By Daithi Harvey
After 11 years in the position of senior medical officer with the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, Dr. Adrian McGoldrick will retire at the end of this year, and as he enters the final six months of his role he can be proud of the impact and improvements he has bestowed on the sport in just over a decade.
“I turned 65 years of age in April so having agreed to retire in my 65th year, I will be finishing up on Dec. 31,” he told the TDN. “The job will be advertised within the next month and then whoever is appointed will have several months lead in time until I finish up.”
Before Irish racing’s participants, jockeys in particular, start to despair about the sport losing one of its most cherished assets, the news that McGoldrick will still maintain an active role within the sport will allow many to breathe a sigh of relief. “It is almost a sideways step as I currently am, and will continue to be, involved in a number of research projects that will hopefully benefit racing in the long term,” he said.
One of these projects involves assessing and monitoring the bone density of jockeys in an effort to combat later life bone afflictions such as osteoporosis, as well as fractures as a result of in-competition falls. Bone thinning is mainly down to jockeys wasting and dieting to make weights well below their natural state and while major improvements have been made in the last decade as regards educating riders over the benefits of nutrition and exercise as a viable alternative to saunas and starvation, at the end of the day flat jockeys, in particular, are expected to maintain weights that are just not natural for the vast majority.
“The Injured Jockeys Fund bought a DEXA Scanner earlier this year. It measures bone density and identifies bone thinning,” McGoldrick explained. “In initial studies we conducted on jockeys about 15 years ago about half of them had bone thinning, and this study included both apprentices and senior jockeys. The scanner is based in RACE [Racing Academy and Centre of Education] and we plan to DEXA scan all of our riders, professionals this year and hopefully the amateurs also by next year. We will collate the results and can then advise if anyone needs Vitamin D or further supplementation if there is significant bone thinning. It’s something that can be reversed to a certain extent so it is important that if it is an issue that it is identified early in a jockey’s life. The potential of fractures is also greatly reduced when peak density is achieved.”
Acquiring the scanner came about through a fundraising event staged in Limerick a couple of years ago primarily to raise funds for Robbie McNamara. The idea was that a portion of the funds raised would be ring-fenced for use on a project of Dr. McGoldrick’s choosing and this particular area was one he thought would yield significant long term benefits. “Having our own scanner means we can also carry out meaningful research on the benefits of vitamin supplements, for example, and we can also track their benefits over six month periods. It’s a massive step forward,” he said.
Specialised hardware such as this scanner, in conjunction with an increased support structure of professional personnel, means jockeys now have the necessary resources at their disposal to maximize their potential and thus their careers, something that did not exist at the turn of this century.
“Gillian O’Loughlin is a dietician based in RACE and she does excellent work. As a result of this combined effort we are getting the message out to riders that there is a better way to make the weight than using a sauna,” McGoldrick said. “Ronan Whelan is a prime example, he is probably half a stone lighter now than he was three years ago. He eats three meals a day and drinks three litres of water each day. He has taken the advice of the dietician, follows a regime and its working for him. He is strong and fit and it shows in his riding.”
He continued, “Compared to 10 years ago jockeys are definitely healthier and other stakeholders are also playing a part. The racecourses are improving all the time, although they still have a bit to do to match their counterparts in the UK. The place most jockeys tend to eat is at the track. They generally don’t eat much in the mornings before going racing so it is important that there is a choice of healthy, nutritious food available at race meetings. The last thing we want is jockeys leaving the racecourse hungry and stopping off on the way home for a can of coke and a burger.”
McGoldrick is also involved in research with sports psychologist Ciara Losty in the Waterford Institute of Technology with mental health of jockeys very much at the forefront of that research.
“We do know there are major problems with mental health issues in racing with twice the level of depressive symptoms compared to the ordinary population in the 20-35-year-old age bracket,” he said. “We have strong belief those symptoms often arise as a result of constant wasting and that’s the whole idea of this project, to look at it in greater detail, get to the root of the problem and then put the structures in place to deal with it, whether that is through counselling or even approaching the powers that be to revisit the issue of the current weight structures.”
