By Lissa Oliver
Unique to the racing industry is the daily need for staff to meet required maximum weights. Many in racing already believe they understand nutrition and the best methods to make weight, using tried and tested practices that have been in common use for decades. The perceived success of such practices leads to an attitude of ‘it works for me’ and a reluctance to change or adopt new suggestions, and few consider the future consequences on health in later years.
Dehydrating and starvation to make weight is commonplace, and long periods in saunas and salt baths, laxatives and self-induced vomiting are familiar practices. The health implications associated with these include poor bone density, hormonal issues and impaired mood profile. Despite increased awareness of these problems, they remain as common globally as they were thirty years ago.
To help address this, the UK based Racing Foundation awarded a grant of just over £200,000 to support a ground-breaking, nutritional intervention programme developed over three years by a specialist team at the Research Institute of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University. The team is led by former jockey, Dr George Wilson, and includes the head of nutrition for cycling’s Team Sky, Dr James Morton, and Daniel Martin, a doctoral researcher and high-performance nutritionist for the Professional Jockeys Association.
Dr Wilson has already spent seven years (part-funded by the Sheikh Mansoor Racing Festival) researching the serious health implications of extreme weight-making practises in jockeys and has designed healthier, alternative weight-making programmes. In addition to offering the facilities at the University to measure bone and body composition, hydration, metabolism and provide strength and fitness assessments, he also works with racing organisations to provide workshops, tests, presentations and bespoke advice. He is in the ideal situation to conduct research into the health issues faced by racing staff, having ridden as a National Hunt jockey in his younger days.
“For my first ride as a conditional jockey at Southwell in 1985, I lost a stone in five days to make 10st (63.50 kg) minimum weight, felt awful and, given the occupational risks, I shouldn’t have been near a horse, let alone riding in a race,” he reflects on his experience. He later rode as an amateur mostly in point-to-points and hunter chases when weight became a problem. “Having ridden over jumps, I fully empathise with staff and understand the need for, and risks from, dehydration and starvation. Riding out stable staff are weighed in some yards and most vacancies are advertised with a maximum weight, so making weight is not just a problem for jockeys but also for a lot of racing staff.
“I was aware that not a lot had changed since my own time in yards in the 1980s and 1990s and so I decided to do my doctorate in the effects of common weight-making practices such as dehydration and nutrition (or lack of!). In 2009 I started my first research and have now had 11 papers published.”
Currently, Dr Wilson is studying the effects of diet, dehydration and bone health of jockeys, but, as he recognises, comparisons of bone density between standard 12st athletes and 9st, (57.15 kg), jockeys may have potential flaws given jockeys are an atypical population, being much smaller athletes. Furthermore, unlike other athletes, jockeys don’t tend to perform substantial hard surface training that helps maintain healthy bone metabolism.
Assisting Dr Wilson is Daniel Martin, and their paper, Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health (31 August 2017), is the first body of research to investigate the opinions and practices of racehorse trainers in relation to rider welfare. Disappointingly for the researchers, from over 400 invitations, only five trainers expressed an interest to take part, something that certainly needs addressing.
A reluctance to face up to industry problems isn’t new and is not confined to trainers. “When I first went to the British racing industry authorities and said I wanted to do this, they originally didn’t offer any help,” he reveals. “There appeared to be a reluctance to accept that the current services and advice to help riders, particularly with weight-management, were clearly not working. Therefore, I just ‘kicked on’ with my research, and because jockeys had not received the sports science support in the past, they flocked to LJMU to undergo the testing and receive bespoke weight-management programmes.
“Thankfully, now everyone is aware of the issues and have embraced the research findings on healthier weight-management practices, and it appears we are all singing from the same hymn sheet. Indeed, Dr Jerry Hill, the Chief Medical Advisor at the British Horseracing Authority, is a collaborator on some of my recent published research and we have some other research projects we are currently working on together.”
Even so, it is an industry culturally-driven and based on the shared knowledge and experience of its senior professionals, which can represent an obstacle to Dr Wilson and his team when some of that knowledge is outdated and incorrect. As Martin explains within one of the published papers, “If apprentice and conditional jockeys can carry some knowledge of evidence-based practices and the dangers of traditional methods into their early careers, there will be less of a reliance on seeking advice from senior jockeys. Similarly, over time the ‘new’ practices will hopefully supersede the current archaic medley of dehydrative methods.”
It certainly behoves trainers to ensure that younger staff members are set good examples and it isn’t asking too much of their time or level of expertise to provide suitable meals, in yards where catering is offered. Where meals are not provided, posters and literature should be made available to display in the yard to help encourage awareness of a good diet.