Tuesday 19 September 2017
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Horse Racing: The Notoriously Splintered Sport, by Michael S. Ransom


Horse racing: The notoriously splintered sport

By Michael S. Ransom

Best case

Adrenaline permeated the atmosphere, setting the stage for either the intoxication of triumphant or the bitterness of subjugation. There was no middle ground, for it was a clash of bitter division rival. To win was to earn bragging rights for the remainder of the season.

It had to have been exhilarating, as wide receiver Terrel Owens looked the ball into his hands, a moment he no doubt had dreamed of, visualized throughout his meteoric ascent into the National Football League. He’d run a slant pattern across the middle of the field—territory of some of the most vicious hitters in the league—shaking off voracious would-be tacklers intent on stopping him by any means. He’d shaken all, save one. Literally steps away from breaking a run down the sideline for at least a substantial gain, his progress was snapped to a halt. A trailing defender had desperately grasped the inside back collar of his shoulder pads and twisted him backwards to the turf, his torso hanging precariously, almost weightlessly, over his legs for seconds seemed minutes.

Referees whistled the play dead, the dust settled, players turned to go back to their respective huddles, but Owens lay on the field grabbing his lower right leg. The diagnosis: “he suffered a broken right leg and torn ankle ligaments” (Bell 2005). The prognosis was grim, especially for a team just two games away from the postseason.

It did not take long for the NFL’s governing powers to notice the growing trend, for Owens’ incident had not occurred in a vacuum. The issue was summarily brought before the competition committee, comprised of team owners, and before the commissioner of Football who also consulted with the players association. The dangerous “horse-collar tackle” (Pasquarelli 2005), as it would be aptly named, was analyzed, criticized, and quickly proscribed. Henceforth, offenders’ teams have been penalized 15- yards, individuals levied heavy fines should the competition committee deem the infraction severe enough, with additional offenses incurring escalating punitive steps up to and including suspension.


Worst case

Apprentice jockey Jose Emmanuel Sanchez was in the early stages of a productive career when he was discovered lying on a shower room floor following a day of races. Comatose, they frantically rushed him to a local hospitable, to no avail. The boyish 22 year-old was pronounced dead, the cause—he “apparently died of dehydration” (Finley 2005). It was a bittersweet tragedy, as his death made more conspicuous the fact that jockeys routinely abuse weight loss methods to make weight. 

Many have “reduced” to death, while still more engage in a tragic dance with it. For them, life is reduced to fearful gradations of death. Emaciated by starvation, languished by dehydration, barely able to see straight, jockeys have been doing whatever it takes to meet stringent weight restrictions.

Evidence has definitively shown that average sizes of jockeys have increased over the years, whilst century-old weight restrictions have not: “… historic weight structure is a cruel legacy of an age of poverty. Since 1979, the average weight of trainees entering the Irish racing academy has increased by 37 per cent. During the same period, the minimum weight carried by flat hors-es [sic] had risen by just 6 per cent” (McGrath 2006). If these numbers are appalling for a smaller, progressive nation, then one cannot help but wonder how similar or worse they are for a prosperous, advanced nation such as the United States.

Now for the cashing in on the two introductory samples, what do the forgoing cases have to do with the topic of sport governing bodies? Certainly, each sport has its share of injuries, penalties and disqualifications. It is not what these two sports have in common that’s significant, but what they do not.


No case

Though it is surprisingly difficult to find an official definition of a sports governing body, conceptualizing it depends more on an understanding of its roles and responsibilities within its proper context, than on memorizing an academic word formulation. Comprised of either elected or appointed officials chosen to represent the best interest of all parties within a given sport, a sports governing body is burdened with some simple, yet important tasks.

They must:

  • Establish and enforce policies, rules and regulations designed to protect the rights, health and careers of all affected parties, both before and after retirement.
  • Enact disciplinary action as warranted, as well as coordinate such action with independent parties, such as teams, coaches, owners, trainers, etc. This includes mediating conflict resolution.
  • Monitor and regulate competition and set criterion for entering competitions.
  • Track and catalogue events, records, injuries and fatalities in the interest of prohibiting future recurrences.
  • Promote the popularity of the sport both nationally and internationally.

Representatives from a diversity of EU (European Union) sport governing bodies recently caucused with the indubitable purpose of analyzing and commenting on a recently published white paper, which approximated some of sports governing bodies’ prominent roles. Outspoken leaders criticized what they deemed wayward implications, and used the event as a platform to reaffirm their goals/duties to their sports. They contended that, “they are ‘committed to the protection of fair and open competition, to the promotion of athlete and player education and training, to the maintenance of competitive balance, and to the need to protect the integrity of our respective sports’” (SportBusiness.com 2007).

Ideally, a governing body’s approach should be objective, with its members doling out logical judgments reflective of ruthless loyalty to established facts and corroborated claims, not out of affinity to a given party or affiliate. This point cannot be overstated: there is absolutely no room in any court of appeals for the arbitrary claim, for the unsubstantiated.

Hence, it would be nonobjective—and just plain remiss—to discuss only the positive aspects of sport governing bodies. Since humans are far from omniscient, and since sports governing bodies are human institutions comprised of countless individuals with varying backgrounds, experiences, opinions, etc., there is no shock in the fact that there have been cases when particular governing bodies and/or their CEOs/Commissioners have overstepped established parameters, or have disconnected from the daily realities of life on the track, field, rink, or court. It stands to reason that, whether from laziness or genuine ignorance, not every sports body has been dedicated to objectivity, nor has any been totally consistent, but the indispensable benefit of their existence is that they establish centralized policies; they set standards to which all participating factions, including themselves, must adhere in every phase of the sport.

