Commentary: Weighty Issue

<I>By Morton Cathro</I> - It may be time to act on long-sought legislation that would prolong the lives and limbs of the athletes who ride those horses.

By Morton Cathro

Now that synthetic surfaces appear to be doing the job they were designed to do—that is, prolong the lives and limbs of Thoroughbred racehorses—it may be time to act on long-sought legislation that would prolong the lives and limbs of the athletes who ride those horses.

The case against retired Hall of Fame jockey Braulio Baeza, which went to trial Sept. 4 in Saratoga County Court, New York, focuses attention anew on the question of a minimum weight for riders. As an assistant clerk of scales at Saratoga in 2004, Baeza was accused, along with co-defendant Mario Sclafani, of allowing jockeys in dozens of races to ride heavier than their assigned weights by as much as 15 pounds. Both were acquitted.

In an ESPN article alleging the state’s charges were politically motivated and its evidence seriously flawed, Turf writer Bill Finley at the time also wrote this telling paragraph:

“Clerks of scales, many of whom are ex-riders, cheat because they are looking out for jockeys who are having a hard time shrinking their bodies down to unrealistically small sizes.”

The California Horse Racing Board and similar racing jurisdictions throughout the country have, for the last several years, proposed raising the minimum weight of riders, along with other health-related rules. But implementation on a state or regional basis has been deemed unworkable; there must be uniform rules nationwide.

Thus, everything’s still on hold pending conclusion of a national study on jockeys’ health.

Meanwhile, Australia’s largest daily newspaper, the Herald Sun, has reported a study by the Victorian Institute of Sport revealing that jockeys with osteopenia “typically have a bone-density equivalent to that of an 80-year-old woman. They fracture easily.” (Full disclosure: Osteopenia, a precursor of osteoporosis, afflicts 80-year-old men, too, as this writer can attest. Although my horseback riding days are long past, I still must watch my step to avoid bone fractures.)

More than two years ago, an article in The Blood-Horse reported that more than half the jockeys studied in Ireland suffered from osteopenia, a revelation Dennis Egan, chief executive of the Irish Turf Club, characterized as “nothing short of horrific…a major problem which we must address before it is too late.”

The Irish flat jockeys examined, all between ages 20 and 39, were osteopenic at the spine, or at the hip, or both. Said Egan, “Bearing in mind that falls are a regular part of a jockey’s life, the presence of osteopenia in so many riders is frightening.”

Moreover, the study showed that many jockeys were well below the ideal human body-fat composition of 10%, and also had below-normal hydration levels—conditions caused by use of the sweatbox or diuretics, and eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. According to yet another related investigation, excessive dehydration worsens the severity of traumatic brain injury after a fall, which, that study concluded, “is analogous to not wearing a safety helmet.”

One wonders how much longer our own study, which involves many jurisdictions and health experts throughout the United States, must go on.

Yet, even if a minimum body weight for jockeys of, say, 118 pounds were to be ordered tomorrow, the very existence of synthetic tracks could, ironically, provide an argument against such a mandate: Trainers who fight for every pound off could claim their horses already are burdened by the slower and, some say, more tiring mixture of silica sand, rubber, and wax. With heavier riders up, their horses might not be so “safe” after all.

Weight spreads in most races today are much narrower than in the old days when, for example, Stagehand, carrying 100 pounds, nipped Seabiscuit, carrying 130, in the 1938 Santa Anita Handicap. As for bettors, says writer Finley, few of us nowadays “care even the slightest about how much weight a horse carries.”

And then there’s the theory I recall from my youth (I think it was propounded by noted Turf writer Robert Saunders Dowst). It held that poundage  really isn’t burdensome to the horse because today’s “monkey-on-a-stick” rider distributes his weight over the withers and shoulders, whereas in the really old days, a jockey literally sat down on a horse’s back as they galloped after gold and glory.

A lot of folks (and horses) might want to weigh in on that argument.

Morton Cathro is an award-winning California newspaperman, now retired.