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Jockeys sweat over reigning-in weight

A study exploring the cost of rigorous weight control on the mental and physical health of jockeys recommends raising minimum riding weights and providing guaranteed times off.

Dr Vivienne Sullivan recently received her PhD in Psychology at Victoria University for her thesis “Wasting away: the influences of weight management on jockeys’ physical, psychological and social wellbeing,” which will soon be presented to Racing Victoria.

She conducted surveys and personal interviews with about one-quarter of Victoria’s 189 flat-race jockeys, their families, and industry professionals about “wasting”, or the short-term weight loss techniques commonly used by jockeys. These include saunas, hot salt baths, strenuous exercise, diuretics, food and fluid restriction, appetite suppressants and self-induced vomiting. She discovered:

  • 80% of jockeys reported having some difficulty controlling their weight
  • mentally, 83% said wasting made them feel moody, depressed (63%) or angry (52%)
  • physically, 79% reported feeling regularly fatigued,  dizzy (62%) or nauseous (45%)
  • socially, 76% reported experiencing strained social relationships and having a daily preoccupation with their weight that dominated other aspects of their lives.

In Victorian horseracing, minimum riding weights were recently increased by one kilogram to 51 kilograms for Group 1 city races (except the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups, which is 50 kg) and to 52 kg for Group 2 or country races. But Dr Sullivan said this did not go far enough.

“Jockeys come from a minority of the population and that pool is getting smaller as the physical size of the general population increases,” she said.

Dr Sullivan said the industry should consider introducing a medical system that assesses people’s physical suitability to maintaining low body weights before they become jockeys. She also suggested raising weights for races on certain days such as Boxing Day, Sundays or night meetings so jockeys could join in social activities.

“Many jockeys are unable to celebrate their successes and often do not attend, or eat steamed veggies when the rest of their family is having Christmas dinner, ”she said.

In Australia, where there is no off-season and at least one race meeting every day except Christmas and Good Friday, the use of unhealthy weight control to achieve minimum riding weights is a major concern, she said.

“Unlike many other countries, it is entirely possible for Australian jockeys to ride all year without taking a break because they are afraid that if they reject a ride they will lose the support of the owner or trainer,” she said.

She recommended a guaranteed four weeks off a year for jockeys to plan holidays and social functions and decrease pressure to engage in wasting.

Dr Sullivan said her findings also showed jockeys tended to downplay the negative consequences and health risks of wasting as a sacrifice for their career.

Her research follows work done in 2007 by VU’s Dr Harriet Speed about the welfare of retired jockeys. Dr Speed’s work was commissioned by the State Government and the Victorian Jockeys Association, and was used to help establish a new scheme for Australian jockeys allocating 1 per cent of prize money to jockey insurance, welfare and education.

Dr Vivienne Sullivan is available for comment on 0435 138 175.

VU Media Contact: Ann Marie Angebrandt,  Marketing and Communications Department, Victoria University. Ph: (03) 9919 5487

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