Riding for a fall

Award-winning jockeys on the dangerous and gruesome extremes they put their bodies through

1st November 2017

The diet and fitness regime of a professional jockey is known to be physically and mentally challenging, but how much does it really take to compete at the highest level? The Overtake speaks to a few ex-professional jockeys to find out dangerous and extreme methods they used to stay the right weight for races.

Every jockey is different when it comes to their diet and fitness regime, but many report having a constant battle to ensure they didn’t put on too much weight. If they did, they would spend hours in the sauna sweating out as much weight as possible.

American jockey Frankie Lovato Jr. had a long career in racing, winning over 1,600 times, while horses he rode earned more than $41m. However, he tells The Overtake that his life as a professional jockey was often an unhappy one as he struggled to keep his weight down.

“Every morning was anxiety-filled” for Lovato Jr., who would go to extremes to stay the right weight. He used to force himself to throw up, and suffered from alcohol abuse. Diuretics, including alcohol, were popular among jockeys in the ‘80s and ‘90s, as they increased the production of urine, which helped in staying light. Jockeys would try to stay as dehydrated as possible, which is not the healthiest way to live. Lovato Jr. says that he was “not proud of any of it and it drove my passion to help kids that want to get into the business to learn nutrition and the right way of doing things.”

Richard Dunwoody was also a very successful jockey, winning the Jump Jockey of the Year award five times throughout his career and the Grand National twice. He says he would also run in a sweat suit and use the sauna a lot; both methods were very common when he was racing.

Jockeys must weigh between 7 and a half stone and 12 stone, depending on the type of race. The weight rules for flat races are much stricter than for jumps.

Eating was not a part of pre-race time

The natural weight of the jockey in question would naturally make a huge difference in their diet and fitness regime. Australian ex-professional jockey turned trainer Shane Grivell was taller than most jockeys so it was much more difficult for him to make the weight, while Lovato Jr. was not naturally light.

The diet in the run-up to a race for a jockey was mostly very limited to ensure they didn’t exceed the weight limit for their race. Dunwoody would only eat a single piece of toast and have a coffee the morning before a race, while Lovato Jr. admits that “eating was not a part of pre-race time.” On non-race days, the diet of a jockey was repetitive, with rice, chicken, and salads the main ingredients. These were deemed the best foods as they are low on fat and provided the necessary proteins to ensure the jockeys stayed as fit and healthy as they can be without gaining weight.

Outside of the sport, jockeys often had to avoid social gatherings and eating out with friends or family as they were aware that even one change in their diet could mean an extra few uncomfortable hours in the sauna. Lovato Jr. went as far as to say that “it was a life of discipline and often an unhappy one.”

Sweat suits

Every jockey has their own methods to make sure they made the weight for the races. Grivell would not eat in the three to four days leading up to a race to keep his weight down. In addition to that, he would walk and jog in three jumpers and a bin bag to sweat as much as possible. Along with most other jockeys, Grivell used the sauna as well.

Frankie Lovato Jr
Image: Frankie Lovato Jr

Dunwoody also heard some stories of other jockeys that tried anything to get the last few pounds off. They would sleep in saunas and Turkish baths, and would even ride out on their horses still in their sweat suits. Dunwoody says that “there would be stories of jockeys going to the races, sitting in a sweat suit and trying to lose weight and everyone else is in their underpants with their heaters full on in their car. I wasn’t personally involved in those road trips, I should think they were quite amusing.” If Grivell was still over the weight on race morning, he would take fluid pills which would make him urinate so much that he would end up passing blood as he had no fluid left in his body.

The jockeys say they were so in touch with their bodies and weight that they could feel if they were a few pounds overweight just by how their clothes felt. Dunwoody says that for him it was hard work to get his weight down at the beginning of the racing season after the off-season, as he would have put on some weight. He says he didn’t find it too hard to keep his weight down during the season, which meant that he never had to use diuretics in his career.

Lovato Jr.’s father was also a jockey, so he knew the challenges and dangers he would have to go through to be a successful rider. However, this didn’t stop friends and family trying to discourage him from pursuing it as a career, as they knew what effect the diet and fitness regime could have on a person’s mind and body. However, he knew from an early age that this is what he wanted to do, and throughout his childhood he feared he would get too big to become a jockey.

Lovato Jr. admits that only his wife knew of the things he did to stay the right weight. It would have been bad for business if the owners and trainers had known the extents he went to to not put on weight, including fluid pills. He struggled throughout his career to maintain his weight, as he said that his body did not want to be a jockey weight, and he would gain muscle very easily.

[I was] tired and lucky to have survived

Both Grivell and Lovato Jr. disclose that the difficulty in keeping the weight off was the main reason for them quitting the sport. For Grivell, the constant struggle was affecting his mind and his body, while Lovato Jr. admits that he was tired mentally and physically after riding for 25 years.

Lovato Jr. says that he probably sweated off 25-30 lbs a week to make weight. Multiply that over his long career, and he estimates that he sweated off over 30,000 lbs just to do his job. In his words, he was “tired and lucky to have survived.” His decision to quit wasn’t made one morning when he was toiling away in the sauna, but was rather a well thought out process. He admits that he wanted to quit many times over his career as it is a very physically and mentally demanding career. Winning was the reward for the constant weight struggle, but towards the end of his career, when he was coming up against younger and lighter jockeys and winning less, it was a fight to keep going.

Modern racing

Jockeys in the ‘80s and ‘90s did not get advice or help from experts on the best way to make the weight for their races as they just did not exist at the time. This encouraged jockeys to try any method possible to get under the required weight as, much like a boxer, jockeys are regularly weighed before races and unable to compete if they’re not the required weight. These tricks were dangerous to the health of the jockeys, but they spread throughout the sport as they would try anything to get an advantage over the rest of the course and win. Lovato Jr. says that he learned the tricks and tips of keeping light from other jockeys, which he says were all abusive traits and would become horrible habits. This was because “information on nutrition and healthy eating was not around for me when I started.”

The three ex-professional jockeys we speak to used saunas almost every day, which was “torture in itself” according to Lovato Jr., and were very careful with what they ate or drank, even outside of the sport.

The ex-professional jockeys say the diet and fitness regimes are much healthier for jockeys nowadays than when they were racing. No-one in the sport was teaching the science of nutrition or even knew what it really was. There were no experts giving advice on the healthier ways to stay light. In modern racing, diuretics are now banned, and many professional jockeys now have dieticians who give them advice on what they eat and their fitness regime. Dunwoody believes that saunas are now getting phased out, as “jockeys are actively encouraged not to sauna too much”, and the weight game is a lot healthier than it used to be. Lovato Jr. says: “If I knew what I know now, (it) could have changed so much for me that could have really offered me a path to great success instead of a constant battle and a career with a constant feeling of being shackled to a ball and chain.”

The diet and fitness regime of a jockey has improved more recently, as dieticians have found healthier ways to stay light without using any fluid pills or having to sleep in saunas. This is good for the sport, as the jockeys were suffering mentally and physically from the demands of making the weight.

1st November 2017