Tuesday 25 July 2017
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Stagnant History of American Thoroughbred Racing, by Michael Ransom

Stagnant History of American Thoroughbred Racing

By Michael Ransom

Prepare for possibly one of the briefest histories of horse racing, spanning from ancient times to the present, where many rules, at least in America anyway, precious little has changed for more than 100 years (Baptiste 2000). This fact has acted as a catalyst for heated and growing worldwide debates over ridiculous weight restrictions that drive many jockeys to adopt extreme methods of making weight: if they want to keep riding.

Sport of Kings

The evolution of horse racing has coincided with the evolution of human civilization, being traced as far back as 4500 BC, “when prehistoric nomadic tribesmen of Central Asia are recorded to have first domesticated horses” (World Casino Directory [WCD] 2008). Described in Homer’s epic poems in ancient Greece, it had reached such popular acclaim that it was feature event in the Olympics in 638 BC (WCD 2008), a favorite of the gods, of aristocracy, and of the common citizen. The torch was passed on to become the lust and guilty pleasure of the Roman Empire (WCD 2008), possibly rivaled only by the gladiatorial games.

Horse racing matured into an organized sport under the auspices of King Charles II, who reigned from 1660-85. He soon became intimately known as “the father of the English turf” (Encyclopedia Britannica 2008). He was one of the first to offer the organized Sport that is known and loved today; it featured “national racing rules” and prizes for winners.

This is particularly significant because English settlers brought horse racing to early America in 1665, “with the first racetrack laid out on Long Island” (Horse Racing.com 1998). It was a fledgling sport that ran into a major obstacle: the American Civil War. It was not until after the war, somewhere around 1868, that horse racing began to resurge. And, resurge it did! 1875 saw “the first Kentucky Derby” (horsebettingnotes.com), held at what would become the vaunted Churchill Downs.

Betting on American horse races soon attracted large crowds, catching the eye of a shady lot of criminals: “The rapid growth of the sport without any central governing authority led to the domination of many tracks by criminal elements” (mrmike.com 1998). In the wake of growing corruption, “prominent track and stable owners met in New York to form an American Jockey Club, modeled on the English …” (mrmike.com 1998). The American Jockey Club cleaned up the sport, which soon suffered another devastating blow that nearly selected it for extinction: passionate antigambling sentiments. Though outlawed for some time, it was pulled from the brink by new “legalized pari-mutuel betting”; the cost, a portion of the wagers was paid to the State government.  

Horse racing has historically been referenced as the Sport of Kings and nobility, but has now fallen into the hands of mere men, even criminal hands at times. Its popularity has inflated and has gone global: “Horse racing is also a major professional sport in Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and South America” (mrmike.com 1998, referenced by Horse Racing.com 2008).

Don’t weight around!

Horse racing has dodged several deadly bullets, but has not remained unscathed. Countless jockeys have come forward to name the sport’s single toughest hurdle: maintaining excessively low race weights. “Wasting” is a popular term “keeping weight down …old as the sport itself …” (Pinsent 2007).

 Records of jockeys’ struggles making weight go back almost as far as the sport is old as well. A 1903, The New York Times article reported how weight restrictions forced an early end to many promising careers, attributing it to nothing other than natural body growth. In a perplexed tone, the author (not provided) describes the fate of Grover Cleveland Fuller among the most talented jockeys of the time: “In the condition he as last Summer on the metropolitan courses Fuller’s services would be almost beyond estimate in value to the stable that might be so lucky as to get him, but horsemen doubt that fuller will repeat his success of 1903, even should he escape the fate that seems impending and grow so rapidly as to make it impossible for him to ride at the weights usual on New York tracks” (The New York Times 1903). Still, “Fuller is not without company,” the author outlines as he documents a growing list of popular jockeys. One might thing he/she is reading an article written in 2003, rather than 1903.

Debate is over what the horse racing industry knows as, “tack (the total poundage of the jockey in full gear, plus saddle and saddlecloth)” (Baptiste 2000). Tack varies according to the racetrack, fluctuating anywhere between 126 pounds in the Triple Crown—Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and The Belmont Stakes—and a scant 112 pounds at others.

There isn’t much documentation covering the rationale behind the original weight limits, but its effects have a long history. Jockeys, especially most recently, have vociferated: “extreme weight-loss measures are widespread—and unnecessary—the result of the racing industry’s refusal to change century-old weight limits” (Baptiste 2000). One cannot help but wonder why they have never been reviewed and/or changed.

It’s true, The United States has stubbornly held on to these outdated weight limits, despite average increases in size and build. According to the 2000 article, Jockeys dying to make weight, Andre Baptiste draws upon the words of John Giovanni executive director of the Jockeys’ Guild in New York: “Each generation keeps getting bigger but the scale of weights [in America], which is the lowest of any country that has racing, hasn’t been adjusted for years. It’s time it was …” (Baptiste 2000). In fact many physicians and nutritionists have weighed in on this weighty subject, claiming that something has to be done.

