Tuesday 19 September 2017
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How Much Weight Would a Racehorse Nay?, by Michael Ransom

How Much Weight Would a Racehorse Nay?


By Michael Ransom


The torch has passed from hand to silent hand for over a century; there is a passion for horseracing that is more alive now than ever it has been. But for all the glory and fortunes that change hands in mere afternoons, there is a looming darkness within the sport that has cast a morbid shadow over everything: debate over how adversely jockeys are affected by antiquated weight restrictions has carved an inflating rift between horse racing industry leaders, and between some jockeys. Two distinct sides grapple over the weighty question: should jockey weight restrictions be raised?  


On the one side are countless fragile titans who have literally given their lives for the sport they love, stoically sweating pounds from their gaunt frames and days from their lives with equanimity. Jockeys like Shane Sellers, Randy Romero and many who are no longer with us issue a vociferous, “yes,” imploring an industry for “necessary” weight increases. Unfortunately, it has been an industry malevolent to their cause, leaving their claim to fall on deafened ears. The term “deafened” is used here to capture industry leaders’ prevailing attitudes—not deafness, but refusal to hear.


On the other side stand a handful of trainers—ardently led by D. Wayne Lukas, juggernaut of racing’s past and present, whose hall of fame credentials and earned clout precede him—and a minority of dissenting jockeys like Pat Day and John Francome, who identify with those who derisively claim that weight restrictions are not too excessive, that their larger colleagues need to make weight or seek a career more tolerant of their larger frames. This small group’s gruff “no” reverberates through the halls of modern horse racing, managing to trump the majority, impeding their efforts by granting a fragmented organization an excuse to leave things as they are.


These three primary dissenting arguments have surfaced:


Ø      Raising the weight limit will cheapen the sport, allowing just about anyone to ride. (The Independent, Part Two, 2000)

Ø      Altering weight restrictions will actually have no affect on jockey physical health—the problem is more with jockeys’ mentality than with their physiology—and will only damages the careers of smaller jockeys. (The Guardian 2006)

Ø      Raising the weight, even by 5 pounds, will affect both the horses soundness and health. (The Independent, Part Two, 2000)


Few have seriously scrutinized these prevailing judgments. The brutal consequence has been an international stalemate on the issue, with several countries peering from a narrow precipice, “waiting to see who acts first” (Wainwright 2006). Meanwhile jockeys are dying from dehydration and starvation related to the difficulties of maintaining weight.


However, there is a sliver of light radiating from the underside of this otherwise tenebrous cloud. Several countries and their horse racing organizations have seen enough and are finally taking a long hard look at the issue. The consequent collection of data will paint a more realistic picture of the problem and illuminate what needs to be changed, or not.


The great weight debate


Debate has gone on for decades—no end in sight—but little has been accomplished. If action is not the goal, then one might validly question the debate’s purpose. An analytical look at the three most popular dissenting arguments reveals gross logical inconsistencies and either lack of, or contradiction with, actual scientific findings. Yet no one has exposed these flaws—this, of course, is an invalid remark. A myriad of exposes’, growing numbers of documentaries, and now a “tell-all” book leave no place for horse racing gurus to hide their heads.


So what is everyone waiting for?


Naturally, the question, “should the American jockey weight restriction be raised”, is linked perforce to the corollary question: “how much weight should/can a thoroughbred horse carry?” These are seemingly simple questions shrouded by a complexity of detractions and/or evasions.


Similarly, answers to a tandem of related questions could prove illuminating; but, more often than not, they end up reinforcing a delusion. Would the weight increase be too much for a thoroughbred horse to handle; and, could it cause serious damage to the horses’ health and/or soundness? The corresponding slew of customary rebuttals are more hypotheses than theories, more guesses than syntheses of confirmed facts. This intentional convolution of half-truths with established fact has only promoted an industry-wide cynicism toward the issue, and cynicism is the sworn enemy of change.


Whether one has chosen to realize it or not, times have clearly changed. Biology and biochemistry have changed, particularly in more prosperous countries. And, unfortunately, growing numbers of jockeys are now changing their minds about the sport they’ve grown to admire for one simple reason: each generation of jockeys is getting bigger. Contemporary jockeys choose to eat and live, rather than “waste” away completely.


