01/12/2011 1:31PM

Weighty Matters


New Zealand racing authorities got it right this week when they raised the minimum weight horses will be carrying in most races effective February 1 by one kilogram, or 2.2 lbs. Ask almost any rider in the world how he would feel about being able to ride at 2.2 lbs. above his current weight and the resulting smile on his face would be warm enough to melt the polar icecaps- both of them.
New Zealand took the move in recognition of the fact that people are bigger than they were even ten years ago. Indeed, they are much bigger than they were in the 18th Century when the rules of racing as we know them today were first being formed. Yet even in the old days, many riders suffered to make weight. Fred Archer, widely regarded as the greatest of all 19th Century riders, committed suicide in 1886 at the age of 29, at least in part because of the wasting he forced upon himself in an effort to make weight.
As Americans generally grow to larger sizes than people in most other nations, you would think that weights in this country might reflect that phenomenom. Not so. American weights are, in fact, a few pounds lower than in European and Asian racing nations. The low minimum weights in this country were the prime reason Steve Cauthen and Cash Asmussen, arguably the two best native born American riders in the last 50 years, ultimately moved their tack to Europe, Cauthen to England, Asmussen to France. Both achieved astounding success in their adopted workplaces. Cauthen was champion rider in Britain three times. Asmussen led the French jockey standings five times.
But both Cauthen and Asmussen continued to struggle with weight in Europe despite the more lenient regulations there, Cauthen retiring at age 32 in 1992, Asmussen at age 39 in 2001. And therein lies the tale of the somewhat false promise proffrered by higher minimum weights.
While it is certainly true that raising the minimum weight will make life a lot easier for many current riders, and that raising minimum weights should be a priority in all jurisdictions, the problem of making weight will always dog the racing industry everywhere. Don't think for a second that riders don't diet, starve, waste or use harmful diuretics to make weight in every racing nation in the world. Even in a place like Hong Kong, where almost all of the races are handicaps with most horses carrying at least 120 lbs., some riders struggle.
If the minimum weight is, say, 110 lbs. you will always have young riders whose natural weight is 116 or 117 trying to make the minimum. Raise the minimum to 112 lbs. and you create a situation where riders whose natural weight is 118 or 119 trying to make the minimum.
And if, for the sake of argument, the minimum weight is 140 lbs. there would be young riders whose natural weight is 146 or 147 lbs. trying to crack the game. Just ask any jump jockey.
So while raising minimum weights will benefit many current riders, and will open the profession to a larger number of people, let's not kid ourselves. As long as there is horse racing, some jockeys will always be battling the scales just as hard as they compete against their fellow riders on the track.