The third project that has come on stream looks at the physiological demands of a jockey. According to McGoldrick there was little information on how much energy a jockey expends on horseback. Initial indications are that it may not be as much as previously thought and he was also keen to learn how much stimulation for bone growth is received by being in the saddle. Medical experts propose that up to an hour of weight bearing exercise a day plays a major role in bone development and while riders are in the saddle, seemingly exercising, what they are benefitting from a bone formation point of view is apparently quite negligible.
Speaking to McGoldrick it is clear he is very much in favour of seeing a rise in the minimum weights carried by jockeys.
“Absolutely, it is inevitable,” he said. “The rule of thumb is that the average weight of the population is rising by a pound every three years. In fact last year two prominent Irish trainers made submissions to the IHRB and HRI requesting an increase in the minimum weights. This resulted in the Trainers’ Association coming together to request the same. Weight structures just have to go up, a lot of jockeys are riding two stone below their natural weight and that is not sustainable. There are fewer and fewer young riders coming through who can ride off the minimum weight.”
He continued, “In fairness to HRI anytime we have approached them to discuss the possibility of raising the weight they have been receptive and the authorities in the UK have followed suit but in France they are holding back as they feel at least half their riders can make the minimum weight. I have actually spoken to Aidan O’Brien at length about it and he sees no reason why the Classics, for example, couldn’t be run carrying nine and a half stone. I appreciate it’s a heritage issue but I genuinely see no logic in jockeys having to ride off some of the lower weights they must carry.”
McGoldrick exudes energy and it’s impossible to imagine him taking life at a slower pace than he currently does, regardless of his age and he has successfully juggled his IHRB role with a busy GP surgery in Newbridge, within a mile of The Curragh Racecourse. “This job takes up about a third of my time, I do 70 days racing every year and I spend a few hours at the IHRB offices every week meeting various staff members there and it is quite cohesive,” he said. “I envisage going racing just as frequently when I retire as I’ve been asked to stay involved at Naas and The Curragh and hopefully I can do a few days at Punchestown and other places. I’d like to keep racing as I enjoy it.”
McGoldrick had no early involvement in racing but like so many people who have been exposed to it through their locality, the sport got under his skin eventually. “I had no major interest in racing when I was young, bar cycling to the Irish Derby as a child but when I got established as a GP in Kildare a lot of jockeys became patients of mine and I grew fascinated with the sport as a result. I could see a lot of jockeys were struggling and the first piece of research I undertook was with Kevin Manning and a few others. About 15 years ago they allowed me to take their bloods before and after racing to test for dehydration. The late Ned Gowing of Anglesey Lodge Veterinary Clinic had a lab converted to test human blood so we took the bloods before racing, brought them across to the lab and repeated the process later that day. The results showed they were severely dehydrated, their blood sugars and potassium levels were falling during racing and that they were in fact competing while chronically dehydrated. No other athlete in sport would dream of competing like that.”
Since that initial research McGoldrick has been a tireless campaigner for improving the health, safety and well-being of jockeys and there are several things on his wish list for the next five years. “I would love to see RACE being developed into a full rehab centre similar to Oaksey House in Lambourn. I was there a number of years ago and was so impressed that I met with both Brian Kavanagh and Denis Egan when I returned to propose the development of something similar here. The response was that the renovation of the Curragh Racecourse was the priority for that period but when that was finished it could be revisited. So that could hopefully be something that could be looked at next year.”
He continued, “While there is some streamlining currently taking place I would also like to see the various charitable organisations like the Irish Jockey’s Trust, the Injured Jockeys Fund and the Drogheda Memorial Fund come together under the one umbrella. It is a bit confusing for people and I think both fundraising efforts and the work they do to assist people would be more successful if they all came under the one banner. Finally, I would also love to see the day when jockeys didn’t have to use saunas.”
Finding someone to take over the mantle of Adrian McGoldrick will not be an easy process, as those with his level of compassion and drive for improving the lot of other people are rare. His contribution to Irish racing over the past decade has been immense and luckily enough for the sport it seems that it will take more than retirement to put a stop to that.