July 21, 2004

mandated anorexia

An article in todayís LA Times: jockeys, the kind that ride thoroughbred horses in million dollar races, it seems they starve themselves. Well, not just that, because thatís hardly news. But they barf so regularly they have their own lingo for it (flipping) and thereís a special stall in the jockeyís bathroom in at least one racetrack, a stall specifically designed for, well, flipping. Then there are the hours they spend in the sauna and the diuretics they use, all to maintain an impossible-for-male-American-bodies weight. Work-induced anorexia, with the attendant physical toll years of malnutrition will inevitably cause.

The California Racing Board may be upping the weight requirements soon, trying to eliminate this insanity, but owners and trainers sound opposed to it. Itís going to be hard for their horses, bred for speed, with delicate legs and huge lungs, to go the distance with five to fifteen more pounds on their backs. The horses might be hurt. Catch twenty two, no?

Itís pretty awful, and I feel for the riders. They just want to do their jobs; they probably became jockeys because they love horses and the thrill of the race, theyíre mostly undereducated and canít exactly turn to investment banking as a second career. This is what they do and what they love. And this is the cost. It feels wrong. Especially because, as athletes, their bodies need more protein and carbs and it sounds like they often subsist on less. Much less. An apple. For the whole day. This is very screwed up, a career that requires this kind of sacrifice over the course of decades.

On the other hand, there is a simpler solution, isnít there? Hire more women jockeys. 110 lbs is still pretty small for a woman, but if youíre a short, slight woman, you donít have to be malnourished to maintain that. And yet horse racing remains predominantly a manís field. Is there a physiological reason for it, are men that much stronger and therefore more able to sustain that bruising pace on the track, or is it just a lingering pocket of old-boys-club at work, an ingrained sexism in the paddock? Itís ironic considering how many girls become infatuated with horses as they hit puberty. Youíd think some of them keep that love strong and some of those would make great jockeys. And yet it remains a male arena even though menís bodies are not meant to be 110 lbs at 3 p.m. on race day today and next week and next year and twenty years from now.

Oddly, the article never even mentions the possibility of women jockeys. I canít help wondering why.

Posted by Tamar at July 21, 2004 09:41 PM

The book Sea Biscuit (I'll bring it to you when I visit next month!) has a lot about this subject, enough to put me under the covers crying for several nights. It was very hard to read. Your solution is right-on!

Posted by: Leya at July 22, 2004 06:50 AM

Hi, Tamar. There was an HBO special on this, featuring Randy Romero and two others, that was fascinating but very difficult to watch. Hiring women would be one approach. One of the hottest jockeys here in Chicago has been Zoe Cadman, a woman originally from South Africa who raced at Arlington until last year and is now retired. The thing is, it is a really rough life, and the weight requirements are only a part of that. My father used to work at a race track, albeit not as a jockey, and he would tell me about the life, and it's just gruelling. The pay sucks too, unless you're at the top. I wouldn't encourage anyone-- man or woman-- to go into it. It's like encouraging people to go into ballet dancing. If they want to bad enough, they will. Otherwise, you're probably doing them a favor by discouraging them.

Posted by: bibi rose at July 22, 2004 04:21 PM

Bibi, the doc is mentioned in the article. Shane Sellers, who was featured in the film, says he feels blackballed since it aired; he's getting fewer rides and a lot of dirty looks.

I can see that it could be an awful business to be in. For anyone. But I suspect as many women are initially drawn to it as men (if not more) but that they're often given the cold shoulder and not allowed to do more than walk the horses. I don't know this, I just suspect it's true.

Mom, I actually picked up a paperback copy of Seabiscuit at the LA Book Fair. I flipped (no pun intended) through it but want to sit down with it soon.

Posted by: Tamar at July 22, 2004 11:27 PM