Fed Up With the Hunger
Tucked inside the jockeys’ room at Hollywood Park are quarters of private suffering.
In back is a large, glass-windowed sauna, known in the riders’ vernacular as the hot box, or sweat box.
There, jockeys wring water and pounds from their bodies, sweating in stifling temperatures for up to three hours a day, some of them working out on a step machine as they swelter.
“I’ve seen some guys pull seven, eight pounds,” Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith said. “That’s ridiculous.”
Signs posted in the bathroom area suggest another method of weight control: “No heaving in this stall.”
One, however, is reserved for that purpose, with a large basin installed at a height convenient for regurgitating.
“You go in a stall and there’s someone in the next stall having to heave,” said Smith, one of the fortunate few who can maintain a weight of about 113 pounds mostly through diet and exercise, but who occasionally uses other methods. “It’s just a way of life in there. We almost joke about it sometimes, like, ‘Don’t eat the chicken.’ It’s sad, really.”
The adage long has been that what goes on in the jockeys’ room stays in the jockeys’ room.
But the code of silence about their extreme methods -- the fasting, self-induced vomiting, hours in the sauna and use of diuretics and diet pills -- is slowly being broken, in part because of a push by jockeys for an increase in the minimum weights horses carry. Although jockeys may race a few pounds over their assigned weight, they face intense pressure from owners and trainers to be as light as rules permit.
The California Horse Racing Board could vote as soon as August on a proposal to raise the minimum for veteran riders in thoroughbred races to 118 pounds, and end the practice of including the saddle when a jockey is weighed. Those changes could allow a jockey to be four to eight pounds heavier, though there is disagreement about a precise figure.
“If a jockey can show up at the jocks’ room weighing, say, 115, 116, 117, instead of 111, 112, 113, it would make all the difference in the world, health-wise,” said retired Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, now vice president and general manager of Santa Anita Park.
The rules also would require jockeys licensed after 2003 to maintain at least 5% body fat -- considered a minimum for most men to remain healthy.
Dr. David Seftel, a track physician at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields in Northern California, said 95% of the jockeys he tests have dangerously low body-fat percentages. He also has treated riders suffering from kidney damage, impaired immune systems, osteoporosis and effects of bulimia that include pre-cancerous conditions of the esophagus.
“It’s an extraordinary situation,” said Seftel, who has studied jockeys’ health for several years. “You have effectively mandated malnutrition.”
Kent Desormeaux, a 5-foot-3, 115-pound rider and two-time Kentucky Derby winner who struggles to make weight almost daily, said he worried about long-term health issues. “The reality is that probably 85% of riders are dying to ride -- literally,” he said.
Although minimum weights vary widely under the current system, which originated in the 19th century, veteran riders in California seldom are assigned less than 115 pounds -- still too low, in Desormeaux’s opinion: “You’re asking guys to weigh 110 pounds to tack 115,” or weigh 115 clothed and carrying a saddle.
“It’s just almost not feasible anymore by the American human,” he added. “I think if they want to visit Third World countries they can find some small people, but Americans are no longer that small.”
Despite the informal support of the racing board’s seven-member board of directors -- a group appointed by the governor -- the proposal to increase minimum weights faces opposition.
Racing begins at Del Mar today and the board will discuss the weight issue at its meeting Thursday.
Many trainers and owners contend the increase would harm the horses and might weaken the sport in California by prompting horsemen to race elsewhere.
Wayne Lukas, a Hall of Fame trainer, criticized riders’ complaints in April in response to questions after the premiere of the HBO documentary “Jockey.” The film, which brought increased attention to the weight issue, features Randy Romero, a former jockey who needs liver and kidney transplants, and current rider Shane Sellers, an outspoken proponent of change.
“It’s hard for me to feel sorry for [jockeys] who are driving three Mercedeses and living in million-dollar homes and everything, and they are worried about six or seven pounds because they have to ‘flip,’ ” Lukas said, using racing slang for self-induced vomiting. “They have to get a job washing cars or something. If you are in the NBA, you are better if you’re 7 feet tall and quick. And if you are a jockey, you should be small in stature.”
Lukas suggested that raising the minimum would merely attract heavier would-be jockeys.
“All you do if you raise the weights is have 150-pound exercise boys start flipping so they can make the weight,” he said.
Steve Taub, the owner of Imperialism, a colt who finished third in the Kentucky Derby, is opposed as well.
“I think it would be a drastic mistake,” he said. “The horses are very, very valuable. They cost a lot of money, and they cost a lot of money to maintain. All more weight would do is break the horses down, and we’ve already got a problem.
“The jockeys are paid between a quarter of a million and a million and a half a year, depending on who they are. It’s self-discipline and diet, and if they would do that, there’s no need.”
Even trainer Bob Baffert, a former jockey who stopped riding in part because of the difficulty of making weight with a 5-foot-9 frame that now carries 170 pounds, is against changing the rules. He cited concerns about racing the younger horses in his barn with a 118-pound jockey and 10 pounds of gear, the minimum weights in the proposed rules.
“If they started carrying 128 pounds, they’re not going to stay very sound very long,” Baffert said. “I’m all for helping the jockeys out, but it’s a small man’s game. The first thing you do is they need to jerk these kitchens out of the jockeys’ rooms. All they need is a little protein bar. I think they need education on how to eat.”
Barry Broad, a labor lobbyist who represents the Jockeys’ Guild, said some owners and trainers should be more focused on “the health and safety of the human beings who work for them.”
“They’re slightly more concerned with the horses’ health than the jockeys’, unfortunately,” he said.