In light of the foregoing discussion, take a brief moment to recollect the best and worst cases articulated above. Happen to notice the single critical discrepancy between them? In the first, a sports governing body and its Commissioner unhesitatingly acted to protect both the health and careers of its players; in the second, the opposite occurred and jockeys’ tragic, sometimes horrific, daily struggles with weight went on unchanged, despite the dire circumstances. The reason—there is currently no central governing body in horse racing!

            Presently, weight restrictions are set piecemeal: “every track sets weight requirements for each race, depending on the horse’s age, sex and skill level and the race’s distance” (Schmidt 2004). So, weights typically range anywhere from 112 to 126 pounds including tack—approximately 7 pounds of saddle, riding and protective gear—105-119 without. It is duly documented that these common weights have not been altered since the 1800s, despite the fact that jockeys, especially in more advanced nations, are steadily getting larger in size and build at younger ages. One could possibly assume that a sizable collection of raw data would make this obvious enough for the powers that be to quickly jump to jockeys’ aid, ordering relief through higher weight restrictions.

            No such comprehensive collection of data exists because there is no unified body in the sport to oversee, catalogue and properly store it. In this vacuum, any such records or statistics are precariously archived at the discretion of poorly organized, individual racetrack administrators. But who holds them accountable—no one!

In 2007, some of these same officials and professionals from every facet of horse racing gathered to discuss implications of the overall marked decline in horse health and consequent increase in horse deaths; they bemoaned the fact that there was a shoddy collection of “death and injury data” (Hiro 2007), as if they were not somehow culpable. Curious, too, how quickly an otherwise splintered collection of professionals urgently gather to discuss declining horse health, but pay little attention to the longer standing decline in jockey health.

            Clearly one would be hard pressed to convince any reasonably intelligent individual that, if provided with the copious amounts of evidence—see Shane’s book and other articles posted on this site—any horse racing governing body would continue to endorse century old weight restrictions unsubstantiated by scientific fact. It would behoove this would-be organization to take immediate action or risk international outrage, not to mention possible Federal entanglement, as with the current Major League Baseball steroid investigation.

There is more than enough evidence corroborating the fact that sports with central governing bodies celebrate wider domestic and international popularity, greater financial success, fewer injuries and fewer fatalities; still, American horse racing officials have notoriously procrastinated development of their own. There is no excuse. In an open subversion of the democratic principle, officials have relied on an assortment of weak detractions, posited by a relatively small minority within the sport, to rationalize the immolation of the majority. Sadly, while officials deliberate, wallowing in tradition, both jockeys and horses are dying.


Cold case

With exception of a few States—California and New York being two of the most proactive—nothing remotely close to the necessary pervasive weight restriction change has happened as yet in American horse racing. Why hasn’t it? Currently, the menagerie of racetrack owners offers no satisfactory explanation. More than likely they decline to unite because a splintered sport has no single body to be held accountable for obvious injustice; they must want horse racing to be impervious to any disciplinary mandates. Proposed changes could not be implemented universally because it would be up to individual track owners to comply. This begs the question, “comply, under the auspices of whom?”

Change is in on the horizon, even if it has begun overseas. Some countries, most recently Ireland and Australia, have officially appointed centralized governing bodies, empowering them to evaluate and organize their respective horse racing industries. Their obvious goal is to improve the sport for all involved. It is similarly significant that these countries have also led the way with comprehensive studies and consequent weight restriction adjustments. Central governing bodies and fundamental policy changes have repeatedly emerged as corollaries in sports.

Until US horse racing officials acknowledge this fact, chances are there will never be an equivalent metamorphosis in America.  




Bell, J. (2005, May 24). NFL puts ‘horse collar’ tackle back in the barn [Electronic

version]. USA Today. Retrieved February 6, 2008, from USA Today.com: http://www.usatoday.com/sports/football/nfl/2005-05-23-horse-collar-tackle-focus_x.htm

Finely, B. (2005, July 29). Jockey’s tragic death shows that weight must change. Horse

Racing. Retrieved February 6, 2008, from ESPN.com: http://sports.espn.go.com/sports/horse/columns/story?columnist=finley_bill&id=2118167

governing bodies say there is much work to be done on EU white paper. (2007,

December 7). Retrieved February 7, 2008, from SportsBusiness.com: http://www.sportbusiness.com/news/162137/governing-bodies-say-there-is-much-work-to-be-done-on-eu-white-paper

 Hiro, B. (2007, August 12). Horse racing’s black eye [Electronic version]. North County

Times. Retrieved January 11, 2008, from NCTimes.com: http://www.nctimes.com/articles/2007/08/12/sports/delmar/22_49_398_11_07.txt

McGrath, C. (2006, April 12). Horse racing: Weight rules are ruining jockeys’ health,

says Dettori. The Independent (London). Retrieved January 20, 2008, from BNET: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4158/is_20060412/ai_n16176502

Pasquarelli, L. (2005, May 25). Cowboys’ Williams injures four with tackle in 2004.

ESPN. Retrieved February 6, 2008, from ESPN.com: http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/columns/story?columnist=pasquarelli_len&id=2067728


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