The only thing in the sport that has not budged is a weight restriction derived over a century ago. It is ironic that something so intransigently embraced rests on so little, if any, supporting scientific fact. As stringently as some have held to the established weight restriction, one might be tempted to conclude that it had been founded on concrete evidence collected over time, forged by deities of horseracing past. Truth is, however, that little historical information exists regarding what influences led to the original weight restriction’s development.


Either the general public has been successfully kept in the dark, or the information simply no longer exists. In either case, it logically follows that the absence of context (of supporting and/or surrounding facts) removes it from the realm of objective proof. It is arbitrary, or detached from the facts of reality, and equates to an indignant “it is so because I say so.” Subjective, disjointed remarks that can neither be validated nor invalidated rush into the void. Concordantly, in the absence of objective data, the average person tends to uncritically accept the word of “authorities” in a given field at face value, assuming they just know, somehow.


It is high time for intelligent individuals, in every phase of the sport, to seek out, to demand, and to evaluate the evidence with their own scrupulous minds and ultimately decide the issue for themselves. It is time to make a definitive conclusion, to take the necessary stance, and, by all means, to make that stance known within the industry. If not, then, “your silence gives consent” (Plato circa 400BC, on brainyquote.com).


From the jockey’s mouth


No one knows the ramifications of weight restrictions within the sport of horseracing more intimately than those men and women in the trenches—jockeys. The term “trenches” here is not an exaggeration. Constantly “wasting” (starving, purging, abusing diuretics, sweating, etc.) to make race weight proves a ceaseless battle that many jockeys lose, either by moving to other countries that allow higher weights, retiring from the sport, or dying. Typically, there is no positive way to leave the sport.


Jockey Mark Guidry summarizes the situation rather well, “90% of riders have to reduce on a daily basis, the effects of which contribute to long-term health problems such as heart conditions, kidney failure, and constant dehydration” (Proctor 2004). One cannot deny that this astonishingly high percentage has not been corroborated by extensive research; though, one cannot deny that this number has been inferred from fact, or at least in this particular jockey’s experience. Perhaps the lesson here is that more extensive research is needed.


Still, jockeys who manage to survive prolonged careers retire with long-term complications of extreme weight loss methods: “long-term damage to their metabolism, and leaves them at risk of diabetes and obesity in later life” (Warrington, quoted in Burns 2005). In case these are not drastic enough, Detroit physiologist Dr. Barry Franklin extended the list, adding, “kidney problems, nerve damage, and heart problems” (Angst 2002). Extreme weight loss methods and their consequences have long been the rule, instead of the exception. And there is a history of it long as the sport itself as proof. As further evidence, many race tracks, including the vaunted home of the Kentucky Derby, have enshrined a new porcelain god, the “heaving” bowl. 


Illnesses must be treated, and treatment requires expensive professional health care, which—no surprise—is about as high on the list of priorities in the industry as overall jockey health is. Since jockeys are considered independent contractors, thus not employees of the industry, they have no insurance coverage, a catch-22 for certain.


Few retire having achieved sustained success, so they are often left to evaluate whether the career was even worth the sacrifice.


Ironically, those adamantly calling for weight restriction changes comprise an ignored majority in many countries, while a sparse group of the smallest jockeys keep a stranglehold on the entire industry: or, “they have hijacked the interests of every other rider,” says Frank Dettori (2006), a successful retired jockey. The breadth and depth of their arguments for a weight restriction change are beyond the scope of this present article but have been sufficiently covered in similar articles on this site. Reference to them is recommended for a more intimate acquaintance with the dire situation in modern horseracing.


Change is undoubtedly necessary! The purpose here is to objectively evaluate and validate the facets of the issue, to provide intense analysis of the dissenters’ claims, and to hopefully eradicate potential roadblocks to the needed change.


Dissention in the ranks


Will raising the weight limit cheapen the sport?


Some jockeys, small in build and stature, have little trouble making weight, so they speak out against a weight increase, claiming that it will cheapen the sport. One veteran jockey from New York (anonymous) is against a weight increase, as was quoted in a 2000 article: “Personally, I’m against it … I ride light and don’t have to reduce. Changing the scale would be like lowering the net in basketball. Then anyone could be a basketball player. I think jockeys should be small” (The Independent, Part Two, 2000).


