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Updated on 09/16/2011 9:18AM
Rethinking the scale of weights
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The issue has been around for as long as jockeys have been pulling on white pants: Men and women who ride Thoroughbred racehorses are compelled to maintain their weight at levels that often lead to perilous habits.
There are familiar tales of bulimia and anorexia, of diuretics and laxatives, of saunas and sweatsuits, and other grotesque methods of shedding pounds. Like gymnasts and wrestlers and fashion models, jockeys long ago agreed to an implicit trade-off: Make sacrifices in exchange for the opportunity to earn what could be a lucrative living.
Today, however, the status quo is being strongly challenged by two ex-jockeys who insist minimum riding weights must change.
At virtually every opportunity, through personal pleas and a variety of media outlets, Randy Romero and Shane Sellers have been imploring officials at racetracks throughout North America to raise the minimum weight to 116 pounds. Interviews with Romero and Sellers on the subject have already appeared in articles or broadcasts by USA Today, CNN, Newsday, and the HBO program "Real Sports."
Many tracks long have used from 109 to 112 pounds as minimums in overnight races. The choice for jockeys who can't make the minimum is to reduce their weight or risk losing the mount. Sellers and Romero, who both typically rode at 113 pounds, argue that 116 is a reasonable weight, one that will make a subtle but not insignificant difference in the daily lives of hundreds of jockeys.
"We're just asking for a little leeway," said Romero, who said his current battles with liver and kidney disease may be partly attributable to severe measures he took when losing weight during 25-plus years as a jockey. "Just a few pounds can make all the difference in the world for some guys."
Their efforts are beginning to gain momentum. At least three racetracks - Arlington Park, Keeneland, and Retama - have instituted a 116-pound standard, and more could be adopting it in the near future. Mike Lakow, racing secretary at the New York Racing Association, said NYRA has made "a conscious effort" to go primarily to a 116-pound minimum, with some exceptions, while Donnie Richardson, senior vice president for racing of Churchill Downs Inc., said the topic was discussed extensively last week at a meeting of top officials from the Churchill family of tracks.
"It's something that we know needs attention, and it's on our minds," said Richardson. "We're still considering what to do with it."
On the Southern California circuit, most of the top jockeys have made a practice of tacking about 116 pounds so the issue is not nearly as pressing there.
Apprentices are exempt from the minimum, getting an allowance of five to 10 pounds.
Still, Sellers estimates that 90 percent or more of professional jockeys are forced to reduce by unhealthy means. Although that number is impossible to verify, there is no disputing that a large number of jockeys risk their health by maintaining their weight at levels mandated by what Sellers calls "horribly outdated" standards of weights at North American racetracks.
"Some of those sets of weights have been on the books for 100 years or more," said Sellers, who announced his retirement from riding last month after a career of nearly 20 years. "As time has gone on, athletes have evolved into bigger, stronger people. Look at your major sports, like basketball or football, and how the body types have changed.
"It's the same way with our game. You just don't have the same percentage of natural lightweights that were around years ago. Nutrition and genetics have changed the human species. Jockeys today are being asked to maintain the weight of a normal 12-year-old kid. All we're asking for is a few pounds to catch up for lost time."
Horsemen see the issue differently. Some of the arguments they have voiced against instituting a minimum are as follows:
* Racehorses already are physically taxed and cannot afford to bear additional weight.
* If someone cannot get down to about 110 pounds, then he or she shouldn't be a jockey anyway.
* A higher minimum would make it difficult for racing secretaries to assign a legitimate weight spread in any given race because a 116-pound minimum might not permit a reasonable top weight. "It can make things a little tricky," said Lakow.
Perhaps the most vocal critics of a minimum standard are trainer D. Wayne Lukas and jockey Pat Day, both members of the Hall of Fame. Lukas told HBO that, for the sake of his horses' well-being, he is reluctant to concede any more weight than necessary. He has long maintained that riding Thoroughbreds is "a small man's" profession.
Day said he is not necessarily against a minimum but strongly believes it would not solve much. When questioned about the issue recently, Day became impassioned.
"Contrary to what some people seem to think, I'm not opposed to raising the scale of weights in some quarters or bringing up the bottom weights, although I do believe that would handcuff racing secretaries," he said.
"What I am opposed to is selling those concepts with the premise that it will eliminate hot boxes, flipping bowls, and riders taking pills. Or trying to sell it to the powers-that-be as a cure-all, using Randy Romero as a poster boy by saying that the effects of his trying to make weight is the cause for all his physical problems.
