31 August 2003

Brough Scott on a problem which has been thrust into the spotlight by the recent experience of Johnny Murtagh

Johnny Murtagh’s words had a wistfulness about them. “Maybe”, said the rider whose weight problems will force him into a spectator’s role when Irish Derby winner Alamshar goes for their Champion Stakes at Leopardstown on Saturday, “it is just not normal to get up in the morning with 4lb to lose before the afternoon.”

The eternal jockeys’ dilemma was compounded by a back injury at Royal Ascot which stalled the running routine the 5ft 6in Murtagh uses to reduce himself to more than 20lb under his natural 10st weight. The pressure mounts on the mind as well as the body. Two weeks ago Murtagh announced he was taking an indefinite break.

“Fred Archer was the greatest jockey who ever lived,” he said yesterday, “he blew his brains out at 33. I have a wife and three lovely kids. I owe it to them to look after my health and peace of mind. I will take it slowly. Mr Oxx [Alamshar’s trainer] is very understanding. We will just see how it goes.”

The wisdom of Murtagh’s words sharpens the need for something more than mere sympathy, not to mention tut-tutting disapproval of the obvious psychological and physiological effects of dehydration on the human part of the horse-and-man combination on which racing depends. In Australia, the State of Victoria banned saunas on racecourses after a jockey had a heart attack in one and then successfully sued the governing body for negligence, citing a 2001 research paper on the dangers of dehydration. But that just passes the buck. Jockeys merely have saunas before coming to the track.

The problem, in a quite literal sense, is getting bigger. “In 1996,” Murtagh recalled, “kids joining the Irish apprentice school at Naas had to be under 7st, now they have to be under 9st. Most of the lads riding out at John Oxx’s stables would be between 9 and 10 stone, so that with kit and saddles and exercise sheets, horses on the gallops are carrying between 10 and 11st. Yet on the Flat we are all killing ourselves to get them to carry under 9st. “

Putting Flat-race weights up has long seemed obvious to those of us who rode over jumps for a living. A horse carrying 10st over two miles and eight hurdles would be thought be lucky to be allotted so little. If the same animal ran a mile on the Flat with 10st, people complain he has too much. What is required is a rethink with evidence, not just for what poundage Flat-race horses should carry, but for how jockeys should handle their weight.

As it happens, there is a unique document now available. It is entitled Weight Loss and Psychological State among Jockeys and its highly detailed 92 pages won its author the award for best research paper, as well as his degree of master of science from Brunel University last year. Next month Michael Caulfield ends his 15-year stint running the Jockeys Association to start up “Trained Brain” with Dr Karl Morris, who last week masterminded Darren Clarke’s triumph over Tiger Woods and company in Ohio. Michael believes he has something to offer. So do I.

In many ways jockeys have not embraced the cultural change which has, in the last 10 years, engulfed rugby and soccer, where a steak before and several pints after was the norm. “They, and the rest of us, have seen no way out of their routine,” Caulfield said. “Get up, ride out, sweat, race, drive home and then stare guiltily at the evening meal.” Diplomatically, he doesn’t add the dangers of reaching for the crutches of pee-pills, cocaine or alcohol which, while curbed by increased drug-testing, have, particularly in the case of alcohol, remained all too often in the mindset.

“We are not talking about acting like Tibetan monks,” Caulfield said, “but of a fresh and more professional approach to lifestyle, so jockeys feel better, ride better. Huge changes have been made to training and feeding racehorses; about jockeys things have moved hardly at all.”

Caulfield starts work for real in a fortnight but it’s no coincidence that his friend and neighbour, Tony McCoy, has returned from injury lighter, fitter and more cheerful after working out with the Arsenal fitness coach, Tony Colbart, and been inspired by the lean, lithe and energy-packed form of the likes of Thierry Henry.

Murtagh has had a long talk with Caulfield. “He’s a very good man,” the jockey said. One deserves the other.

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