At first glance this seems a valid argument, but upon further scrutiny it contradicts itself and collapses under its own weight. An unhealthy obsession with weight is the glaring premise behind the remark quoted above. Clearly this is an extreme response to the relatively negligible request for a 5-6 pound increase. An increase will not cheapen the sport. On the contrary, not increasing the weight cheapens the sport even more than its antithesis: it makes horse racing more about maintaining weight than about anything else, even skill.


Basketball relies heavily on personal fitness and a variety of well-developed skills: ball handling, passing, shooting, deception, etc. Just being tall, no matter how high or low the rim, does not automatically qualify potential athletes to play professional basketball. In horse racing, however, being small and light is sometimes lauded more than a honed riding skill. Too, the comparison falls apart because it is actually like comparing apples with oranges. Horse racing features a dynamic of two, a jockey and his/her horse, against the field, while basketball features 5, more if one considers the reserves on the bench, against an equivalent field.


Jockey Richard Hughes voiced concern over the problem of focusing on weight rather than skill in a 2006 issue of the UK magazine The Guardian: “If we don’t change the rules there will be more women and more foreigners given work. I don’t mean that in a bad way, I just mean that people will get rides simply because they are light and not because they are particularly talented” (The Guardian 2006). What is disturbing is that this article refers to conditions in the UK, where weight restrictions are generally not as strict as those in the US.


Modern horse racing lacks star power because of weight restrictions. Highly talented jockeys have notedly faded from the sport, not because of declining ability or perhaps a sudden outbreak of ineptitude, but simply because of difficulty coping with the demands of the rigid weight restrictions.


Entrenched in the annals of horse racing history is the brief flair—in America—that was Steven Cauthen and his winning horse Affirmed, the last pair to win the Triple Crown in approaching 30 years. His contemptuous 17-year-old smile graced the 1977 cover of Sports Illustrated as Sportsman of the Year—American horse racing had its promising star. Racing seemed to be in his genes, but so was the blueprint for a 5’6” frame, which he later would state was “not the right size to be a jockey” (Hauff 2003). A short respite, afforded by an injury, allowed Cauthen to return to normal eating habits, sort of, and the otherwise healthy weight packed on.


He soon realized that his physical growth would prohibit his future, at least under the pressure of America’s merciless horse racing rules: “I could see I wasn’t going to be able to ride in America, physically, because of the weight” (CNNSI 1998). He opted to pack himself and his burgeoning talent up and head for Europe where weight restrictions were, and are, more lenient. He enjoyed equivalent success there, but named weight restrictions as the reason why he eventually retired. It was, “the fact that I got sick and tired of fighting my weight” (Hauff 2003).


America’s star became a shooting star. One can only speculate how much Cauthen’s success might have done for the sport in America.


Weight issues, more mental than physical; are small jockeys’ careers in jeopardy?


Some opponents of weight changes complain that too much emphasis is placed on the plight of larger jockeys who must resort to extreme weight loss methods to stay in the sport. The contention here is that raising the weights will create a slippery slope, that it will not fix the problem but move it a step further, encouraging even larger jockeys to enter the sport. Outspoken Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day concurs: “raising weights will only encourage ‘overweight’ would-be riders to try to cut weight, creating their own health issues” (Schmidt 2004). According to these, the weight issue is more mental or psychological than one triggered by the physical demands of keeping weight restrictions. After all, “… people should be responsible for their own health. Most people eat too much. We are an overfed nation, so to say jockeys are at risk because they don’t eat much is silly” (The Guardian 2006), says John Francome, retired jumps jockey.


Current or former debate team members out there are writhing at Francome’s bombastic disregard for logic. Bandwagon, false cause, and hasty generalization are just a few of the logical fallacies applicable here. Putting the above emotional outburst into the proper context will hopefully make the argument’s weaknesses abundantly clear.


