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Hungry for success

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Jockeys, the supermodels of the sports world, are under constant pressure to meet weight requirements. Unlike the fashion world, however, there are no passing fads or trends to allow plus-size jockeys ride a champion racehorse. In the Aintree Grand National race held earlier this month, 40 horses started and 19 finished. Ten horses fell, and two unfortunately died. It is not just the horses that face the possibility of serious injury in the course of a race. Jockeys face serious health risks both in races and in their training.

 

Dr Adrian McGoldrick, Chief Medical Officer for the Turf Club, told IMN that the biggest issue for jockeys is making weight. In 2006, after a study conducted by the University of Limerick (UL) found that jockeys had dangerously low levels of body fat, the minimum flat racing weight was increased by 4lbs to a total of eight stone, 4lbs.

However, Dr McGoldrick advised that “whatever country or jurisdiction you’re riding in, you must abide by their rules”. Therefore if a jockey wants to ride in the UK, he must make weight in that jurisdiction. Currently, the weight requirement in the UK is just seven stone 12lbs. Considering most Irish jockeys compete in races in the UK, dropping to weight levels of around eight stone holds considerable repercussions for health. “Most flat top jockeys are at least one or two stone below their natural weight,” Dr McGoldrick said, adding that jump jockeys are at least a stone below natural weight. He advised that increasing the minimum weight in the UK is “on the agenda”, and that it needs a pan- European approach, while attempts to date by medical officers in the UK have been “unsuccessful in raising the weight”.

“Very few would weigh in at seven stone 12lbs, but the majority would weigh in at eight stone 2lbs,” he said. One of the main repercussions of going to extremes to make weight is that many jockeys have reduced bone density from starvation. “Most adults will achieve peak bone mass at between ages 22 and 25. Obviously, if you’re starving yourself during that period, which is when young jockeys are coming through, you’ll never get the appropriate amount of calcium, so you’ll never attain proper bone density,” said Dr McGoldrick. Furthermore, young jockeys are on average much bigger than jockeys were 30 years ago. Dr McGoldrick cited research from eight years ago which showed that while the average weight of jockeys has gone up by 30lbs in that time, the average riding weight has only gone up 7lbs.

“Jockeys now are much larger, much heavier than jockeys before them,” he stressed. Another risk is the impact of dehydration and Dr McGoldrick told IMN that most jockeys “are chronically dehydrated”. In 2007, an Irish study published by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), showed that elite jockeys were usually dehydrated to make weight standards, and the dehydration was further exacerbated during racing. The results showed that jockeys were significantly dehydrated on nonracing days and even more so on racing days. Some 54 per cent were “severely dehydrated”.

Another study carried out at Dublin City University in 2009 looked at the impact of chronic weight control on physiological function and bone health in jockeys. Some 59 per cent of flat jockeys showed osteopaenia in one or more of the total body, hip or spine scans. Analysis of flat jockeys involved in the study revealed marked dehydration on an official race day while 64 per cent of participants reported a current injury at the time of assessment. Those behind the research said that further studies are required to examine the effects of current weight control practices typically used by jockeys on both physiological and cognitive function as well as health and performance. “Last year we did a pilot study where we dehydrated 10 jockeys down to four per cent and looked at the effect,” Dr McGoldrick said.

Physical side effects were noted, such as a loss of strength. “The big risk is that previously dehydration studies have shown that people who are dehydrated, their reaction time is delayed. If you’re riding a horse at 40 miles per hour, you have to be able to make quick decisions,” he continued. Though in the initial study no psychological side effects were found, Dr McGoldrick advised that an upcoming study will be more detailed and look more into the psychological effect of dehydration.

A nutritionist and dietician at the Turf Club is at hand to advise jockeys on the healthiest diets, however, Dr McGoldrick maintains it is still difficult for older jockeys, such as Johnny Murtagh who is in his early 40s. Regardless of nutritional advice, Dr McGoldrick advised it would be very difficult for Murtagh, whose natural weight would “probably be 10 and a half stone, to ride at eight stone 11, or 12, which he’s riding at regularly”. The UL 2006 study found that one-infour Irish flat jockeys has body fat of six per cent or less.

Compared to a normal healthy male who has up to 18 per cent body fat, the ideal would be at least 10 per cent. However, the research showed that two-thirds of flat jockeys don’t reach this and one was as low as five per cent. Furthermore, injuries are rampant among jockeys. After just one recent weekend of pointto- point racing, Dr McGoldrick said he treated three fractured collar bones, one dislocated knee, one fractured arm, three fractured ribs and three concussions in a group of just eight or nine riders.

 

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