Sunday, April 25, 2004

Horse racing's dirty little secret

Jockeys starve, sweat and purge - then risk their lives on the track

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LOUISVILLE - Shane Sellers paused outside the washroom stalls in the jockeys room of Churchill Downs racetrack. "I want you to understand, this is reality," he said.

He then opened the last stall on the right. Inside sits what jockeys call a heaving bowl, a large square basin designed to catch the vomit many riders regularly discharge to make weight requirements.

Such bowls are installed at a majority of tracks nationwide, including River Downs and Turfway Park, and are symbolic of horse racing's dirty little secret: Jockeys regularly induce vomiting, sit for extended times in steaming saunas and use diuretics, laxatives and stimulants.

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They do so, risking an assortment of health problems, to weigh in the range of 110 pounds. Then they drag their weakened bodies onto 1,200-pound animals going 35 mph and hope they don't get trampled. As independent contractors, they have no job security and most can't afford health insurance.

It's a steep price to pay for the chance to reach the winner's circle.

"I wouldn't wish this job on nobody," Hebron jockey Perry Ouzts said. "The uncertainty's there every day - if you're going to make a living at it."

Approaching Saturday's 130th running of the Kentucky Derby, it's a testy time in the jockey world. A group of riders wants new rules allowing them to ride at higher weights and is lobbying for better pay and health coverage.

Things could boil over with the Monday premiere of HBO's documentary, Jockey.

Sellers' tour of the Churchill washroom is part of the film, which depicts the hardships jockeys face in their business and lifestyle.

Sellers and most of his fellow riders hope the documentary educates the public about what's demanded of them, particularly in meeting weight standards they consider outdated.

Retired jockey Randy Romero, who awaits liver and kidney transplants necessitated in part by dangerous weight-loss practices, also stars in the HBO film.

Romero, now 46, said he was vomiting five to six times a day at the end of his career in the late 1990s. He had been bulimic since he was a 9-year-old riding in Louisiana.

"The bulimia is as bad as being a cocaine addict," he said.

"It works on your nervous system. It works on your mind. ... I put 150 percent into (riding), but it got me into the position I'm in now."

Jockey Dean Butler wipes dirt from his mouth following a race at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington.
(Gary Landers photo)
'Violating your body'

Every track sets weight requirements for each race, depending on the horse's age, sex and skill level and the race's distance. Yet the predominant weight scale remains largely unchanged from the original outline set in 1858, when humans were smaller. The weights horses carry generally range from 112 to 126 pounds. That figure includes the jockey plus about 7 pounds of gear.

A group of seven jockeys who recently screened Jockey for reporters estimated that 90 percent of all jockeys reduce their weight daily to ride.

In a 1995 study by the Chicago Rehabilitation Institute, 69 percent of riders said they skipped meals; 34 percent used diuretics; 67 percent sweated off pounds in the sauna; 30 percent "flipped," the term for self-induced vomiting, and 14 percent took laxatives.

"You feel like you're violating your body," said Steve Cauthen, the Walton, Ky., native who won the Triple Crown in 1978 aboard Affirmed.

"You wring it out every day. Then you drink a glass of water and you've got to wring it out again."

Some jockeys cut up to 10 pounds in a day, largely through marathon sessions in the sauna. Many use laxatives to clean out their system or Lasix, a diuretic that causes excessive urination.

Many who flip will eat constantly, easing their hunger for a few minutes before expelling the food. They trigger their gag reflex by sticking a finger down their throat, and many who do that over a number of years don't even need the finger.

"I could just lean over, and out it'd come," Sellers said.

His heart gave out

The health risks associated with jockeys' methods of dieting are numerous.

With starvation, jockeys can suffer the thinning bones of osteoporosis, blood disorders, kidney and nerve damage, abnormal heart rhythms, fainting spells, muscle weakness and cramps. In extreme cases, the stomach can develop lacerations and the esophagus can rupture.

Consistent vomiting can also result in tooth decay, hair loss, electrolyte imbalancesand, in extreme cases, organ failure. Dehydration can cause heat exhaustion.

In 2000, 29-year-old jockey Chris McKenzie died in Pennsylvania of a heart arrhythmia after his potassium levels plummeted as a result of dieting. Dr. Dana Powell, the track physician at Penn National Race Course, was aware McKenzie was badly abusing his body and had tried unsuccessfully to have him banned from riding.

In 1991, Australian jockey Peter Cook suffered a heart attack, which Supreme Court judges ruled was brought on by use of a racetrack's sauna. Cook won $840,841 in a lawsuit, and now jockeys in Australia are required to sign a paper saying they will use the saunas only in a safe manner.

"This whole issue of weight goes beyond flipping," said Dr. Laurie Humphries, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Kentucky specializing in eating disorders. "One of the issues is the use of cocaine to reduce appetite and increase energy, and other behaviors jockeys use that involve (drugs) to try to lower their body weight."

Cocaine and amphetamines are appetite suppressants that can become addictive.