Arguments, especially while debating such a critical issue, should always follow credible factual demonstration. They should essentially be a conclusion drawn explicitly from what is implicitly obvious in the facts. There is no such factual demonstration, here or anywhere else in the speech. Instead, readers are force-fed gross generalizations and are expected to stretch them to fit the current topic. From the outset of the above quotation, Francome detaches his remarks from the question under debate: Are weight limits putting the health of jockeys at risk? He does so when he substitutes the generic term “people” for the central subject, “jockeys.” The discussion is not about the entire population, but about a specified portion, and it is important to keep the proper context when the goal is to say anything meaningful about a given topic.


Generalizations about “people” can be identified into infinity, but still have no direct relationship to the sport of horse racing. For instance, the fact that “most people eat too much” (The Guardian 2006), even if it were true, has absolutely nothing to do with jockey weight restrictions or eating disorders. One can surmise that most people do just about anything, but does that mean the same should be applied to jockeys? It also stands to reason that Francome has not personally interviewed every person to see if he or she eats too much. Without supporting evidence, his remarks are arbitrary at best; the tether anchoring them to reality has been severed. Such arbitrary statements should be dismissed without comment.   


There is limited evidence, however, that the issue may be slightly psychological, but not in the sense put forth by Francome. It stands to reason that individuals who choose to enter the jockey profession don’t just wake up one morning and think, “hm, I should be a jockey!” No, they are often groomed from ages as young as 12, in the case of Steven Cauthen (Hauff 2003), and practically live, eat, and sleep at the stable, caring for the horses and riding. It becomes their life. Although licensure is not available until the age of 16, there is plenty of riding to do beforehand—Shane sellers began at age 10 (The Jockey.Com 1999). Unfortunately, education often suffers and many jockeys choose to quit school early.


So, there is a bit of a psychological problem for a jockey when nature finally takes its course and he begins to grow, and the more he grows the harder it becomes to remain within the meager weight restrictions. He has devoted the last 5-10 years of his life to racing, has not completed a formal education, and, in many cases, has developed some bad eating habits that border on anorexic or bulimic. It is no surprise that he sees no recourse but to stay in the sport, no matter how large his frame gets.


Francome proceeds to condemn weight increases on moral grounds, stating: “This [a weight increase] could only be a source of division among the jockeys because the lightest are anxious for the weights to remain as they are because it gives them an advantage” (The Guardian 2006). But couldn’t this line of reasoning be inverted to support an opposing faction’s claim? One could possibly argue that keeping the weights the same could cause greater division among jockeys because the growing majority of the largest feel that the lightest are awarded an unfair advantage. Again, lack of supporting facts condemns the issue to endless debate because it is based in the arbitrary.


Yet, it is this same weak argument that allows a handful of jockeys to, “run the [Jockeys] association like a dictatorship” (McGrath 2006), argues Frank Dettori, a retired jockey threatening to quit the British Jockeys’ Association should they decline to raise the weight limits. In light of actual facts, however, it is recommended that these lightweight jockeys silence their claim—they may be better off if the weight limit is raised precisely because they can carry more weight, lean muscle weight.


According to studies by the American Medical Equestrian Association, “It has been studied and documented that the well-conditioned athlete is better able to handle the repeated stress of their sport. The well-conditioned athlete who sustains an injury will also recover more quickly and be better able to return to his/her sport” (Green & Stanley 1993). A well-conditioned athlete must subject himself to a rigorous exercise program, which promotes both fat burn and lean muscle growth. Food consumption, as long as it is monitored for maximal nutrition, has less of an impact on the athlete because it serves to maintain lean muscle rather than get stored on the body as fat. Additional lean muscle would strengthen the jockey’s ability to handle the horse over extended periods of time, ultimately extending his career, whether via greater stamina or quicker return from injury.


So, if the lightest jockeys are allowed to put on more weight under increased limits, then they still may have a distinct advantage over their larger fellows, who would still need to reduce before races, though not to such extremes. To help the cause, industry leaders could fund a national diet and fitness campaign designed to teach jockeys how to maximally eat and exercise to maintain healthy weight and body fat.


Larger jockeys would not be under as much strain, using exercise to bring their weights down rather than starving themselves to practically nothing. An increase in overall health would transfer to the horses, since healthier jockeys have less of a physical impact on them. Competition level would steadily rise, and careers would lengthen, a recipe for success.


