LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Imagine downing a juicy cheeseburger, fries and a milkshake -- then going to the bathroom a few minutes later, sticking a finger down your throat and vomiting.
No, we’re not talking about teenage girls with bulimia, or models struggling for the high-fashion gaunt look. These are grown men trying to keep their jobs as jockeys, those diminutive athletes in colorful silks sent out to ride 1,200-pound racehorses worth millions of dollars.
The quest to ride in next Saturday’s Kentucky Derby begins long before 3-year-old thoroughbreds take to the track. All across the country, jockeys compete to get the best mounts, the most victories and establish their reputations.
A big part of their success is making weight, staying light enough to ride based on limitations set by racing officials. In an age when sports seem all about bulking up with steroids and human growth hormone, race riding is about slimming down. It’s been this way for more than 100 years, although minimum riding weights have started to rise -- to much approval by the jockeys.
“The other professional athletes have to be stronger, bigger, faster,” top rider John Velazquez said before the races one morning at Keeneland Race Course. “We have to be smaller, skinnier and lighter -- and stronger at the same time. There’s a lot of discipline involved, and not everyone can do it.”
Jockeys can weigh a luxurious 126 pounds for the Derby, as much weight as many of these horses will haul around a track. When it comes to everyday racing, however, weight assignments can be 110 pounds and lower, quite light in today’s bigger and stronger world even for a man of short stature.
The never-ending weight watch has led jockeys to resort to extraordinary and often dangerous means in an attempt to shed pounds quickly and keep them off.
In addition to vomiting, also known as “flipping” and “heaving,” jockeys spend hours in a hot box sweating off pounds, jogging in rubber suits or popping diet pills. These unhealthy practices can lead to major medical woes such as esophagitis, osteoporosis, heart problems, dental issues, electrolyte disturbances, drug addiction -- and even death.
In 2005, Emanuel Jose Sanchez, a 22-year-old jockey, was found lying on the floor of the shower in the jockeys’ room after riding a horse named Bear on Tour at Colonial Downs in New Kent, Va. He went into a coma and died a short time later. The official cause of death was listed as undetermined, but the Washington Post reported at the time that the rider had shown signs of dehydration, basing its report on accounts that Sanchez had been battling weight-loss issues.
Since there are no set rules in racing addressing weight-reduction methods, many jockeys’ rooms are equipped with “heave bowls” for flipping and hot boxes -- saunas, steam rooms or whirlpools -- for shedding pounds.
Garrett Gomez, the Eclipse Award winner as the nation’s leading rider in 2007, will be aboard Court Vision in the Derby. The 36-year-old Gomez eats when the urge hits. “I flip,” he says. “I like food. I like to eat. I see McDonald’s, and if I crave it I’ll eat it.”
Then he’ll regurgitate.
“You make sacrifices,” says the 5-foot-3, 114-pound Gomez, who dropped more than 30 pounds several years ago to make a comeback after a two-year absence to deal with a cocaine and alcohol problem. “No one said I had to come back and be a jockey. The flipping, the wear and tear on your teeth [from flipping], and your body sitting in a hot box for long periods of time . . . you’re always under constant stress to make sure of your weight.”
Velazquez, who will ride Cowboy Cal in the Derby, chooses the strict diet route to maintain his 114-pound riding weight. No flipping or daily sweating for him. He virtually starves himself until dinner. He eats a half-cup of dry cereal in the morning, sips coffee, sucks on an orange or bites into a banana, and drinks water before eating his one normal meal of the day.
“It’s my way of keeping my weight down,” says Velazquez, an 18-year veteran who years ago learned his nutrition lessons at a riding school in his native Puerto Rico. “Is it normal? No, it’s not normal. It’s part of my life. It comes with the territory.”
Shane Sellers, who won more than 4,000 races before retiring in 2004 due to injuries and a constant battle with weight, has criticized racing officials for years for ignoring riders. In his newly released autobiography, “Freedom’s Rein,” he estimates more than half of American jockeys “battle life-threatening eating disorders and push themselves beyond their personal boundaries to lose weight.
“Almost every jockey utilizes the hot box. . . . Almost every jockey has heaved or resorted to diet pills at least a couple of times so that they can make weight for a race. Almost every jockey has done things that other professional athletes would never consider doing because that is just part of the sport.”
Jockeys are not the only athletes to deal with weight issues. Wrestlers and boxers also often have to drop weight before competing. But when 20 of the world’s top jockeys climb aboard their horses for the Derby, it’s a safe bet that just about every one of them -- at one time or another -- resorted to some type of harmful practice in a desperate effort to drop weight.
“I’d say nine of 10,” says Gomez.
There is hope. Racing finally began to address the weight issue three years ago, and tracks in California, Florida, Kentucky, New Jersey and New York have raised minimum weights about 3 or 4 pounds or more to 115 or 116 pounds. It could go higher. Nutrition and healthy weight management programs are being introduced and research is being sought to examine the problem in more detail.
“The industry has to take some responsibility,” says Martin Panza, Hollywood Park’s racing secretary, who helped initiate the weight increase in 2005. “The good news is racing is talking to each other and raising weights will continue. It’s a gradual process.”
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 2 1/2 -mile courses with jumps. And there are exercise riders weighing over 150 pounds who climb aboard horses for morning workouts.
“There has to be some leverage for the jockeys and make them comfortable, but you also have to draw the line at a certain point,” says top trainer Todd Pletcher. “The entire industry needs to come together with the jockeys, and decide a fair assignment that is safe for the jockeys and for the horses.”
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.”