Turner tackles a waste of strength / RACING

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The Independent Online
Sensitive readers are excused the remainder of this paragraph. "In America, the jockeys are very much into what they call `heavers'," an experienced racing commentator recalled yesterday. "They'll eat a cheeseburger with great gusto, then disappea r intothe toilets and stick their fingers down their throat. They say that if you do it within five minutes, it tastes as nice coming back as it did going down."

British jockeys, of course, are a little more genteel. They shed weight in the sauna or, in an emergency, via a diuretic - known colloquially as a "pee-pill" - or a laxative, while there is also the tried and trusted F-plan diet (that's F for fasting). But whatever the method, rapid slimming is viewed by most people, in the weighing room and beyond, as a simple fact of life in the saddle. In the betting shop, meanwhile, little rouses the punters to mutiny quite like a favourite which is beaten a short-head with its jockey putting up a pound overweight.

Yet what the backers - and, for that matter, many trainers and owners - fail to consider is the effect which wasting to a light weight might have on a jockey's performance. It is a problem which is currently occupying the mind of Dr Michael Turner, the Jockey Club's energetic medical officer, and which deserves consideration by all those connected with the sport.

"If you've got to lose eight pounds in 24 hours there are very few options open to you," Dr Turner said yesterday. "Basically you have to dehydrate yourself, but it is a well-established fact that if you lose five per cent of your body weight in fluid, then you lose 30 per cent of your strength. That means people could barely do a press-up or two." Which is hardly the prime characteristic you would hope for in a tight finish.

Turner has made a more sensible attitude to weight control among jockeys one of his principal aims, but he recognises that the wasting mentality dates back to Fred Archer and beyond (the depression which led to Archer's suicide, at the age of 29, is saidto have owed much to constant fasting). "Bingeing and wasting is part of racing folklore," Turner said. "It's handed down from senior riders to the conditionals as being the only way."

And when an eager young jockey needs to go that little bit further for a good ride, the urge to pop a pee-pill is difficult to resist. When Turner recently introduced random drug-testing for riders, diuretics were conspicuously absent from the list of banned substances, but this may not always be the case. Not that a ban would be necessary if doctors were not prescribing to perfectly fit jockeys a drug intended for patients suffering from water retention and blood pressure problems.

"I have no doubt that they have a perfectly logical reason for doing so," he said. "Far be it from me to impugn the reputation of my colleagues," added Turner, adhering to his profession's code of courtesy. It is clear, however, that doctors prescribing diuretics to healthy young riders must surely be aware that they intend to abuse them.

This is not to imply that the use of weight-loss drugs is widespread among jockeys. A couple of hours in the sauna is a more common approach, but this, too, is far from ideal. Any rapid weight-loss through dehydration will also sap strength, yet saunas are installed in many of the country's weighing-rooms.

The irony here is that an intelligent exercise programme would allow most jockeys to maintain their most efficient riding weight, or even lose weight, while enjoying a balanced diet. Many believe that riding work in the morning and then half a dozen mounts at the track is all the exercise they need. In fact, while they may develop muscles in unusual places, their cardio-vascular system remains relatively untroubled.

A recent experimental programme, monitored by Turner, caused several senior riders to completely revise their attitudes to weight and fitness, so astonished were they by the effects of a careful approach to food and exercise. A course of instruction along similar lines is now compulsory for apprentices at the British Racing School. It could take 20 years or more to alter 200 years of tradition, but the days of the heaver and the pee-pill may at last be numbered.