The coroner's report on two-time Kentucky Derby winner Chris Antley concluded his 2000 death was caused by an accidental overdose. Police found four drugs in his body, including methamphetamine and Clobenzorex, an amphetamine precursor.

Clobenzorex can't be sold legally in the United States; it has been compared to Redux, the controversial weight-loss drug known as "fen-phen" that was outlawed in September 1997.

Florence jockey Rhonda Collins is 5-7 and weighs 110 pounds. In a jockey's first season, the jockey is allowed to ride at lower weights to compensate for inexperience. Torturing herself that year to weigh 103 drove Collins to acquire a prescription for fen-phen, when it was still legal.

"I have to say, it worked," said Collins, who said she used it just six weeks. "Before that, I ate three meals a week and lived on coffee. I smoked because it reduced hunger.

"It's such a hard sport mentally and physically. It's why you see alcoholism and drugs (in racing). You see (jockeys) turning to things like that. They're out of control; they need a break."

Cauthen moved overseas a year after his Triple Crown, in part because the weights were a few pounds higher, and eventually retired after tiring of battling his weight. He later was treated for alcoholism, which some experts theorize can be a companion to anorexia.

Some experts believe the majority of jockeys don't suffer long-term problems as a result of reducing.

Romero admits his liver, stricken with Hepatitis C, might have become diseased from a blood transfusion received in 1983, and that his kidneys might be failing because of the numerous anti-inflammatory medications he said he took after 23 surgeries.

"We need to be careful that we don't get hysterical about the health hazards that many are talking about," said J. David Richardson, a surgeon in Louisville who has treated jockeys.

"For thin-statured people, the notion that you get severe health problems from dieting, I haven't seen a lot of that."

Should weight be raised?

Jockeys, from left, Larry Melancon, Dean Butler, and Mark Guidry wait outside of the Jockeys Quarters for the start of the next race at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington.
(Gary Landers photo)
Each state's racing commission sets its own weight standards. The minimum weight for nearly all races in many jurisdictions is 116 pounds. The Jockeys' Guild is pushing for a minimum weight of 118, including making a formal proposal last month in California, a key racing state.

It carried the proposal further by saying jockeys should be required to maintain 5 percent body fat, similar to what the governing bodies for cyclists and gymnasts require. Current jockeys would be exempt.

"There may be a handful of trainers out there that make an argument about this, but no owners or racetracks or commissions are ... giving us resistance," said Albert Fiss, the guild's vice president.

Two Hall of Famers, trainer D. Wayne Lukas and jockey Pat Day, are outspoken opponents of a weight increase.

Lukas didn't return phone messages for this story but has said previously, "If you put more weight on (horses), you'll have ... problems. Modern diets are great. Tell (jockeys) to get on one. If they're too big to make weight, they should do something else."

Jockeys will counter that the weight demands are so abnormal that even well-meaning efforts go awry - such as 2003 Derby winner Jose Santos detailing how his weight rose when he took vitamins.

Day claims that raising weights will only encourage "overweight" would-be riders to try to cut weight, creating their own health issues.

As for the horse: What danger would extra weight create?

Dr. Stephen Wickler, professor of Animal and Veterinary Science at California Polytechnic Pomona, has estimated that a 5-pound increase in weight would increase force on a horse's limbs by 0.5 percent.

Said Larry Bramlage, an orthopedic surgeon at the Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington: "The implications for the horse are minimal."

Horses that race in Europe have long carried significantly more weight than their American counterparts. Critics dismiss the comparison, saying nearly all of European racing is done on grass (easier on a horse's legs than dirt racing) and the horses don't run as much.

A code of silence

Jockeys historically have had little leverage in their sport. They generally don't make much money if their horse doesn't win, place or show.

"If there are 20 horses in the Kentucky Derby, 17 of us are going to ride that race for $56 after paying your agent, valet and Uncle Sam," Sellers said.

Darrell Haire, a member's representative for the Jockey's Guild, said that of the nearly 1,900 licensed riders in the United States, "You take out the top 100, and the average salary (of everyone else) is about $24,000."

Most jockeys keep a code of silence about their hardships. Admitting weight struggles could cost them business.

They don't know from day to day how many trainers will select them for mounts. Competition is keen.

"It's very cutthroat," Burlington jockey Bill Troilo said. "You have to have a strong spine in this business."

Every rider will say this: For those who can't make weight, someone will come to take his or her place. It's a fragile perch from which to pout.

"If this is the only way to go through it, I'll go through it ... until my body can't take it any more," Sellers said. "Because I love the game so much."

Coming this week

Monday: After falling to the wrecking ball, much of Churchill Downs has been rebuilt. Almost everything will be new when the $121 million renovation is done in 2005.

Thursday: A look at the post-position draw, which is Wednesday night.

Saturday: The Derby isn't just about horses. It's about fashion, tradition, parties and celebrities. The Derby is who we are. Also, a complete preview of Saturday's race.



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