Perhaps horse racing could once again rival baseball in America.


Would an increased weight allowance—even of 5lbs—injure the horse?


D. Wayne Lukas utters a vociferous yes! He is a notoriously ruthless opponent of weight restriction changes: “Weight on horses is obviously detrimental to soundness and I don’t think we should fool with it” (The Independent, Part Two, 2000). A 2004 article cites Lukas’ similar remarks on a later occasion: “If you put more weight on (horses), you’ll have problems”; he goes on to crassly remark, “If they’re [jockeys] too big to make weight, they should do something else” (Schmidt 2004).


Not surprisingly absent from the foregoing statements is any credible factual evidence that can be used to create a context, and, without context, his statements can be stretched to fit almost any purpose—they become conveniently impervious to validation. He curtly declines to offer any supporting information; he opts instead to catapult sweeping indictments into a vacuum, hoping everyone will just accept his equivalent of “because I said so”. Since he assumes everyone should somehow know the reasons inside his head, Lukas’ arrogance becomes a roadblock to his own cause. He would do well to remember that building a strong case requires strict adherence to the verifiable facts of reality. Facts should lead to a conclusion, not the reverse.


“Detrimental to soundness”—what precisely does this mean? One would need to achieve a grasp of what soundness is prior to considering whether or not something is detrimental to it. Similarly enigmatic is Lukas’ statement: “if you put more weight on (horses), you’ll have problems” (Schmidt 2004). What kind of problems; serious ones, deadly ones, medium ones, or barely noticeable ones? “More weight” is simultaneously too vague to be of any significance to the case: just how much weight does he implicate? If he meant “any” weight, then it would have better served his purpose to state it bluntly.


Without any specifications, one can only speculate at his meaning, and without a definitive meaning, his remarks are in danger of becoming meaningless, erroneous, or worse, arbitrary. They are rather like helium-filled balloons released into the atmosphere; with nothing to anchor them to the earth, they drift aimlessly on any available breeze, landing who knows where.


Much to Mr. Lukas’ chagrin, the facts contradict his claim. Actually, it is estimated that raising jockey weights by 5 pounds would amount to an increase of 0.5 percent force on a horse’s limbs (Schmidt 2004). Some professionals consider this negligible. Also, referring to the impact added weight might have on the horse, Larry Bramlage, orthopedic surgeon at the Rood and Riddle Equine hospital adds: “The implications for the horse are minimal” (Schmidt 2004).


Remi Bellocq, executive director of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association also disagrees with Mr. Lukas’ assessment. Only, his disagreement follows from observation of horses that race in Europe, often carrying more weight over longer distances: “based on a study of amateur Thoroughbred races, where horses carried 125 to 135 pounds, Bellocq does not think carrying increased weight would affect the horse’s soundness … ‘We saw differences in the times of about one or two seconds, but we didn’t see an increase in horses breaking down or ill effects on the horses from carrying more weight’, Bellocq said” (Angst 2002).


Horse health professionals generally don’t see any problem with increasing the jockey’s weight limits; one cannot help but wonder what Lukas’ agenda might be. “I’m dedicated, and my concerns are with the horse (Angst 2004),” he states in a 2004 article, just after dismissing jockey weight-related health problems as inconsequential. So, within the article’s context, he admittedly prioritizes the horse’s health above the jockey’s, ignoring the fact that the tandem rely on each other. And one’s physical problems transfer to the other, leading to failure, injury, shortened career, or even death.


Early humans domesticated, trained, and forged relationships with horses, so, like it or not, human and equine histories are inextricably intertwined. Mr. Lukas seems to have forgotten that horse racing would not exist without the efforts of these early humans, and, had they not succeeded, his career would not exist either. Forward looking, it is humans that now breed horses, invest in buying them, ride them, and, ultimately, invest by patronizing the sport.


Surely, Mr. Lukas, the human faction is worthy of more substantial consideration! 


It is pure speculation, but American horse racing’s obsession with times and track records may be behind Lukas’ ardent opposition to weight limit increases. Evidence shows that adding weight to the horses load does have a minimal impact on its speed, but if everyone is held to the same weight standard, then the playing field is sufficiently leveled. Still, there is no reason to sacrifice jockeys for a couple of seconds on the track.   