"In England, they have a higher scale of weights and those riders also fight their weights. And I see the steeplechase riders come in here hitting the hot box and flipping bowls, and you see what weights they ride at. Changing the scale of weights is not a cure-all, and it won't level the playing field. To me, it's a band-aid cure for a long-term problem."
Sellers, 35, and Romero, 44, are particularly sensitive to Day's opposition. They claim Day, who turns 49 next month, long has had an inherent advantage because he is a natural lightweight who weighs only about 105 pounds and has never had to reduce.
"This is nothing personal against Pat, it's really not," Sellers said. "But he gets to eat three meals a day and live a normal life, while most of the other guys walk out of the jocks' room seeing stars and their heads spinning. You're in there killing yourself just to make weight, and it takes an unbelievable toll. Going to 116 still wouldn't even the playing field, but it'd make it a better situation for the vast majority. I've even had light guys like Victor Espinoza and Jorge Chavez say, 'Look, whatever's good for all us, we're all for it.'
"Pat doesn't have to go through what everybody else goes through day after day. He never has to go in and throw his guts up. Besides, all we're asking for is a few pounds. A few measly pounds, that's all."
At Arlington, where the 116-pound minimum has been in use since vice president Frank Gabriel Jr. initiated the practice several months ago, arguments against the raised minimum have not seemed to carry much validity. Arlington officials say they have received very few complaints from trainers about their horses having to carry a few additional pounds. In the meantime, the leading jockeys there, such as Rene Douglas and Robby Albarado, both of whom ride at 114 pounds, are among the many who say they are grateful for not having to reduce as harshly as in the past.
As for what Lukas said about the additional weight leading to potential problems for horses - Thoroughbreds weigh between 900 and 1,200 pounds - Sellers scoffs.
"You've got 140- and 150-pound exercise boys getting on horses every morning," said Sellers. "You've got 2-year-olds at these horse sales going a quarter in 21 seconds, carrying the same exercise boys. Two-year-olds start out racing with 121 pounds. The Kentucky Derby is for 3-year-olds carrying 126 at 1 1/4 miles. You mean to tell me that going to 116 for a race is too much? That's hard for me to believe."
Aaron Gryder, a New York-based veteran jockey, also said he does not agree with the claim that a few additional pounds would be harmful.
"If a horse is within five pounds of breaking down, then he shouldn't be out there in the first place," said Gryder.
Sellers and Romero said they are at the forefront of this issue partly because they now have sizable voids in their lives after retiring as jockeys. Each had a passion for riding racehorses, but Romero has a far more personal reason for pressing the case. He is continuing to undergo regular dialysis for his ailing kidneys and recently began chemotherapy for the hepatitis C virus that has infected his liver and poses an additional threat to his life.
"This is our crusade," said Romero. "I'm as passionate about this as anything I've ever been in my life."
On a recent afternoon at Romero's east Louisville house, Sellers nodded toward Romero and said: "He's the No. 1 reason I'm so fired up about this. That, and all the respect I've got for anybody who's ever put on a pair of white pants."
They say they are speaking out partly because the organization that represents North American jockeys, The Jockeys' Guild, is not in an ideal position to do so. In its current form, the guild is more an advocacy group or a trade association for independent contractors than a union with powerful clout.
Albert Fiss, vice president of the Guild, said that while his organization "is not being proactive" on the issue of a 116-pound minimum, "we are extremely interested in elevating this debate to a much larger scope. Our belief is that the industry in general - whether it's the racetracks, owners, or trainers - want to keep the weights down because there is no incentive for them to allow the jockeys to have an increase in weight. That lack of incentive is due to a lack of responsibility, which gets into the larger issue of workers' compensation rights for our members."
Fiss said that although six states, including New York and California, have worker's compensation requirements for jockeys, "until we get in the traditional manner where the jockeys are traditional employees, then there will not be an incentive throughout the industry to improve the quality of health of the jockey."
Bernie Hettel, executive director of the Kentucky Racing Commission, said regulatory agencies are out of the loop on the issue, since individual tracks are at liberty to implement whatever standards they deem proper.
"We only regulate, but if there are good, compelling reasons for us to get involved in a discussion, then we certainly would be willing to do so," Hettel said. "Part of me leans toward helping our existing riders where they wouldn't have to take such extreme measures to reduce. Obviously it's a complicated issue and a problem that's been around a long time."
Indeed, the problem has been around a long time - although discussion has been somewhat limited. If nothing else, that's what Sellers and Romero are attempting to change.