12/11/2006 12:00AM

Probe examines jockeys' plight


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - For decades, jockeys have been flying blind when it comes to the consequences of their own health habits, and the racing game has gone along for the ride. Commencing Wednesday, the days of widespread denial hopefully will be numbered.

That is when the internationally acclaimed sports nutritionist Dr. Dan Bernadot and a team from his Laboratory for Elite Athletic Performance will descend upon Bay Meadows in northern California to begin phase one of the National Jockeys' Health Initiative. Over the coming weeks, the Bernadot group will gather testing and survey data from upwards of 120 jockeys at various tracks, to be used in a study that will help the leaders of the sport make informed decisions on such critical matters as weight and safety standards.

It is no accident that Bay Meadows will serve as the launch point for such an extensive health survey. Dr. David Seftel, who serves as medical director for both Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows as well as adviser to the Jockeys' Guild, has been among a handful of persistent advocates for greater awareness when it comes to jockey health issues. Once a voice crying in the wilderness, Seftel now finds himself at the center of an ambitious program that could put horse racing on a par with other sports - at least when it comes to understanding the physical condition of its human athletes.

"Jockeys are substantive athletes who, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, are subjected to what I call mandated malnutrition," Seftel said, fresh from a presentation of the Health Initiative plans at last week's Jockeys' Guild meeting in Las Vegas.

"As a result, every single organ in a jockey's body is affected, just like a malnourished kid in Darfur," Seftel went on. "Horse racing essentially says, 'If you want to compete, you've got to be malnourished.' Since that assumption is untenable, we needed to look at the underlying health issues in order to demonstrate to all participants that change was needed."

At this point, there will be readers who roll their eyes and moan, "Here we go again," at the sound of jockeys complaining about missing a few meals and chucking up the occasional breakfast. Tolerance for the issue of weight seems to ebb and flow, depending upon how and when a national news organization turns the spotlight on the embarrassment of institutionalized bulimia.

In any discussion of jockey health issues, it is best to momentarily disregard the handful of millionaires among the vast majority of jockeys who make barely as much as the average high school teacher. Neither does it help to belabor the fact that the Jockeys' Guild, as the primary representative of the profession, has committed any number of disastrous managerial mistakes in recent years. It is also important to set aside the sad fact that some riders would engage in self-destructive health habits no matter what the scale of weights.

Instead, why not listen to a thoroughly qualified health professional like David Seftel, who was a complete outsider to the game less than seven years ago, and allow good sense and reasonable compassion to become part of the debate.

"Thoroughbred horse racing riders are the most accident-prone of all professional athletes," Seftel pointed out. "So you have a population that has more morbidity and more mortality than any other athletes, and yet nothing has been done scientifically to do a thorough study of the incidence, the prevalence, and all the co-factors that might be contributing to this high injury rate."

Phase one, with funding primarily coming from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, will focus on extensive dietary surveys and fitness. Phase two, scheduled for early next year, will probe deeper into jockey physiology, mapping the impact of the demands of their profession on such things as joints, internal organs, and cerebral function.

"We'll also be looking at changes during an active race day," Seftel noted. "One of the things I've seen in my practice, as jockeys proceed through the day, is that their cognition, their focus, and their balance can vary. We need to see if that is due to hydration, or blood sugar levels."

In his position since 2000, Seftel learned in the trenches that the profession was inherently dangerous. No outside assistance required. But since the condition of the horses is outside his purview, he at least hopes to find out if jockeys are needlessly endangering themselves further because of their own health practices.

"There's no question that horses get a better handshake than humans with regard to their health and safety," Seftel said. "And I can understand, with an industry predicated on horses that perform at their peak level, there has to be an emphasis on that.

"But ultimately horse racing is a team sport, and it's a team of a horse and a human," Seftel added. "We need to have both of the participants in optimal physical condition. I think that horse racing can benefit as an industry by showing its human face, and by making the kind of improvements that hopefully these studies will help us frame."