The California Horse Racing Board is ready to tackle a weighty issue: the scale.
After hearing testimony from the Jockeys' Guild, CHRB chairman John Harris directed the agency's staff to develop a proposal to increase the minimum weight for riders and set healthier standards.
At its March 25 meeting at Golden Gate Fields, the board heard results of a five-year study on jockey health, which demonstrated the long-term catastrophic effects of trying to make weight.
"Most jockeys currently ride with body fat in the range of 2 to 3 percent. Anything below 5 percent is doing permanent damage to their bodies," Jockeys' Guild counsel Barry Broad told the board. "They may look like perfect physical specimens but they're actually very, very ill."
This issue especially resonated with the commissioners. The state's racing industry has been plagued with sky-high workers' compensation insurance and jockeys' weight directly effects their health.
"This is something definitely that we should pursue," Harris said.
Broad described several of the methods riders use to drop pounds, such as hours each day in the sweat box, excessive use of diuretics and induced vomiting. "This is not only a life-threatening practice, it's a life-ending practice," he said.
Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, now Santa Anita's general manager, knows first hand what riders go through in order to keep their jobs.
"Some riders are incredibly bulimic," McCarron said. "It's embarrassing for racing. This (proposal) will not only improve riders health, but will improve their performance and ultimately improve the industry."
The Jockeys' Guild suggested a three-prong approach to the problem:
1) Increase the minimum weight to 118 pounds for jockeys in Thoroughbred and Arabian races, 123 for Quarter Horse, Paint and Mule races. Riders would be weighed nude and that amount listed in the program. Jockeys weighing less than 118/123 would be required to carry extra weight to bring them up to the minimum.
2) Every horse must carry 10 pounds of riding gear including the saddle and all of the jockey's equipment and clothing. That weight does not include the horse's headgear or anything worn on its legs or tail. The program would note that horses carry 10 pounds of riding gear in addition to the rider's weight.
3) Jockeys must maintain a minimum body fat content of 5% in order to ride. That amount would be checked daily. This standard would be optional for jockeys licensed prior to 2005.
Dr. David Sefwel, medical director and track physician at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields, said he has worked with jockeys the last five years to improve their standard care. In the process, he studied their overall health and found several disturbing trends.
Those included five times the number of respiratory infections compared to the average population and four times the number of stomach and gastric problems.
"But No. 1, we saw 10 times the incidents of damage to the kidneys, mostly due to chronic dehydration and malnutrition," Sefwel said. "Next to cardiac arrest, chronic kidney failure is the most expensive disease to treat."
Those problems can be traced to jockeys' chronic, self-destructive dieting, he added.
"We have a terrible trio -- dehydration, malnutrition and a depressed immune systems," Sefwel added. "Jockeys are subject to all sorts of infections, from lung to skin to stomach. This contributes to their overall poor health."
Sefwel, a sports medicine specialist, studied other sports and their minimum standards for body fat. He found jockeys were comparable to cyclists and gymnasts. Governing bodies of both those sports mandate a 5 % body-fat minimum, he reported.
McCarron, who said he retired two years ago at 6% body fat, measured several of the riders who worked with him on the movie, "Seabiscuit." The highest was 8 %; most were 5% or below. One rider was so low in body fat, he didn't measure on the handheld analyzer.
"We owe it to the public," McCarron told the board. "Jockeys have to be at their very best, but there's no way you can be 100 percent if you start your day in the hot box."
McCarron called on the board to resist opposition from trainers.
"Some trainers say more weight will exacerbate the problem of horses breaking down. But steeplechase horses run until they're 8, 9, 10 years old. They run 3-1/2 miles over incredibly challenging courses. And they carry 160 pounds. Weight is not a problem.
"Certain trainers want to remain in control of jockeys. They want to control racing secretaries. They use weight to maintain that control. This is very political."
John Van de Kamp, president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California speaking in support of the proposal, said, "This is a worthwhile endeavor. Some trainers may be opposed, but we support a weight increase."