As much weight as a racehorse should


In the 1700s, European heads of state were awarded powerful Arabian stallions from the Middle East, which they eventually “bred to the stronger but less precocious and swift native English mares and the result was the Thoroughbred” (Horse Hats.com 2008). Elsewhere the article states: “The result was a horse that could carry weight with sustained speed over extended distances” (HorseHats.com 2008). This information is rarely divulged in modern horse racing circles. The powerful and speedy Thoroughbred was introduced to the American colonies in 1730, so a centuries-long love affair would begin.


Calculating how much a horse should carry, while not simple in the least, traditionally follows a few simple numeric formulas. According to Randall Holman EzineArticles.com expert and ardent horse enthusiast: “One very simple guide is to take the horse’s weight and divide by six to give you the total weight, including rider and tack, the horse can carry … a 1200 pound horse could carry up to 200 pounds” (Holman 2006). Similarly, many horse trainers, not necessarily within thoroughbred racing, use a 20 percent of the horse’s body weight rule as a means of calculating how much weight a horse can carry. (Holman 2006; Barnett 2008) So the same 1200-pound horse can conceivably and safely handle a load of 240 pounds. These calculation, of course, vary depending on breed and the type of performance required of the horse.


While Holman (2006) states that the 20 percent rule applies to “competitive” or “hard riding” horses, Russ Barnett (2008) of Outfitters Supply argues that a delineation must be made between the horse carrying “live” weight (a rider) or “dead” weight (gear and saddlebags), noting that live weight is dynamically different depending on the experience of the rider. A novice rider, who tends to arbitrarily shift in the saddle, actually intensifies the impact of his or her weight, adding extra stress to the horse’s frame—in this case the 20% rule proves obsolete. But a “good rider”, and jockeys are usually exceptional riders, can actually decrease the amount of weight the horse must shoulder: “A good rider is also easier for a horse to carry than an inexperienced one … an experienced rider in a good fitting saddle on a fit horse could be fine on a long tough ride, even if the combined weight of saddle and rider is more than 20% of the animal’s body weight” (Barnett 2008).


Apparently thoroughbred horses—initially bred to “carry weight with sustained speed”—can actually handle much more than the scant 112-126 pounds permitted on most racetracks, without added detriment. Equally important is the fact that common methods used to calculate how much a horse can safely carry are used to prepare them for sometimes grueling treks over miles of uneven terrain: an evenly graded, oval track should pose no problem to a fit rider and horse.


Back in the saddle


According to Brian Hiro, staff writer for North County Times, part of the problem could be an overall decline in American thoroughbred horse health; a problem industry officials recently gathered to discuss. (Hiro 2007) The goal was not to issue unwarranted blame, as has traditionally happened, but to sincerely gather facts, examine evidence, and attempt a valid conclusion, an atmosphere conducive to much needed change. 


Increases in horse fatalities took center stage as industry leaders pondered the vicissitudes of the sport. Possibilities they debated ranged from evidence showing that synthetic track surfaces caused fewer horse injuries and fatalities than traditional turf surfaces had, to ramifications of a missing horse racing central governing body capable of logging and tracking injuries, to faulty American breeding practices, which are now geared more toward speed than durability.


Ironically, for the first time in a very long time, scrupulous eyes have peered beyond the jockey for the cause of marked declines in horse health and efficacy in the 21st Century: yes, scrutinous eyes have finally been examining the horse. This is a huge step for horse racing kind.


Weakened by starvation, broken by dehydration, the jockey has been permitted to feebly climb back into the saddle without negative retribution. Some use it as platform to make languid cries for change, for equal consideration. The industry must, as it is the only party that can, come to their aid. There are no valid reasons why weight restrictions in America should not be raised. The weight of the existing evidence crushes all opposing arguments.


Disagree? Please do so, but only on factual grounds. Perform the studies. Question convention. Interview jockeys. By all means, gather evidence and analyze it until a conclusion becomes repetitively clear.


It is a fact that both jockeys and horses are dying: horse racing industry leaders, the ball is in your court!



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