'Some jockeys got so used to throwing up they wouldn't even have to put their fingers down their throat'
Torturing themselves to make the cut – Jockeys are risking their long-term health in daily battle with the scales
Published 07/04/2016 | 13:10
ALL eyes will be fixed on Aintree this week as the finest equine talent negotiate the gruelling Grand National course for one of horse racing's most lucrative prizes.
An event which captures the public imagination and sets pulses racing from flag-fall but for a jockey, even Aintree is an intense struggle, another staging of the daily duel with the scales.
The real contest takes place far away from the television screens, long before starter's orders and taking responsibility for the half tonne of raw power underneath. Their battle is within, often trying to trick the body into believing it doesn't need food. The punter wouldn't believe the pain and suffering it takes for a jockey to take their place in the parade ring.
There's mental warfare bubbling under and over the surface but it's second nature to them. Most have been riding ponies since childhood and they have lived their life with weight never far from their thoughts. But familiarity does indeed breed contempt and it taxes the body.
According to Dr Adrian McGoldrick, Turf Club senior medical officer, National Hunt jockeys weigh on average a stone less than their natural weight, while flat jockeys can be up to 21lb lighter. Racing's weight demands are incomparable with any other discipline.
"Making weight is part of racing and it's been part of my life for the last 30 years," McGoldrick says. "Racing is a unique sport in that riders have to make weight daily; there's no other sport where you have to make weight literally before you compete. Boxing and rowing are similar but in racing, you don't have any time to rehydrate, and that's on a daily basis."
For jockeys, their pay packet - their family's livelihood - is on the line. Weighing in overweight or standing themselves down is not an option and they must make ends meet. Desperate times regularly call for desperate measures, and despite major scientific advances, starvation and dehydration are still commonplace.
McGoldrick accepts that saunas, present at nearly every Irish track, are just "a part of racing" as Irish riders strive to cut weight quickly by severely restricting their fluid intake. Doctors, dietitians and sports physiologists are freely available and regularly engaged by jockeys, but 'traditional methods' are still employed.
More dangerous methods like 'flipping' (self-induced vomiting) and use of diuretics are "uncommon" in Ireland but customary elsewhere. In America, an emesis bowl is part and parcel of their racing culture, with jockeys able to vomit on command in the weighing room.
"Some of the retired American jockeys would say they got so used to it that they wouldn't even have to put their fingers down their throat," says McGoldrick. "They can have a meal, stand over the toilet and throw it up and that would have been the norm. Some of the older jockeys would have yellow stains on their teeth from the bile burning them."
For retired Wexford jockey John Cullen, the scales were a constant source of torture despite never taking extreme measures to compete. He openly admits to "all sweating and no eating", commonly leaving home with eight to ten pounds to shift before racing, but he always got the job done.
"I had no other choice. If you don't ride, you don't get paid," Cullen says candidly. "I was eating very little but eating all the wrong foods. I could get a cup of tea and a purple snack in the morning and then I mightn't have anything until I rode in the afternoon. I'd have maybe a burger and chips on the way home and that'd be it. My digestive system was fucked up.
"I might do a poo every two or three days and when I would, it'd be fuck all. I was bulky and everything seemed to sit on me. Because I was starving myself, the body was grabbing onto as much as it could and I was binge eating. I didn't take tablets or diuretics, I never made myself sick to make weight but I often went through the pain barrier in a sauna for two hours before racing."
It wasn't until he appeared on RTÉ's Health Squad that he realised the error of his ways. He was 11st 4lb and rarely fit to take a spare ride at short notice but through consistent exercise and radical dietary changes, he became comfortable at 10st 5lbs. Weight wasn't an issue and he could go racing on a full stomach, but a lack of opportunities eventually ended the career of the multiple Grade One-winning rider.
Cullen feels it's easier for top jockeys like Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty to make the cut because of the quality of animal awaiting them, while he slipped back into bad habits with no motivation to drive him.
"It was hard to get rides, there was no one to ring and when you did, some wouldn't answer or return your calls. That would depress you more than anything else and when you're depressed you'll binge eat. It's a vicious circle," he says.
While Cullen rode for 22 seasons despite his battle with the scales, Ryan Mania was on the opposite end of the spectrum. At 23, Mania won the 2013 Grand National aboard 66/1 shot Auroras Encore, the first Scottish jockey to win it in 117 years, and had the racing world at his feet. But just two years later he packed it in.
And what was the straw that broke the camel's back? A simple dinner of lamb and vegetables followed by a small dessert which saw his weight quickly balloon, leaving him with less than 24 hours to shed half a stone. Sweating and starving to make that Sedgefield card in November 2014 was all in vain, however, and Mania sensationally quit on the spot.
At just shy of 6ft he realised he was killing his body. The regular grind of sucking ice cubes to stop the hunger pangs and fooling his body into thinking he was eating couldn't be endured any longer. Mania believed his profession had it even worse than fashion models, who were starving walking down the catwalk, while jockeys were attempting to guide a thoroughbred over a fence while dehydrated and hungry.
Given Mania's reasons for retirement, it's clear that weight-cutting extends beyond physical effects.
McGoldrick outlines how the bone density of jockeys is "significantly lower" than the rest of the population because they starve themselves of nutrients long before reaching maturity. But the stress of making weight also leads to increased psychological strain.
Research shows that over 40 per cent of jockeys have depression compared to 25 per cent of the normal population, while the percentage rises to 59 per cent for those who regularly struggle to make weight. Educating riders on shedding pounds through exercise is paramount and McGoldrick is adamant that some of the ridiculous weight-cutting antics which existed before the turn of the millennium are a thing of the past.
"You don't see any of the crazy things that you would have seen years ago," he says. "Because the apprentices are now naturally much bigger than 20 years ago they're still dehydrating to the same level but it's through much healthier means. The knowledge of nutrition and making weight is getting out there but we still have a long way to go and that's the bottom line."
One area which needs improvement is racecourse food. In November, Epsom Derby-winning jockey Kevin Manning tweeted his dismay at the menu available at Dundalk: "Jockey's menu at Dundalk Stadium tonight - Tea & coffee. Cold soup €2. Pre packed sambos. No hot food available. #joke #nutrition??"
McGoldrick echoes his sentiments and feels it's simply not good enough to treat racing's raw material so shoddily.
"It's not adequate on some tracks and it's appalling in others. It was shocking pre-2000 and there are some tracks where it still is. It has improved nearly everywhere but it wouldn't compare to England where every track provides high-quality food free of charge," he says.
"One of the most important things is having adequate nutrition on track. At least if they have starved they can get a good meal rather than going to a takeaway on the way home, then throwing it up and going to the sauna the following morning. Having the appropriate food on track is essential, it's probably going to be their only meal so it should be a nutritious one."
Just last month dual Irish champion flat jockey Joseph O'Brien quit the saddle for the training ranks at 22 after grappling with weight throughout his career, it's obvious that the heady days at Cheltenham and Aintree are far removed from a jockey's daily tribulations.
A jockey's hardest race is run away from the track, long before they are given the leg-up to tackle The Chair or Becher's Brook.
Throw your losing betting slips at the television while berating their performance if you wish, but spare a thought for the unthinkable pain they put their bodies through to make a living. The iconic spectacle of 40 horses careering towards the first National fence at speed couldn't happen without them.