Terence Blacker: The scandal of sport's sacrificial lambs

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The Independent Online

Activists whose latest concern is the use of horses for racing (and who, logically, must soon move on to show-ponies, zoo animals and caged guinea-pigs) will probably not be excessively bothered by the claim this week that another act of cruelty regularly occurs within the sport. The victims, it is claimed, are jockeys.

According to the great Frankie Dettori, it is a scandal that in 2006 flat-race jockeys are still required to "do" - that is, weigh out, clothed and carrying a saddle - weights as low as 7st 12lbs and, on average, around 8st 7lbs. The effect on their physical and mental health, immediately and, more significantly, later in life, is now more punishing than it has ever been. In Ireland, research has shown that the average weight of trainees at the Irish racing academy has risen by 37 per cent since 1979; the minimum weight carried in races has gone up a mere six per cent over the same period.

Ireland has taken action but, scandalously, the Jockeys Association here in the UK is opposed to any change. Racing "is a sport that will always demand sacrifice and discipline," the association's chief executive John Blake cheerily comments.

It would be a mistake to run away with the idea that, in this context, sacrifice and discipline involves keeping a stern eye on your diet. Jockeys do the weight through extremes of dehydration and starvation. When I rode as an amateur steeplechase jockey, the techniques of weight-loss were brutally simple: no food, saunas, rubber sweat-suits and, finally and inevitably, pills. I still have nightmares about Reguletts, chocolate-flavoured laxatives so viciously powerful that they lifted one off the lavatory seat like a rocket launcher, and remember how ill I would feel after taking diuretics known as "piss pills". Sometimes the weighing-room looked like a chamber of skeletal ghosts.

Many of the pills are now illegal, but the basic principle lives on: reduce liquids and solids in the body as low as is bearable, regularly and throughout the season. As the jockey Johnny Murtagh has put it, "There are times when it does drive you insane, wreck your head so much you could do something stupid."

Being a stable-lad, and just possibly going on to make it as a jockey, has historically been a route out of poverty. Boys and men starved themselves for the rich and privileged folk who ran racing. Are we really much further down the road today? Mesmerised by the talent of Dettori, Murtagh and a few others, racegoers tend not to think too hard about the thousands of lads and apprentices abusing their health for sleek, tubby owners and their well-paid trainers. In the great industry of the turf, the little men in the saddle are above all financial units.

Perhaps the same is true of all sports in this hysterically competitive age. Commenting on The Independent's recent survey into homophobia within professional football, Peter Clayton, a member of the Football Association council, has said that "Players are assets. They have a market value which clubs feel might be affected ... There are clubs who think it's in their interest not to come out." Not one player has admitted to being gay since Justin Fashanu in 1990, and he later committed suicide.

Excuses for treating sportsmen badly vary from sport to sport - it could be money, sacrifice, the attitude of crowds, the welfare of delicate thoroughbreds - but, by any civilised standard, the human price being exacted for profit and pleasure is surely too high.

Has Abbey National gone nuts?

Congratulations this Easter must go to Mrs Doreen Hallsworth of Carlisle who, in a moment of eco-rage, knocked over a row of cardboard cut-outs in her branch of the Abbey National. Her objection was to the Abbey's new marketing symbol, a grey squirrel.

Cumbria is one of the last pockets of England where the indigenous red squirrel, right, is just about holding out against the incursions of its grey cousin, an unsavoury illegal immigrant from America. "They are already on a slippery slope," says Mrs Hallsworth, "and the greys are getting closer."

Some might accuse her of animal snobbery, even of muddled thinking. Cunning as they are, grey squirrels are unlikely to interpret a High Street advertisement as encouragement to push red squirrels further down that slippery slope.

But there is a more urgent question for the Abbey to pose to its advertising agent: who was the bright spark who came up with the idea that a destructive, environmentally harmful, rat-like mammal, famous for losing its nuts, would be a good symbol for a bank?

* For those already distressed by the aural pollution caused by crazed percussion noises seeping from other people's i-Pods, a new torture awaits. Alarmingly proactive religious groups have hit on a novel way of brainwashing their vulnerable followers.

One organisation, the scary-sounding Jesuit Media Initiatives, has just put 30,000 prayers online to be downloaded. It is called "pray-as-you-go" and, according to the Jesuit spokespriest Father Peter Scally, has been introduced because "people of all ages are increasingly dissatisfied with the rat race and are turning to faith to give their lives meaning".

Do me a favour, Father. The rat race may be bad, with techno echoing round the empty skull of a neighbour on the Underground, but that will be nothing beside the menace of papal seepage and passive praying. If anything will incite religious hatred, it is pray-as-you-go. That great secularist Ken Livingstone should ban it from public transport immediately.