04/28/2006 12:00AM

Traditional jockey weights are no longer realistic

Frankie Dettori says he feels strongly that England should follow the lead of Ireland and Australia by raising minimum weights for riders.

NEW YORK - When Frankie Dettori speaks, the racing world tends to pay attention. Last week, Dettori had a few words to say on the subject of weight, as in the minimum amount to be carried by horses in Britain.

Dettori told the BBC that he might quit the British Jockeys' Association if the British Horse Racing Board and the Jockey Club did not seriously address the problem of high and low weights in Britain. He said that while his natural weight is 135 pounds, he sometimes has to get down to as low as 118, something he has learned to live with, but something that may be difficult for other, younger riders.

Dettori, 35, was using the recent raising of minimum weights in Ireland and Australia as a platform for his justifiable complaint. Dettori wants Britain to follow suit. "We are meant to be the world leaders in horse racing," Dettori exclaimed, "but we seem to have 19th century rules."

Point taken. But Britain has recently raised the minimum weight to 110 pounds. This in a country where 140 pounds is the standard highweight in handicaps, while 126 pounds for colts and 121 pounds for fillies are the usual weights carried by 3-year-olds maidens.

Some disagree with Dettori's call for a still higher minimum weight. Among them are the lightweight jockeys who have long made a living in England riding in handicaps at or slightly above 98 pounds, the low weight that was in effect until a few years ago. Many of those diminutive lads and lasses have been forced out of the game as a result of recent increases.

More importantly, there is the issue behind Dettori's cry for help. People are bigger today than they were 50 or 100 years ago. The pool of potential jockeys therefore decreases as time goes by and humans gain more and more weight, be it through height, bone structure, or fat. The weight problem in American racing is even more pronounced than it is in Britain. It was the reason we lost the two men who may have been the best riders developed in America over the last 30 years. Steve Cauthen and Cash Asmussen both moved their tack to Europe, where the scale of weights was more favorable for their contemporary frames.

But Dettori's pleas for a higher scale of weights would benefit only one segment of the jockey colony: those who are already a part of it and who, at the same time, carry a natural weight between 125 and 140 pounds. These riders must constantly watch their weight. Not infrequently they must indulge in gruesome, health-endangering techniques to make weight on any given day. Some of them must do so every day.

If the scale of weights is raised by say, 10 pounds, it will provide much- needed relief for this group of riders. Such an adjustment, however, would only open up the same can of worms for riders whose natural weight is 135 to 150 pounds. In fact, no matter how high the weights are raised, riders whose natural weight is up to 15 pounds above the standard will always struggle to pare down.

Yet it is essential that the scale is raised for the simple fact that doing so would increase the size of the pool from which riders can be drawn. In recent years we have lost to retirement Jerry Bailey, Gary Stevens, Pat Day, Chris McCarron, Laffit Pincay Jr., Eddie Delahoussaye, and Julie Krone. Can it be said that our current leading riders are in the same class as that esteemed group? If it can't, is it not because we are drawing upon an ever smaller group of young potential riders who can compete within the current scale of weights?

Raising the weights will never solve the problems of drastic weight reductions many jockeys face. In the long run, however, it will produce a larger number of quality riders.

English sprint purses get big boost

British sprint racing is hardly state of the art. That may begin to change, however, what with the recent rather extraordinary purse increases in four of the five most important sprints run in England.

Those four will be worth 40 percent more than they were last year. The six-furlong July Cup has been raised from $438,000 to $630,000. The six-furlong Golden Jubilee moves from $438,000 to $612,500. The six-furlong Haydock Park Sprint Cup goes from $394,000 to $525,000, and the five-furlong King's Stand Stakes, last year worth $245,000, is now a $350,000 event. The five-furlong Nunthorpe Stakes remains at $385,000.

While the Golden Jubilee and the King's Stand owe their increases to the largesse of their venue, Royal Ascot, the other two raises come courtesy of their sponsors, Darley Stud in the case of the July Cup, the bookmaking firm Betfred for the Haydock Park Sprint Cup.

With purses like that, British sprinting should soon begin to attract a better class of Thoroughbred.