Racing: Spencer adds weight to Dettori's campaign

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The Independent Online

The scales tipped higher against the Jockeys' Association yesterday when Jamie Spencer joined Frankie Dettori in threatening to quit the organisation over its ambivalent stance on minimum weights.

Spencer, who succeeded the Italian as champion last year, shares Dettori's anger with their professional body, which has declined to campaign for increases similar to those recently introduced in Ireland. Yesterday Dettori told The Independent that he would resign if things do not change, and Spencer was swift to follow suit.

"I'm 100 per cent behind Frankie," he said. "The stakes are far higher than in any of the silly little arguments always put up against change. Weight dominates the life of so many jockeys. It kills you, burns you out. With the schedule we follow nowadays, you feel tired all the time, and there's no need.

"If they raised the weights, I would jump out of bed every morning like a lion.

"At the end of the day, I'm used to it, I know what's involved day in and day out. It's the future you have to worry about. It's the young fellows coming in now, 20 years behind Frankie, 10 years behind me - they're getting taller all the time. You see them knocking off weight every day, but the moment they have a ban or a holiday it goes back on twice as quick, and then it all goes haywire."

Dettori and Spencer know they are well rewarded for their own daily sacrifices. But they also know that many other jockeys endure the same scars, and worse, in obscurity. And they are particularly appalled to see apprentices stifling their physical development. They hope that their stand will bring this hidden sickness into the public domain, and embarrass the Jockeys' Association into getting its priorities right.

Their suspicion is that the vested interests of a vocal minority of lightweight specialists have stifled any progress towards what has been achieved in Ireland. If that is not so, then the Jockeys' Association should have no problem with a ballot. After all, there is no reason why a lightweight rider cannot ride at 9st. Indeed, he can use a better saddle than the jockey who must make do with something the size of this newspaper. If he cannot compete on those terms, it is simply because he is not good enough.

Though a 3lb increase has been secured in maiden races, the bottom weight in many other races remains as low as 7st 12lb. Dettori is particularly frustrated that the recent narrowing of handicap bands has typically spread weights between 8st 4lb to 9st 4lb. He believes that there would be overwhelming support for the range to be higher, maybe even 9st to 10st.

John Blake, chief executive of the Jockeys' Association, cautioned against simplification. "We represent a very broad church," he said. "Some members jog along at the middle of the scale, and weight means nothing to them. Others operate at the bottom end and were bemoaning the increase of the minimum weight to 7st 12lb in 2002. And further up there will always be those who are eventually beaten by weight.

"We have won a lot of changes already and perhaps Ireland, where top weights are now 10st 4lb, will provide empirical evidence to British owners and trainers that there are no welfare issues when horses carry over 10st. After all, some of these animals will be carrying 11st over jumps just a few weeks later.

"But we also have to recognise that a lot of jockeys can ride comfortably between 7st 12lb and 8st 4lb and we don't want to disenfranchise them. We do need a viable workforce for a broad fixture list.

"You can play around with numbers as much as you want, but the most important thing is that jockeys have a proper understanding of nutrition and the psychology of managing weight. It is a sport that will always demand sacrifice and discipline. It may not always be glamorous, or even healthy. It is a hard sport."

But many will consider it a barbaric one, if it does not reflect changes in modern society. The archaic weight structure is a legacy of days when jockeys might otherwise sweep chimneys. Over the past 30 years, the average weight of 16-year-old boys in Britain has increased by 11lb to 10st 7lb.

The Irish authorities changed their weight structure in response to research by Limerick University. Any newcomer to racing would be scandalised by its findings: jockeys perilously low in body fat and bone density, vulnerable to osteoporosis and kidney problems, constantly dehydrated and enervated.

This exorbitant physical and mental price is exacted by self-interested minorities, whether lightweight jockeys or antediluvian trainers. The Jockey Club medical officer himself says that all arguments against change are specious when measured against health issues.

"We are supposed to be the leaders in international racing," Dettori said. "But so many riders have been burned up by weight problems. There was Keith Dalgleish only recently, but before that Jason Weaver, Walter Swinburn and Steve Cauthen. Johnny Murtagh has never hidden his struggles.

"How many more do we have to lose before something is done? And it's our fault. I blame ourselves, I blame our Association."

Chris McGrath

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