06/20/2002 12:00AM

Helping to win weight struggle


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Chris McCarron will have to wait at least another day before he can indulge himself with a thick slice of his wife's incredible apple pie. The racing secretary has decided that Ask Me No Secrets, McCarron's mount in the $250,000 Vanity Handicap on Saturday, is 10 pounds inferior to Azeri and therefore need carry only 115 to the favorite's 125.

On Sunday, McCarron can feast, since his last ride aboard Came Home will be at 124 pounds in the Affirmed Handicap. Kent Desormeaux, on the other hand, will have a very hungry day. He must try to make 115 for his Affirmed date aboard Kamsack.

(In a related item, there is no truth to the rumor that the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, inspired by racing's handicap system, will require Tiger Woods to play the British Open at Muirfield next month while wearing goalie gloves and a small child strapped to his right leg.)

Handicaps in North America's best races appear to be here to stay, given the general reluctance among racing secretaries to experiment with alternatives. So get ready for an increasing rash of "overweights" in major handicaps, because jockeys - like most of the people in today's culture - are not getting any smaller.

The ongoing demands of weight reduction have created a class of closet bulimics and chronic diuretic abusers, whether the profession is modeling, gymnastics, or race-riding. Even so, the issue of purging, wasting, and dangerous dieting to make an arbitrary weight assignment has been a part of racing forever.

Fred Archer, the great English jockey, committed suicide, it is said, in part over the depression of constant reducing. Johnny Longden has regaled listeners for years of how, in his youth, he would use a manure-and-urine-soaked muck pile as a makeshift hot box to sweat away the weight.

Such tales add to the lore of the game, but the game can do without such grim color. The recent health struggles of retired rider Randy Romero have drawn renewed attention to the issue of weight, and how much jockeys should be required to damage their bodies in order to ply their trade. Romero purged and wasted for most of his career. Now he needs a liver and a working kidney.

Romero also concedes that his troubles stem just as much, if not more, from his consumption of painkillers and antibiotics during an injury-plagued career. Between the two, he never had a chance. He does insist, however, that with five more pounds to play with on the scale, the weight issue would have been more manageable.

"We're going to work toward getting the scale of weights raised in many places around the country," said McCarron, speaking as a director of The Jockeys Guild.

"But raising the scale of weights is not the only answer," McCarron quickly added. "Nutritional education for the jockeys is going to be paramount to the success of alleviating the problem of serious dieting habits that riders participate in."

McCarron vowed that the Guild would take the lead on this issue, "If I get my way," he said. "Riders have to be educated to the serious side effects that reducing can have on their long-term health."

It should be obvious that simply raising the scale of weights by five pounds would do more harm than good. The already undisciplined among riders might view such a jump as a five-pound free pass to indulge in established bad habits. A new generation of heavier men and women could see a five-pound raise as an invitation to join the club and make the weight by any means possible.

McCarron and like-minded members of his profession are on the right track. The Guild and racetrack managements must make an all-out effort to end the self-inflicted abuses nurtured by racing's system of weights. Some suggestions:

* Forbid purging in the jockeys' room. Limit time in the hotbox. If necessary, institute random testing for diuretics.

* Have a nutritionist on staff at every track to consult on a constant basis with jockeys.

* Require apprentice jockeys to undergo intensive nutritional training as part of their licensing process and elevation to journeyman status.

* Re-think jockeys' room food service. Burgers, chips and candy bars may be fine for the guys at the steel mill. These are specialized athletes who are not supposed to indulge in fatty bulk.

* Spread the gospel of Laffit Pincay, Alex Solis, and other role models who have taught themselves weight control while maintaining solid nutritional standards.

The slow suicide of purging and wasting must stop. It is in the interest of the entire game - management, owners, trainers and the riders themselves - to confront the issue of weight control immediately.

At 112 pounds, Chris McCarron has a 47-year-old body without a gram of extra fat. He is looking forward to the day he can be a comfortable 120, and throw himself into the fight for enlightened weight management.

"This is truly uncharted territory," McCarron said, "but it is a very serious problem. We can't just keep burying our heads and forget about it."