Racing: Weight rules are ruining jockeys' health, says Dettori

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The Independent Online

Frankie Dettori, whose flair on and off the racecourse has made him the best-known jockey in Britain, demanded yesterday that tough weight restrictions on riders be eased to safeguard their health.

Dettori, 37, is threatening to quit the Jockeys' Association if it fails to back calls to raise the weight limits, in line with recent changes in Ireland. A study by Limerick University last year showed that jockeys were suffering constant dehydration and inadequate body fat and bone density, and highlighted the risk of osteoporosis.

The Irish authorities responded quickly, and now Dettori wants the Jockeys' Association - which is funded by riders' earnings - to accelerate progress, instead of hindering it.

He said: "It is up to us senior riders to do something. Look at the apprentices. They are the future, and they are getting bigger all the time. And nowadays we have racing 12 months a year, there is never any respite."

In a typical flat race in Britain, rider and saddle together may have to weigh as little as 8st 4lb. By punishing body and soul, Dettori manages a minimum of about 8st 7lb. The historic weight structure is the 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 horses had risen by just 6 per cent.

The Limerick survey showed that more than half of jockeys never ate on the morning of a race. One June afternoon, the researchers conducted a hydration survey of 14 volunteers riding at the Curragh. All were dehydrated, in most cases deteriorating through the day.

Anyone familiar with a jockey's life could supply more harrowing testimony: driving to the races on blazing summer days with the car heating turned up full, jogging in wetsuits, all the time in agonies of thirst.

Johnny Murtagh, who has ridden three Derby winners, has spoken about his struggles with the scales. "Look at Fred Archer," he said. "The greatest jockey of the 19th century, and he shot himself - and for why? There are times when it does drive you insane, wreck your head so much that you could do something stupid. We don't need that in the game any more."

Others to have struggled over recent years include Walter Swinburn, whose native stability was betrayed by drink and eating disorders. Jason Weaver and Steve Cauthen both hastened their retirement through difficulties with weight, and only last year similar problems ended the promising young career of Keith Dalgleish.

What exasperates Dettori is not the conservatism of the British racing authorities. He suspects that the most significant resistance instead comes from within the jockeys' own ranks - from a vocal minority of specialist lightweight riders, who can have three square meals a day and still take any mount.

They fear that an increase in the minimum weights will put them out of business, and Dettori believes that they have hijacked the interests of every other rider. He argues that their strident influence over the Jockeys' Association has preserved an archaic weight structure.

"It's always the same old story," Dettori said. "Whenever it is mentioned, it falls on deaf ears. It's always the same handful of jockeys who make the same arguments, who run the association like a dictatorship. They don't care if the rest of us are starving ourselves to death, if we are dehydrated 12 months a year. In this day and age, we're looking at a major problem, anyone can see that. But it always gets swept under the carpet. We never get to vote on it. If something isn't done, I will resign."

Dettori says that he has the support of other senior riders. Without their subscriptions, the professional body could become as dehydrated, in financial terms, as the riders whose physical corrosion is causing Dettori such concern. He does not want to hold the association to ransom, but he knows that he is the one man equipped to take the hidden torments of his vocation into the public domain.

John Blake, the chief executive of the Jockeys' Association, responded to the changes in Ireland by defending the livelihoods of lightweight riders. "There are barriers of entry to other sports - boxing and Rugby Union for example," he said.

The Jockey Club's chief medical adviser, Michael Turner, said: "We need a weight that reflects the population at large. The minimum weight today should be 8st 4lb. That is based on medical recommendation."