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Making Weight Is Still A Struggle For Many Jockeys

Austin Adams wants to be a jockey. But whether he makes it in the business doesn’t just come down to skill; it has to do with how much he weighs.

At Churchill Downs and at similar racetracks around the country, jockeys can’t weigh more than 126 pounds with all their equipment on, which usually works out to about 118 pounds of person. Jockeys who ride fillies and apprentice jockeys have to weigh even less than that. Exercise riders have a little more leeway — they can weigh up to 140 pounds. Too heavy, and a potential jockey becomes an exercise rider.

Adams doesn't want that to happen to him.

“I want to make a career out of this, and I'd like to be something pretty special someday," he said. "That’s my goal.”

Adams is a student at the North American Racing Academy, a program offered by the Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington. It’s three days before the Kentucky Derby, and Adams' class is at Churchill Downs, meeting horse trainers and jockeys as they come back from morning exercises.

Adams is 19 years old, and he can eat whatever he wants right now. But his father was an exercise rider, and Adams has heard stories of him trying to make weight.

“He was going to be a jockey, and at Thanksgiving the jockeys couldn’t eat a full meal," he said. "They’d put their turkey dinner, blend it up and eat it as a smoothie, just to make weight for the next race.”

This extreme emphasis on weight means most jockeys are no more than about five feet tall. But as they age, staying under that weight limit becomes more difficult, and eating disorders become more common.

Adams doesn’t think about his weight at all now, but worries he might in the future.

“I love to eat great food," he said, smiling. "Every night I’m cooking something new."

'The Lightest Guy You Could Put On'

Since the beginning of horse racing, there's been a long tradition of putting the lightest possible rider on a horse. Originally, it was to gain a competitive advantage. Now, sometimes the reason cited for the rule is concern for the horse's health.

But the magic 126-lb. number seems to be arbitrary, and it's higher at certain racetracks and in Europe.

Before the Civil War, horse owners favored using slaves as jockeys. After the war and the

end of slavery, the best jockeys were former slaves. This included using boys as young as 8 years old, because no one thought the horse rider played a role in the wins or losses.

“Originally it was the lightest guy you could put on, and since you didn’t have to know very much, at least in the eyes of the business, any kid who could hold on was satisfactory,” said Steven Riess, a retired history professor and author of "The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime: Horse Racing, Politics, and Organized Crime in New York."

It wasn’t until the turn of the century that horse racing became a major sport, with big tracks opening in New York, Kentucky and Chicago. With that came new weight regulations for jockeys, and African-Americans were forced out by white jockeys who saw bigger audiences and bets.

Weight Limits Bring Health Risks

But as the world’s population has grown bigger on average, those weight limits have sometimes put dangerous pressure on jockeys.

There isn’t much recent data on the subject, but a study from 1995 found more than 67 percent of jockeys skipped meals or sweated off pounds in saunas. About one in three purged to lose weight, too; there used to be visible “purging bowls” at racetracks for jockeys looking to drop pounds before a weigh-in.

Remi Bellocq is the head of the racing academy out of the Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington. He said every student, whether they want to be a jockey or not, starts out learning the same skills. But regardless of talent, it still comes down to weight.

“After a year we’ll evaluate them, and we’ll sit down and say, for weight reasons you’ll never be a jockey, you’ll never be able to get down to 109 to be an apprentice," Bellocq said.

Horse racing history researcher Lizzie Redkey said just like any other sport, jockeys are sometimes willing to put their health at risk to keep their jobs.

“In the last 25 years or so, people are realizing that with sufficient incentive to make a living, people are willing to sometimes endanger themselves in an effort to save their career,” Redkey said. “And because weight is so critical to being to make a living, that’s a huge incentive to do whatever it takes to make weight.”

And, she said, it’s hard physical work to be a jockey. It’s not just riding — it's abdominal strength, arm strength, leg strength ... all factors that can be compromised in jockeys weakened by diets or purging.

“Most horses races are adolescents, and horse adolescents are no more inclined to behave well than human adolescents,” Redkey said. “It takes a lot of strength and skill to make them do what it is you want them to do.”

Ballocq said jockey weight requirements should be increased. He said if a jockey has experience and a winning record, it’s in the interest of trainers hiring jockeys to let them gain a few pounds.

“It would be in your interest as a trainer to keep that jockey around for a couple more years because you’ve invested a lot of time and energy over the years,” Ballocq said. “You’ve basically gotten it down to as light as it can be, so three pounds can make a big difference in their ability to make that weight.”

Many jockeys eventually tip over the weight limit in their late twenties — a fact that Bellocq knows firsthand. He was once an amateur jockey but could never make the weight, blaming leg muscles honed by a childhood spent playing soccer. He eventually stopped racing in the U.S. and found work in Europe, where weight limits are higher: up to about 130 pounds.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.

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