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A WEIGHTY PROBLEM : Effort to Shed Pounds Produces Upsetting Side Effects for Riders

December 01, 1987|POHLA SMITH | United Press International

At the core of horse racing lies a self-imposed misery that racing's owners and trainers do not want to see, fans are largely unaware of and most jockeys cannot escape.

It is represented by a sound better suited to back alleys and washrooms than to a sport known for its riches, beauty and power.

It is the sound of someone vomiting.

"The first day I went into the jocks' room to ride, I was a 19-year-old kid, I didn't know nothing," remembers Vince Amato, 34, the clerk of scales at Arlington Park and the paddock judge at Hawthorne Race Course, both Chicago-area tracks.

"I was from the city of Chicago, and the race track was new to me. I walked in and I went to the bathroom, and I heard this (noise), and I ran out and I turned to the clerk of scales, 'I think somebody's sick in the bathroom.' Well, everybody fell out, and they got a big joke out of it, and to this day I still don't understand it."

What Amato could not understand--and never could bring himself to use--is one of the methods jockeys use to reach or maintain their required weight.

Jockeys call it flipping, or heaving. Conventional society would label it sick, which, in fact, it is. The medical term for the disease is bulimia.

But jockeys live apart, in the cloistered community of American thoroughbred racing that demands they weigh no more than 110 to 115 pounds and doesn't care how they do it. It just weighs them before and after each race to make sure that they do.

Some riders, such as New York journeyman Mike Venezia and 1986 Eclipse Award champion Pat Day, say they make weight naturally, eating pretty much what they want when they want.

But for most of the United States' approximately 3,500 licensed riders, making weight is a constant battle, one they fight with every weapon available--from low-calorie diets to near-starvation, from sweating in rubber suits to chemically induced dehydration, from occasional vomiting to chronic bulimia.

They fast for a day or more at a time or subsist on one daily child-sized meal of fish or chicken and salad. They drain their bodies of vital fluids and electrolytes with laxatives and diuretics such as Lasix, a drug used to treat heart patients and horses diagnosed as bleeders.

They take diet pills, and in the years when amphetamine-loaded appetite suppressants were commonly prescribed, some of them got addicted.

They sweat for hours at a time in "hot boxes"--steam rooms, saunas or whirlpools heated to temperatures as high as 120 degrees, or they wrap themselves in layers of clothes and sit in heated cars or run for miles between their morning exercise rides and their afternoon races.

They teach their stomach muscles to reverse themselves so they can vomit their food and liquid. Should they find themselves unable to learn that skill, called flipping, they gag themselves by drinking vinegar or soap suds or by shoving fingers or paper towels down their throats.

Some become so starved for the taste of food that they become classic bulimics who gorge 10 to 15 pounds of food at a time before heading to the nearest "heaving bowl"--racing's equivalent of the Roman vomitorium--to purge it.

"Every jocks' room in the country has a heaving bowl; every jocks' room in the country has a hot box," says New York rider Richard Migliore.

In doing all these things, say eating disorder specialists, riders risk chronic depression, digestive disorders and loss of teeth. They also can suffer electrolyte imbalances that could lead to weakness and fainting spells, which in turn--if they occurred on-track--could cause serious injury or death.

Dr. Joseph Sawicki, physician for the New York Racing Assn., says he has tried so long and so unsuccessfully to warn riders of the risks that he has nearly given up.

"You can't talk to them in the first place," he said. "They're going to interrupt you and do what they damn well please anyway.

"They go into the hot box, they lose between three and four pounds. They just flop down, and they can't ride because their electrolytes are gone. . . . I try to tell them that one of these times they are going to get bad gastric hemorrhage from bulimia. . . . It's a disgrace. That (bulimia) and the hot box is the worst part of it.

"It's reached the point where I don't care any more," Sawicki added. "Let them do what they want. You can't force them to do anything. They come in, they pass out, I've got to take them off (their scheduled mounts)."

Jockeys could be risking more than bad moods, stomach problems and lost teeth.

Specialists suspect--but cannot yet prove--that long-term eating disorders can lead to serious, perhaps life-threatening illnesses such as heart and vascular disease. Their study of eating disorders is a new one.

Preoccupation with weight, though, is nothing new in racing. Neither are the inherent risks.

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