Some owners and trainers are sympathetic.
Composer and racehorse owner Burt Bacharach placed a full-page ad in the Daily Racing Form the day of the Belmont Stakes last month, urging a change to protect jockeys whose bodies start to “cannibalize” themselves at body-fat levels below 5%, and calling for changes to “an unreasonable, old-fashioned weight scale.”
Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally said he repeatedly had watched one jockey gorge himself on Mexican food and then excuse himself to purge. “Some of those boys are really killing themselves to be a rider. I don’t think they should be damaging their health to ride,” he said.
Near-fasting by jockeys has long been part of horse racing.
Laffit Pincay Jr., who won more races than any rider before retiring last year, famously subsisted at times during his career on half an apple a day or a single protein bar. (An athlete Pincay’s size generally requires 1,500 to 1,700 calories a day, nutritionists say.) An oft-told story had Pincay once splitting a peanut, saving half to eat later.
“I used to do a lot of stupid things, but I don’t remember that one,” said Pincay, who said he finally learned to control his weight late in his career with the help of a nutritionist.
“I went through times when I was heaving, throwing up. I was taking a lot of water pills. I look back now and think, ‘How in the hell did I make such a light weight?’ ” said Pincay, who used to weigh 112 or 113. He now weighs 130.
“People don’t want to see it like it is. A lot of jockeys are suffering,” Pincay said.
Unlike other sports known for fostering eating disorders, such as gymnastics or wrestling, jockeys are subject to the scale five days a week, essentially as a condition of employment.
“Models do it for an occasion, for a shoot. We have to do it every day,” said Desormeaux. “After having the most responsible diet you can imagine, I still get overweight after two or three days, where I have to resort to purging or water pills or taking metabolism pills.”
Sellers, a prominent rider based in Kentucky, admits he used to purge “five, six, seven times a day.”
“It’s sickening, when I think about it,” Sellers said. “My stomach always hurts. I have ulcers.”
Sellers said he had gotten fewer mounts since the documentary aired.
“I have owners I rode for who don’t even look at me,” he said. “I feel I’ve been pretty much blackballed -- that’s how I feel.”
Riding is no longer an option for Romero, who is on dialysis three days a week.
“The kidney is not the main thing now; it’s the liver,” he said. “They want to wait as long as they can [before performing transplants] because it’s a very risky operation.”
Romero said his ailments resulted not only from reducing practices and overuse of anti-inflammatory medication, but also from a sauna accident in 1983.
“The sauna blew up and burned like 60% of my body,” he said. “When they gave me blood transfusions -- they didn’t screen the blood in 1983 -- I got blood with hepatitis.” That led to cirrhosis of the liver.
“My lifespan is shortened,” he said. “I know that.”
Seftel, the track physician, said kidney failure was the most serious of the health problems associated with jockeys’ extreme reducing tactics. He said his studies showed that chronic renal insufficiency -- a precursor of kidney failure -- occurred in the jockey population at a rate 10 times the national incidence.
“The easiest way to lose excess pounds is to spend many hours in the sauna,” he said. “And when you lose considerable amounts of fluid, it leaves the kidneys struggling for something to do.”
Jockeys also tend to take longer to recover from infections and racing injuries, Seftel said. “They sustain fractures that often do not heal for long periods because of underlying malnutrition,” he said.
Less serious, but still galling to riders, is the prevalence of capped teeth. McCarron, whose mounts won a record $264 million, counts dental work among the souvenirs of his career.
“Unfortunately, when you vomit, the stomach acid causes a great deal of decay of your teeth. I don’t know if the younger riders know that,” said McCarron, who has testified before the racing board on riders’ behalf. “It’s something I’m not real comfortable talking about. I was what you call a ‘closet flipper.’ I wasn’t as willing as a lot to let others know I was doing it.”
The proposed changes are being debated during a 45-day public comment period declared by the racing board in June. A public hearing is scheduled for the board’s Aug. 19 meeting in Del Mar. A vote could come at the conclusion of the hearing, and the new rules, if approved, could be in effect by year’s end.
“The jockeys have a pretty good case,” said John C. Harris, the state racing board chairman.
One significant area of disagreement remaining among owners, trainers and jockeys is over how many pounds riders would gain and how much additional weight horses would carry.
Under the current system, the assigned weights published in the track program include basic clothing and the saddle. Other equipment, including such required items as the safety vest and helmet, is not weighed before the race.
The new rules call for jockeys to be weighed nude, with lead weights added if necessary to reach the minimum. Each horse would carry 10 pounds of clothing, saddle and other gear, including the vest and helmet, in addition to the jockey’s assigned weight.
Drew Couto, president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, said after meeting with Jockeys Guild representatives this month that his group supported “a reasonable increase” in the weight for riders, but was concerned about the prospect of California having more restrictive rules than other states.
McCarron, as much as anyone, acknowledges he must ride the fence on the issue.
As a former jockey, he understands the damage riders do to their health and believes change is necessary. As a track executive, he is concerned about horsemen shipping horses out of state to race.
“I’d like to see California be the leader in this,” he said, noting there is no national governing body with the authority to institute change. “I also believe it has to be done on a national basis. It’s not in the best interest of California racing to raise the scale of weights here and not anywhere else.”
McCarron has gained six pounds since retiring in 2002, going from 112 to 118, and routinely is asked what he savors most about his new diet.
“Most people think it would be apple pie, ice cream or a hamburger,” McCarron said. “My answer is simple: lunch.”
Times staff writer Bob Mieszerski contributed to this report.