Racing: Hungry riders craving for success

Pulling your weight can inflict a harsh penalty, reports Greg Wood
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The Independent Online
A jittery filly almost killed Walter Swinburn at Sha Tin 18 months ago, but it was not enough to finish his career in the saddle. Now, though, it seems that a far more mundane problem will ensure that one of the most talented and popular jockeys of recent years has ridden his last winner.

It was in late April that Swinburn announced he was taking a "sabbatical" from race-riding to confront persistent problems with his weight, a reminder that the eternal conflict between jockeys and the scales does not spare the successful. And while he, with three Derbys, an Arc and two dozen other Group One winners to his name, has already accumulated enough memories and money to keep him comfortable in retirement, for many others, the struggle goes on.

It is at its most bitter for the journeymen, who rely on riding fees for their living, rather than a share of the purses from a handful of winners. For them, the relationship between pounds of body weight and pounds in the bank can be painfully direct. They are men like Richard Perham, whose natural weight is about nine stone but who can ride at 8st 4lb, which means, as he points out, that "I'll be about 8st 2lb stripped".

Weight is never far from Perham's thoughts. "The first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning is what sort of weight I'm going to be, and what I'll be the following day," he says. "If I have a light ride coming up, I'm constantly thinking about it. It's not an easy life. I try to have a bowl of bran flakes in the morning to keep the system going, and I might have some fruit on the way to the races and pick at a bit of meat at lunchtime. Then in the evening there'll be something sensible, like a bit of chicken or fish with salad."

Such austerity is almost unique among professional athletes, but Perham believes his regime is typical of all but a fortunate handful of his colleagues. "Generally every jockey tries to do lighter than they really should because everybody feels that if they can take off another pound or two, it might lead to an extra winner, a better income. Everybody craves success and wants to win."

Inevitably, the effects of this constant vigilance and denial are not simply physical, but mental and emotional too. "If you are going without, it makes you niggly, you bite at things you probably shouldn't do," Perham says. "It doesn't help your moods at all. People say that jockeys have a hard life, but I think that their wives have a harder time."

Michael Caulfield, secretary of the Jockeys' Association, admits that "it's a huge mental thing, it really affects their domestic life. The things which break me most in my job are the injuries, and the sight of jockeys wasting day in, day out. I never approach a jockey who's wasting, and when you see them come out of the sauna boiling their heads off, you think, that's no sort of life."

The sauna has been a familiar part of almost every jockey's life for many years, but it is at best a short-term answer to weight problems. "All you're doing is dehydrating yourself," Perham says, "and the first thing that happens when you drink anything, whether it's water or tea, is that it goes straight back into your body like it's a sponge. You'll often hear people say they've taken 2lb off and put 3lb on. Two years ago I would sauna every day, but now it's occasional, when I need it. A lot of jockeys are now doing more exercise, walking, jogging, going to the gym."

This will be welcome news to Dr Michael Turner, the Jockey Club's chief medical advisor, who is keen to stamp out some of the traditional, but often downright unhealthy, practices of the (note the name) weighing room. "We've always been concerned, which is why we have a dietician lecturing every intake of apprentices at the riding school," he says. "It's a question of education from the bottom upwards. The only reason you need to eat very little is if you haven't got your weight under control, and that's related to the amount of exercise you take. The physical exercise jockeys get on horseback each day is actually very small, maybe 30 or 40 minutes a day. They need to run, cycle and swim to enable them to eat enough food."

Turner believes that such desperate remedies as diuretics (the "pee pills" beloved of generations of jockeys) or a finger down the throat are now on the wane. "All the older jockeys have tried diuretics or laxatives, and they tend to try it once and give it up," he says. These drugs are not, at present, on the Club's list of banned substances, but "every time we do a urine test we test for diuretics, and we don't find many, whereas the French have huge numbers, and have just added them to their banned list. In America they have problems with bulimia, but there's much evidence of it happening here."

Perham agrees, but only to a point. "A lot of people have toyed with that idea and find it pretty unpleasant," he says. "But there are a couple who do it on a daily basis, and there's one jockey who has to go to Harley Street once or twice a year to have his stomach relined. That can't be a whole lot of fun, but these are the extremes that people will go to."

One way or another, jockeys will keep pushing their weight as low as it can go, and then a little further. Punters considering Swinburn's disappearance from the weighing room when he should be in his prime may conclude that the Choirboy is mad, but there is an alternative explanation. Maybe it was sanity that prevailed.