Extreme Measures to be Elite

Last Thursday, Melbourne Cup winning jockey Michelle Payne received a four week suspension from race riding after testing positive to a banned substance, appetite suppressant Phentermine. The announcement certainly made for some interesting and mixed reactions on social media. Whatever your opinion, the rules are the rules and Michelle graciously accepted her error in judgement.

*Jockey Lester Piggott weighs in at the right weight, 1980. Image courtesy of CNN.

Despite Michelle being prescribed the drug for issues relating to her pancreatic surgery last year, this situation clearly highlights and reminds the public of the extreme measures jockeys put their bodies through in the name of the sport they love. Most jockeys walk around weighing anywhere between 49 - 57kg, in bodies that should probably be 10 - 20kg heavier.

These elite athletes eat minimal food and participate in extreme exercise regimes - think running in 8 layers of sweat gear (yes, 8!) and long sauna sessions. They somehow fit this in between early morning trackwork, trial and daily race day commitments. If their health is not monitored properly, they can suffer from low blood sugar, energy depletion and dehydration, not ideal when you are charged with controlling a 550kg animal galloping at 60km/hour.

In years gone by, a jockey's regime was tortuous episodes of diuretics and laxatives, sweating and starving themselves to ensure they were the right weight for raceday. These days, dietitians and fitness instructors are involved in assisting jockeys to create healthier weight loss and management programs that work best for them.

This still doesn't make it a fun process. A few years ago, Jimmy Cassidy had his ribs broken by an excited owner in a post-race celebratory hug. Glen Boss undertook a strict boxing and circuit program to get down to 47 kilograms for the 2006 Cox Plate. Chris Symons has showcased his diet program in his Jockey Diet series.

"The best in every sport is prepared to push themselves further than anybody else," Glen Boss has said. "When I get 100 per cent fit and hard, it makes a difference on a horse."

No matter how they do it, the constant focus on weight certainly takes a toll on not only a jockey's body and their mind, but their social and family life and the people around them. For my part, I've had to deal with mood swings, emergency hospital visits for dehydration issues, fainting episodes, as well as my own personal battle with an eating disorder as I attempted to 'fit in' with the people I worked, socialised and lived with.

In October last year, media personality Mick Sharkie spent 5 days living on a jockey's restrictive diet and exercise regime. Under the watchful and concerned eye of his doctor, Mick drastically cut his food intake and learnt first hand the pressures these elite athletes go through on a daily basis, while losing nearly 5 kilos in the process. You can view his documentary HERE.

I read a number of comments to Michelle's suspension that centered around the opinion that an appetite suppressant should not count as performance enhancing, however the rule goes much deeper than that. Participant well-being is a high agenda item for racing authorities. Certain drugs are banned because they can act as stimulants, cause hallucinations, nausea, blurred vision, mood changes and impaired reaction speeds. Not only does this affect the health of the individual jockey but also the safety of all the other jockeys and horses they are competing against. Couple these affects with a tired or dehydrated body and the outcomes could be devastating.

There is certainly a lot more to being a jockey than just being able to judge a race and steer a horse around the track. It's not just a job, it's a lifestyle. A tough, 24/7, all-encompassing lifestyle that's definitely not for the faint-hearted!

*Images L to R: Jockeys Chris Symons and Frankie Dettori working out

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