Most people on a strict diet would welcome an excuse to ease up a little, but yesterday's announcement by the British Horseracing Board that the minimum weight in Flat races is to rise by 3lb will not have been greeted warmly in some sections of the weighing room. From 1 January 1996, 7st 10lb will be the lowest weight on the Flat, and the country's lightest jockeys may feel that the racing authorities are trying to put them out of business.
A rise of 3lb may not sound like much, but jockeys who specialise in riding at or around the current minimum of 7st 7lb will be concerned that a significant proportion of their bookings will evaporate like steam in a sauna. However, any objections would - pardon the pun - carry more weight had a survey by Dr Michael Turner, the Jockey Club's chief medical officer, not discovered that many jockeys find it impossible to make such a low weight anyway.
Dr Turner studied 1,500 rides at or near the minimum weight during the 1994 season, and found that 55 per cent of jockeys booked to ride at 7st 7lb had put up overweight. The figures for riders allocated 7st 8lb and 7st 9lb were 22 per cent and 29 per cent respectively. This is annoying for owners and trainers, and also for punters who may have backed a horse in the morning and seen it beaten a short-head in the afternoon only to discover the following day that it was carrying a pound or two more than expected.
Dr Turner's main concern, though, is that jockeys may be damaging both their health and their performance as they struggle to shed those last, vital few ounces. "Riding at these light weights often involves jockeys in a number of unhealthy and ill-advised practices which are detrimental to their performance," he said yesterday. Diuretics and non-stop sauna sessions - the best way to lose weight quickly is to dehydrate - are what he had in mind.
The jockeys who will be most affected by the change reacted yesterday with a mixture of resignation (the decision was hardly a surprise) and disappointment. "It's going to be hard on us lightweights," Gary Bardwell, who regularly rides at 7st 7lb, said, "but I'm glad they've only put the weights up 3lb, not 7lb. There will be more jockeys available to ride at the weights so it will be more difficult to get rides."
There was also surprise that the increase had not been matched by an equivalent rise at the other end of the scale. The BHB decided that since the 35lb maximum weight range in British handicaps was the widest of any major racing country, it could stand a 3lb reduction.
In the early months of next year, a number of trainers will doubtless see one of their runners beaten narrowly off a long handicap weight of 7st 7lb and complain that "last year, he would have won". Yet the truth, it seems, will be that this year he would probably have carried overweight in any case. Within six months, few will understand why such a logical and necessary change should have caused the slightest fuss.
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