day, and for years those were my only meals,” he said. “It wasn’t very appetizing, and sometimes I got headaches, but it kept my weight stable.”

If he went to a dinner, along with him went the unsalted nuts and the flakes. “Sure, that diet worked,” the muscular Panamanian recalled, “but I was weak a lot. I needed iron. And somehow I always felt I wasn’t complete.”

About four years ago, Pincay switched to chicken and fish--and discovered the benefits of walking. Though he feels he can’t eat steak, he occasionally chews some pieces for the juice and flavor--then discreetly spits them out.

“I begin the day with a breakfast of chicken or fish, plus a vegetable or beans. Then I go to a track at a high school in my neighborhood and walk about 2 miles.

“Later, a little more chicken. For supper, again fish or chicken and vegetables.

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“On Sunday nights I allow myself a piece of pecan pie.”

The eating disorder, bulimia, a constant craving for food, is no stranger in any jockeys’ room.

An Occasional Binge

Gary Stevens, 26, second leading rider at Santa Anita, said he doesn’t suffer it, but he conceded that--for the sake of maintaining a sound mind--he occasionally overindulges at the table, after which he regurgitates.

“If I take my wife, Toni, to dinner, or take my two kids to McDonald’s, I eat a regular meal like they do. If you’re gonna overdo it, you may as well do a good job of it. If I starved myself all year, I’d be a maniac.”

Stevens, who weighs 114 pounds, disclosed that he usually eats nothing in the morning. “At midday, I may have toast. At night, I eat a regular dinner with my family. I have to: I’m hungry.”

Fighting the scales is nothing new in horse racing. Peter Moreno, a former rider in the ‘50s and ‘60s, now is 62 and a patrol judge.

“I remember one guy who would put on a rubber suit every day, run a mile on the streets, then get in his car, roll up the windows and drive with the heater on full blast,” he said.

George Taniguchi, 59, was also a rider from that era, and is now an assistant racing secretary at Santa Anita.

“I usually did 109, but one time the owner I rode for wanted me to get down to 103 for an upcoming stakes race. For a week and a half I existed on only salad and burnt toast--and that did it.

"(Former jockey) Ralph Neves used to eat only rare steaks and tomatoes whenever he developed a weight problem.”

Terry Lipham, 44, a rider until he retired in 1986 and who is now a jockey’s agent, said his solution to the poundage problem was simply to eat only one meal a day.

“I never flipped, and I couldn’t use the hot box because I got claustrophobia. During the daytime I ate a little candy, for energy. Other than that, I ate nothing until dinner, when I had whatever I wanted.”

What about the effects of the various methods of weight control? Dr. Anthony Daly, a Marina del Rey orthopedic surgeon and specialist in sports medicine, had these thoughts:

-- Amphetamine diet pills: “Not only can they become addictive, but they can cause a rush that could result in poor judgment while riding.”

-- Diuretics: “They can result in low potassium in the body’s system.”

-- Laxatives: “Excessive use can result in mineral loss.”

-- Sweat box: “Again, potassium loss, and also salt loss.”

-- Binge and purge: “Once again, the danger of low potassium, coupled with fatigue, and the more serious possibility of cardiac abnormality.”

-- Semi-starving: “If you have to diet, this is the best method--reducing caloric intake. The big caution is to make sure you get balance--that you get all the essential vitamins and minerals.”

Regardless of whether limited weight is healthful for a particular jockey’s physical frame, they all try to abide by the requirements for as long as they can. Some, such as the venerable 57-year-old Bill Shoemaker, who has to try hard to attain 100 pounds, have always eaten whatever and as much as they like.

Mounting a Challenge

In one recent case, a rider who had been having no problems with the challenge found himself unexpectedly having to reduce. The chain of events came about because of a tragedy.

Robbie Davis, 27, a top rider in the East, was competing in the fifth race at Belmont Park on Oct. 13, 1988. Ahead of him in the pack, the horse ridden by Mike Venezia broke down, throwing him to the ground. In a split second, the horse that Davis was on trampled the fallen jockey, killing him.

The accident devastated Davis, and he stayed away from his trade for nearly the next five months.

“During that time my weight went up from 108 to 118,” he recalled.

With stops along the way, he eventually took his wife, Marguerite, and their three children in a mobile home to California. Davis decided to resume his riding, but before his first mount at Arcadia on March 8, there was the matter of the belt line.

Carbohydrates and Water

“About two weeks before that, I began a simple program of mostly carbohydrates, greens and water,” he said. “For breakfast, I had a small serving of whole grain cereal and skim milk, a slice of wheat toast and a couple ounces of orange juice.

“For lunch, I usually diced up banana, pear and orange into a bowl, and drank club soda.

Dinner Menu

“For dinner, I had filets of chicken or fish, plus carrots or peas or beans. Once in a while I had strawberries or raspberries in skim milk for dessert.

“In two weeks I had lost the 10 pounds.”

Now that he is active again as a rider, Davis said, the exercise means he doesn’t have to diet so strictly: “I even allow myself a scoop of vanilla ice cream once in a while, even a steak.”

Also helping him keep trim is the fact that every other day, with his 3-year-old daughter Kristen in the back seat, he goes bike riding for about 5 miles in his neighborhood.

Jockey Joy Scott, 30, recalled her pregnancy: “I could tack 112, then I reached 134 by the time I gave birth in June, 1987, then I actually dropped to below where I had been.

“But now I ride at 114. I think I have more of a problem because I don’t get that many mounts, and I tend to get careless about my weight.”

One of the villains, she said, is coffee, because she likes it with cream and sugar. To counterattack, her diet method includes a daily egg fried in grape-seed oil.

The nation’s top female rider, Julie Krone, said while on a visit here from the East that her concern is her energy level, rather than weight, inasmuch as she tacks 101.

“Throughout the day I nibble organic fruit and dry toast, and eat yogurt,” the 25-year-old jockey said.

“My breakfast is dry toast or a bagel and herb tea. Lunch is generally a scoop of tuna salad on lettuce and Perrier to drink. I drink a lot of water. Dinner usually is poached fish, salad, whole wheat bread and sugar-free Jell-O.”

Once a jockey tires of the constant struggle with the scales, it isn’t unusual for the poundage to balloon to where it should have been all along. Gary Baze, now 33, quit at the end of the Oak Tree meeting here in 1987 and moved to Washington where he became a jockey’s agent at Longacres and where, according to a spokesman there, his weight last year reached nearly 140 pounds.


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