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Jockeys learn to cope with weighty issue


‘We are looking towards, hopefully, racing opening again maybe in May. That gives us an end goal to say, Now is the chance if you have gained a bit of weight to get it off gradually,”’ says nutritionist Gillian O’Loughlin

‘We are looking towards, hopefully, racing opening again maybe in May. That gives us an end goal to say, Now is the chance if you have gained a bit of weight to get it off gradually,”’ says nutritionist Gillian O’Loughlin


‘We are looking towards, hopefully, racing opening again maybe in May. That gives us an end goal to say, Now is the chance if you have gained a bit of weight to get it off gradually,”’ says nutritionist Gillian O’Loughlin

Jockeys are among a very select group of athletes who must adhere to specific weight restrictions to participate in their chosen field. Whereas boxers weigh in a day before lacing up and rowers between one and two hours prior to racing, jockeys stand on the scales 10 minutes ahead of the stalls opening and again immediately after, and the busiest repeat that process five or six times in a day. That leaves little opportunity for the rehydration and high-energy nutritional intake boxers and rowers can avail of.

It is a Spartan lifestyle, demanding tremendous dedication and willpower. Here, hunger doesn't apply just to desire.

As a lot of us have found, a lack of routine can quickly foster crippling lassitude and loss of motivation.

Throwing on a stone is not an option for jockeys, however. Crash dieting is deleterious to health, which is why, like models, jockeys have such a high level of eating disorders, bone density and stomach issues.

"It is really tricky because all their routines have been turned upside down," explains Gillian O'Loughlin, the nutritionist available free of charge to all licensed riders via the Jockey Pathway.

The pathway is a service that has helped accelerate education around nutrition and exercise as part of a healthy weight-making routine for jockeys in recent years.


Chris Hayes

Chris Hayes


Chris Hayes

"Some of them aren't going to the yard," she says. "Suddenly they are sitting at home getting bored, looking at the biscuit tin or chocolate bars. Alcohol is another danger in that kind of environment. It is a real struggle. I have had lots of calls and texts from jockeys saying, 'My weight is going right up. What am I going to do?'"

The first thing O'Loughlin has told riders is to be kind to themselves. Then it is about putting a structure on the day, gradually replacing the junk with healthier food and fibre that makes you feel full for longer, and exercise.

Billy Lee was always happy to pound the road, but in his younger days he went without food to make the lighter weights. By the time an evening meeting was over, he might have gone 20 hours without even a morsel to eat. It can't have added to his performance. It certainly wasn't good for his mental well-being.

Now, he is more inclined to have breakfast and work it off in the gym, or use programmes provided by Wayne Middleton, the Pathway S&C coach, focusing on the specific requirements for riders.

Lee is riding out two days of the week, at the Curragh where Willie McCreery and Ken Condon are two of his primary patrons, and then for Paddy Twomey. He has allowed himself some indulgence.

"Mentally you couldn't do what you do during a normal racing week in this type of situation because it wouldn't be good for you," Lee says. "For me anyway, I would have to know I am going into competitive action to be doing what I am doing.

"We have a few horses at home in Limerick and we are tipping away with them in the mornings. I am just cleaning up the farm in the evenings. Cleaning ditches and setting up paddocks. Just maintaining the farm, plenty that I usually wouldn't get around to when we're racing.

"I'm doing a bit of exercise in the evening as well. Just 4 or 5k, to keep ticking over. A little bit of gym work. I don't want to be lifting too much, it's more so for movement. Keeping the muscles and myself right.

"I have been eating plenty. Usually I would wake up 9-1 or 9-2 on a good day. At the moment I am sort of 9-8 or 9-9. That will fall off me quick enough. I am fairly fit and it's just about getting the diet back right. I am happy enough that two weeks will have me back."

Chris Hayes has been exercising horses for Kevin Prendergast and Fozzy Stack. His normal waking weight is 8st 3lbs. He arrives at a track weighing 8st 4lbs and might finish a day's racing at 8st 1lbs. Like his colleagues, he has jumped at the opportunity to enjoy some of the pleasures most of us take for granted.

