How much weight does a horse actually carry in a race? No matter what the program says, nobody seems to know for sure.
In an attempt to make weights listed in track programs reflect reality, the California Horse Racing Board launched an ad hoc committee Oct. 6 to revamp pre-race weigh-in procedures. Commissioner Richard Shapiro, who will chair the committee, invited representatives from all segments of the industry to participate and got immediate positive response at the CHRB's meeting in Fresno.
The action followed a tumultuous week at Santa Anita where state stewards, the Jockey's Guild, and the Oak Tree Racing Association tried to get a handle on true weights through a pilot project to verify pounds against assignments. But trainers felt their horses were being unduly punished with extra lead on their backs if their jockeys used lightweight equipment.
In light of the new committee, Oak Tree will step back and revert to usual weigh-in procedures, as directed by the CHRB.
Spurred in part by recent problems in New York, Shapiro visited tracks with CHRB executive director Ingrid Fermin. He said he was shocked by the current system.
"It's too loose and not verifiable," he said. "When I joined the board, I was surprised to learn when (the program) said 120 pounds it wasn't 120 pounds. ... When a horse is listed at 120 and it's really 126, that's when I feel duped and I don't like it."
Added chairman John Harris, "This has nothing to do with the (jockey) health issue. This is a specific issue for the public. There needs to be a level playing field where what they see is what they get."
Weigh-in practices nationwide have come under intense scrutiny after alleged major violations at New York Racing Association tracks with jockeys riding much heavier than listed program weights.
"The inconsistencies in New York, we don't want to see here," Shapiro added. "We don't have a system in place that's verifiable to what a horse is actually carrying. We want weigh-in and out procedures that are accurate and consistent. ... We want full disclosure to the public, and printed in every racing program."
Oak Tree tried to make its programs accurate by weighing jockeys with safety equipment, something expressly omitted under usual procedures. The state code specifically excludes safety equipment to dissuade riders from stripping the foam or other materials from their helmets or vests to cut out a few ounces.
The combined weight of goggles, vest, and helmet averages 2.9 pounds, but can vary by a pound or more either way.
Darrell Haire of the Jockeys Guild and steward Paul Nicolo, a former jockey and longtime clerk of scales, demonstrated how little things can add up to big differences on a scale. Basic clothing ranged from 5.8 to 7.2 pounds. Silks varied from 10 ounces to 2-1/2 pounds.
Tack in addition to the saddle – such as the whip, under girth and padding – added another 3.6 pounds. On average, the total added up to 12.3 pounds over a jockey's base weight.
"There's so many variables," Haire said. "Just a saddle towel can range from half a pound to more than three. Everybody thinks they know what it weighs, but they don't."
Oak Tree's pilot project, which lasted one week, found those weight swings and tried to make adjustments.
"Some of the lightest riders in the room couldn't add light safety equipment like they've been doing," Haire said. "They couldn't beat the scale the other way, and they had to add two more pounds of lead."
That angered trainers, who had little notice or information about the changes.
"Why should they be penalized?" said Ed Halpern of California Thoroughbred Trainers. "The question became one of adding six pounds over the program weight (to adjust for safety equipment). People didn't know what was happening or why.
"It was such a mess that we called a general meeting of trainers," Halpern added. "There was such an uproar. The only way to clear up the mess was to follow the current rules, which exclude the safety equipment."
Board members want more than just to know what items weigh. They said they want a closer watch on the whole procedure. That may include bringing the scale outside the jockey's room to public view so everyone can see who weighs what.
"I don't want to see any jockey's health deteriorate," commissioner Bill Bianco said. "But some jockeys – some of our leading riders – are five to seven pounds heavy. Some of these guys better take some pounds off because their rumps are too wide in the saddle."
Shapiro hopes to get the new committee together and working within a week. The group will return to the CHRB later with its findings and plans to develop a statewide pilot program.