Drugs In Sport: Independent Survey - Racing's weighty problem fades

Jockeys who regularly take diuretics are thin on the ground today. By Greg Wood
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The Independent Online
THE FACT that 35 per cent of the jockeys who responded to The Independent's survey admitted to having used diuretics did not surprise Dr Michael Turner, the Jockey Club's chief medical advisor. Turner himself received a similar response to a survey of his own conducted four years ago, but he is quick to point out that "what you find when you follow it up is that jockeys have often tried these things at the very start of their careers, and the experience has been so horrible that by and large they haven't done it again."

Race-riding, as one 30-year-old respondent said, is "one of the very few sports undertaken whilst being constantly dehydrated and undernourished to enable us to compete." Diuretics (or "pee-pills") have long been a last resort for jockeys, on the Flat in particular, who are desperate to shed an extra pound. Fred Archer, arguably the finest rider in turf history, habitually used a patent concoction known as "Archer's mixture" to strip every possible ounce from his frame. Its prolonged use is thought to have contributed to the depression which caused Archer to commit suicide in 1886 at just 29 years of age.

Diuretics are not currently on racing's list of banned substances, although the random samples taken from jockeys throughout the year are monitored for their presence. About 150 tests are performed each year, and on average only one proves positive for a diuretic. A similar exercise in France, by contrast, produces about 50 positive results annually, and diuretics have now been added to the French list of banned substances.

"In France, diuretics are almost part of the racing culture," Turner said. "But the difference is that if you turn up in France more than a pound above your riding weight, you are not allowed to ride. In England, you can be 5lb overweight and still get the ride. French jockeys needed to have a last-minute solution. I don't believe diuretics are a major problem in Britain and if jockeys were resorting to them on a regular basis, there is no doubt that we would pick them up."

Even if, as Turner anticipates, Britain follows the French lead and bans diuretics, the temptation will still be there on occasions for jockeys to pop a "pee-pill" rather than put up a pound overweight in a valuable handicap when it could be the difference between winning and losing. But Michael Caulfield, the secretary of the Jockeys' Association, said that in the last decade there has been a significant change of attitude among riders.

"The word has gone round that these things are just no good for you and they will damage your career prospects," said Caulfield. "Jockeys know that they don't work in the long term and they make you feel absolutely rotten too."

In place of the wasting drugs, there is an appreciation, particularly among the new generation of riders, of the importance of diet and regular exercise, in addition to the half-hour or so that they get on horseback each afternoon. "Senior jockeys," said Turner, "will not get to be senior jockeys unless they already have a stable arrangement with their weight."

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