The Business of Racing: Jockeys and Weight: Too Much or Too Little

March 10, 2021

The first time I really understood jockeys’ weight issues was when former rider Steve Rydowski, whom my wife and I had induced to train a couple of horses for us in Florida, showed us through the jocks’ room at Calder Race Course. Over all but one of the bathrooms stalls were signs that said, “please don’t use this for flipping.” But not over the last stall. Flipping, i.e., vomiting, it turns out, is what jocks routinely do to get rid of that last pound or so in their stomachs that will make them “overweight.” Football players tape up their injuries and take a cortisone shot; quiz show contestants pop some Adderall to improve their concentration; jockeys flip.

For most riders, the usual problem is losing pounds, to meet the weight that their horse has been assigned. In the US, the average male is about 5’9” tall and weighs close to 200 pounds. US women aren’t far behind, with an average of 5’4” and 170 pounds. The average male thoroughbred jockey, in contrast, is 5’2” and weighs 113; women riders have it a bit easier, averaging only 107 pounds for the same 5’2” average height. But, for both men and women, these weights are still below what’s considered ideally healthy, 137 for a 5’2” male and 125 for a woman of the same height. For years, US jockeys have been advocating for a higher scale of weights. At most tracks in this country, riders need to be able to weigh out at 115 or 116 (22 pounds below the healthy weight for men, 9 pounds low for women). Elsewhere, as in Europe, they can be a little heavier, say 55 kilos or 121 pounds (still below what’s considered healthy, but not quite as bad). And steeplechase jockeys ride at 135 pounds and higher, apparently without causing any difficulties for the 1,000-pound horses carrying them over the hurdles.

A few riders are naturally light. Really short jockeys (Pat Day, Willie Shoemaker, Julie Krone) usually don’t have to worry as much as the taller jocks about being overweight. And young riders, teenagers who are still growing, often are light enough to ride with the 5-, 7- and 10-pound apprentice allowances that some trainers prize. When these riders are on a horse that carries more than the jockey weighs (including boots, saddle and clothing, though not the safety equipment), the difference is made up by adding lead weights to the saddle cloth.

But what if some of those lead weights disappear along the way? That’s why riders weigh in at a scale in the paddock after the race, to make sure they haven’t gained an unfair advantage by shedding those lead weights and riding lighter than assigned. Some trainers, at least, think that a five-pound difference can mean a length or so over the course of a race, often the difference between winning and losing. There’s no scientific validation of this theory, at least to my knowledge, and it seems, at a minimum, unproven that a horse and rider with a combined weight of 1,100 to 1,300 pounds (most race horses are between 1,000 and 1,200) would be affected that much by a five-pound difference, but still, the weight that a horse carries is an important bit of data for many trainers and, equally important, for many bettors. So, if a horse is secretly carrying five or seven pounds less than its listed weight, many bettors will, rightly, feel cheated.

That what happened at Laurel in Maryland, where last week Alexander Crispin, the 2020 Eclipse Award-winning apprentice rider, was suspended for 30 days. Crispin had ridden Alpha Queue, the 9-2 second choice in the 9th race at Laurel on January 16th. Alpha Queue, trained by Lacey Gaudet, was supposed to carry 115 pounds, which already accounted for Crispin’s 5-pound apprentice “bug.” But Crispin, according to the Laurel condition book, can ride as light as 108 pounds, so he should have been carrying that extra seven pounds in his saddle cloth. When he weighed in after guiding Alpha Queue to an unthreatening third-place finish in the race, it was at 110 pounds, as recorded on the track’s closed-circuit TV feed, five pounds lighter than when he’d weighed out before the race. Bettors who had the horse for show (he paid $4.60) or in the trifecta or superfecta got paid, but what about those, probably a larger number, who had the 4-5 favorite, So Dialed In, as their third-place pick? Alpha Queue edged So Dialed In by just a neck for show, so it’s very possible that, had Crispin’s horse been carrying the assigned weight of 115, Alpha Queue would have been fourth, not third. 

At the time of the suspension, Crispin was the leading rider at this year’s Laurel meet, with 33 wins from 156 mounts (21%) and nearly $1 million in purse earnings; the next closest rider is Sheldon Russell, with 25 wins through last weekend. Crispin got caught, because Laurel happened to have a camera in place. But how many times a day, and at how many tracks, does a rider weigh in at less than the published weight without consequences? It’s far from unknown for a friendly clerk of scales, often a retired jockey himself, to turn a blind eye to both overweights and underweights (at most tracks, jockeys can ride as much as four pounds over the listed weight, as long as the difference is announced to the bettors). If a rider is five pounds or more over the assigned weight, they’ll lose the mount, so a friendly clerk of scales might just make that difference disappear.

Adding a few more pounds to the scale in the US would certainly help the majority of riders, who court permanent health problems by skipping meals, “flipping,” dehydrating themselves, excess exercising, using laxatives, smoking and taking diet pills. And those weight-losing strategies frequently result in major health issues. Hall of Fame jockey Randy Romero, for example, died prematurely at age 61 because of health problems that started with kidney failure attributed to flipping. But that apparently beneficial change would also open the door to more cheating of the kind that Alexander Crispin was charged with, as more jockeys would be carrying more lead weights in their saddle cloths. 

The solution is obvious, but, as in many things related to racing, obvious isn’t enough. Just as the replay camera captures the action during the race itself, so the stewards can review the tape for riding infractions, there could be a recording of the weigh-in after each race, so that even a rider-friendly clerk of scales would know that he couldn’t let a jockey get away with riding below the assigned weight, and then a mandatory review of that tape to check it against the assigned weights. Unlike the complicated and expensive testing needed to detect fancy designer drugs, this is a cheap, easy-to-implement solution that, if introduced at all tracks, would solve the “Crispin problem” once and for all. Racetracks, the ball is in your court.

A Steve Zorn feature

@jonathanstettin wish i had words to express after reading this. Thank you

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