Still, the arguments against a standardized weight increase have been inconsistent and weak at best. Citing that jockey weight increases, however miniscule, could injure the horse, while ignoring the plights of the tiny jockeys hanging onto them, and their short careers, for dear life, belies a blatant disregard for the human aspect of racing. Besides, the proposed weight change to 118 pounds (without gear) is still 8 pounds lower than the 126-pound weight riders are permitted at the Kentucky Derby, one of America’s most popular races. If a horse can carry that much weight at one track, why can’t it be carried at an alternate one? There is clearly no consistent support for those hoping to quell the call for a minimal weight limit raise.

Sport of babes

            Weight restrictions clearly draw many jockeys out of racing at increasingly younger ages. Many horse owners and trainers are hesitant to sign older jockeys because natural growth has pushed making weight beyond their ability to cope with the warranted extreme methods. This often results either in an influx of foreign jockeys who are naturally of smaller frame and build, or of young jockeys who have not yet begun to grow. The “sport of kings” has been left in the hands of proverbial “babes” who must live in fear of growing up, of getting the axe once nature kicks in.

            Steven Cauthen, who appeared on the cover of the 1977 Sports Illustrated as Sportsman of the Year (Hauff 2008), a gleaming “kid” as they called him, seemed to have a bright horse racing future ahead of him. No one would have imagined that the 11th person to win the Triple Crown, which he did in 1978, would choose not race in America again. The reason, he was starting to grow: “His size put his American career in jeopardy … ‘I could see I wasn’t going to be able to ride in America, physically, because of the weight,’ said Cauthen” (CNN/SI 1998). He went on to become one of England’s greatest riders, where the weight restrictions are not as harsh. As they grow, jockeys come to a fork in the road, and they must choose either to leave the sport, or to ride in another country, or to endure years of starvation and other methods of making weight.

Hope for those that weight

            A light sparkles over the horizon, as many countries and organizations are seriously looking at issues caused by extreme weight restrictions. Ireland has been one of the first to consider and implement a change in weight restrictions. Closer to home, the state of California has begun exploring the possibility: “Standardizing a jockey’s minimum weight to be 118 without clothing or tack, and giving a ten-pound weight allowance for the equipment a horse carries from his withers to his rump is a proposition currently being explored in California. TOC President John Van de Kamp and Chairman Ron Charles indicated support for raising jockey’s weight, although both cited a need for further explanation of the specifics of this proposed rule change” (Poctor 2007). Too, worldwide inquiry is on the rise: “Studies from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are being collated to give a robust picture of the problems facing jockeys” (Pinsent 2007).

            As a final consideration, the fortunate consequence of those that have launched studies and implemented change is that it affords the opportunity to observe its impact on the horses. To date, there have been no reports of added detriment.   




















Baptiste, A. (2000, April 7). Jockeys dying to make the weights. The Independent part

One. Retrieved January 7, 2008, from the World Wide Web: http://www.nalis.gov.tt/Sport/sports_bulimicJockeysHealth.htm

CNN/SI. (1998). A spring to remember: Triple Crown a vivid memory for ex-jockey

Cauthen. Retrieved January 7, 2008, from the World Wide Web: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/more/horseracing/events/1998/preakness/news/1998/05/13/cauthen_package/

Hauff, V. (2008). Steven Cauthen and Affirmed [Electronic version]. The Horsemen’s

Corral. Retrieved January 7, 2008, from the World Wide Web:


the history of horse racing. (1998). Linked on Horse Racing USA. Retrieved January 7,

2008, from the World Wide Web: http://www.mrmike.com/explore/hrhist.htm

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Encyclopaedia Britannica Online: http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-3310

horse racing a brief history. (2008). In World Casino Directory. Retrieved January 7,

2008, from World Casino Directory Online: http://www.worldcasinodirectory.com/horseracing

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

says Dettori. The Independent (London), 64 & 65. Retrieved January 4, 2008, from the World Wide Web: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4158/is_20060412/ai_n16176502

The New York Times. (1903, November 29). Short careers for star jockeys: Tendency to

Grow heavier constantly retires famous riders from the saddle—Fuller and Hicks present notable examples but neither may be able to ride next season [Electronic version]. The New York Times. Retrieved January 6, 2008, from the World Wide Web: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9B05E0D81039E333A2575AC2A9679D946297D6CF

The origins of racing. (2008). On Horsebettingnotes.com. Retrieved January 7, 2008,

From the World Wide Web: http://www.horsebettingnotes.com/horse-racing-history.shtml

Pinsent, M. (2007, October 15). Inside sport: Jockeys in danger. BBC Sport. Retrieved

January 7, 2008, from the World Wide Web: http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/low/tv_and_radio/inside_sport/7045687.stm

Proctor, L. (2004, April 14). HBO documentary ‘Jockey’ makes case for raising

minimum weight [Electronic version]. Thoroughbred Times. Retrieved January 7, 2008, from the World Wide Web: http://www.thoroughbredtimes.com/national-news/2004/April/14/HBO-documentary-Jockey-makes-case-for-raising-minimum-weight.aspx



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