The California Horse Racing Board should hold off on changing the jockey scale of weights until a national effort can institute uniform standards across the country, racing representatives told the board during its meeting July 22 at the Del Mar simulcast facilty.
The CHRB is in a 45-day public comment period before it undertakes a series of rules designed to change the weight scales that would in effect increase the standard minimum weight a Thoroughbred horse would carry to 128 pounds and require that jockeys perform with at least 5% minimum body fat. The public comment period ends Aug. 16 and the rule changes could conceivably be in place by mid-November, assistant CHRB executive director Roy Minami told the CHRB.
But Drew Couto, representing the Thoroughbred Owners of California, Ed Halpern of the California Thoroughbred Trainers Association, Chris McCarron of Magna Entertainment Corporation and Rick Baedeker of Churchill Downs Inc. urged the board to draw its brakes.
"We're not opposed to a reasonable change," Couto said. "We think the best approach is to have a national consensus."
He said the 45-day period will give state officials a chance to meet with horsemen and other representatives in New York, Florida and Kentucky to work out a plan. He said the board should wait on taking action until it can weigh further information and disagreed with Albert Fiss, vice president of the Jockey Guild, who complained that national efforts in horseracing rarely result in consensus.
"I'd like the board to understand that we are trying to come up with a solution and get it to you within a timely fashion," Couto said.
"It took racing 10 years to agree on a red saddle cloth for the number one," countered Fiss.
The board plans to hold a public hearing on the proposed rule changes Aug. 19 at the Del Mar simulcast facility. The action was requested by the Jockeys' Guild, representatives said, to protect riders from self-destructive behavior that produces damaging consequences to their long-term health.
The changes would establish the minimum weight for jockeys at 118 pounds nude. All horses would carry 10 pounds of riding gear from withers to rump. The riding gear amount would be in addition to jockey weight, and reported separately to the public. As a result, the standard minimum weight a Thoroughbred horse would carry is 128 pounds, a standard Fiss said 75% of current riders could meet while carrying at least 5% body fat.
Afterward, Couto noted that California racing has been hurt by trainers taking their runners east for stakes races.
"Last year, 130 horses went east for stakes, four came west," he said. "When you consider those numbers you have to be concerned about radical deviations from current practices."
McCarron, who is general manager of Santa Anita Park and a retired Hall of Fame jockey, said, "Progress is being made" on a national policy.
"Magna feels strongly that raising the scale of weights is important, but that it needs to be done on a national basis. It could have a negative impact on field size."
McCarron said ease of transportation makes shipping too great a temptation to trainers looking for a more favorable weight assignment.
"If we lose two horses out of any one of our big races because of weight, that's a big impact. We just can't take a big chance."
Halpern said he's gotten plenty of negative comments from other trainers, "particularly to 2-year-olds. They tell me they won't run 2-year-olds in California." He said the CTT has hired a researcher from Auburn University to compile evidence of prior studies on whether weight contributes to horse breakdowns.
Halpern said he is sensitive to jockey needs, but added, "the alternative could be worse."
Baedeker said any change in weight scale needs the backing of tracks and horsemen "not only in California but all over the country.
"This rule needs to be addressed immediately," he said. "I think we can have an agreement and have one very quickly."
Fiss was dubious, calling on the board to resist calls for delay in "a tail wagging the dog scenario.
"We don't have five years to wait," he said.
Fiss predicted that if California took the lead in taking a more humane approach to jockey weights, other jurisdictions would soon fall into line. He said correcting the weight issue is the first step toward improving safety standards for riders.
Commissioners, who have indicated a willingness in earlier hearings on the issue to change the scale, reserved comment, although chairman John Harris said he would look forward to seeing Halpern's study on weight's effects on horse soundness.
"I think the jockeys have some pretty good science on their side with their (health) issues," he said.