"I started eating during the day, which I haven't done since I was in primary school when my mother was minding me," reveals Hayes. "My partner is working from home so we are having three meals a day, which we have never done. I am heavier than I have ever been but I am still at a nice weight. I am waking up every morning at 8-7.

"You can't beat having a little bit of weight on you for your immune system either. I am four or five pounds heavier than I normally would be. But the good thing is it will shift. I have done it out of design. I am making sure I am eating those three meals but I won't let my weight go any heavier.

"I have been trying a training regime, Wayne gave me a couple of things to do. But at the minute I haven't been over-exerting myself. I want to have the batteries recharged and be as healthy as I can be.

"We are going to go from nought to 100 hopefully in a short space of time. I am looking forward to it but you can't just dive into it, you have to have your body half-prepared. I will be back to my racing weight again when the announcement is made on May 5 (on when racing behind closed doors might go ahead)."

Shane Foley is attached to Jessica Harrington's yard and has been riding work at Commonstown in recent weeks. As someone who ran the Dubai Marathon in 2016, he has always enjoyed keeping fit.

"I would be a busy sort of a person," he says. "My wife and I have our own livery yard so there are horses to be looked after. I have my own gym at home with a mechanical horse. So you try to do a bit every evening to keep on top of it.

"You can't beat race fitness, there is nothing that compares to that. I could run 15k, I could cycle 60k on a Sunday morning; I have been doing that. But nothing compares to racing. Once you are fit you are fit but that blow you have from race riding is different.

"During mid-season I would likely be 8-8 or 8-9 in the mornings, at a busy time. I am probably 8-12 now. It is not bad. I am one of the lucky ones that don't struggle too much with it. I didn't do any lighter than 8-6 last year. I think I did 8-6 maybe three times. With a couple of days' notice I just scale back and watch what I eat. I don't really like sweating much. I'd rather be strong and healthy at 8-8 or 8-9 than that.

"I let the hair down for a fortnight or three weeks. But the last 10 days it's been like the horses, we took it easy for a while and then you build yourself back up again. You can't go hell for leather. It's hard to keep motivated knowing that there is no light at the end of the tunnel."

To this end, Ciara Losty's role as the Pathway's sports psychologist is critical. O'Loughlin acknowledges the dangers of a loss of stimulus in maintaining healthy exercise and nutritional programmes.

"Jockeys are really frustrated and a lot of them are scared that they might lose their jobs or that there will be nothing there at the end of this," O'Loughlin says. "So it's great to have Ciara linking up with them that way. It is a struggle and what we are looking towards is hopefully racing opening again maybe in May. At least that gives us an end goal to say, 'Now is the chance if you have gained a bit of weight to get it off gradually.'

"There is no point trying to get it down rapidly and do the dehydration. Now is the chance to do it the right way. If you can get it down gradually, one to two pounds a week, then it stays off, which is a bonus. Rather than dehydrating and then it goes back on again."

With good timing, O'Loughlin is about to roll out the Libro app for jockeys, designed by Nutritics for nutritionists and their clients to interact and keep track of health and lifestyle targets.

"They can record their intake verbally on this app and then it will download to my system. I can then analyse their diets and give them advice. You can send out meal plans, video links, you can send presentations, you can do prompts.

"In some ways this whole pandemic has made us think differently about how we get our messages out and how we link in with the jockeys. It's trying to find better ways to do everything.

"The message I am trying to get out to jockeys is to start putting a plan in place, to start doing some batch cooking. You can be putting your food in the freezer for three months. Start making extra meals, putting them aside. I guarantee you when we get back racing it is going to be manic and flat out. Now is the time to get prepared."

  • For information on any of the services available via the Jockey Pathway go to workinracing.ie/jockey-pathway/. CARE 24-hour hotline, free of charge text 086 8383998 for call back, or freephone 1800 303588 (ROI) 0800 243458 (NI)

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