By Bill Finley
Throughout the sport, the coronavirus has meant adjustments, For most jockeys, that includes no longer being able to use the “hot box” to take off weight. For several racetracks and racing departments, that has meant a concession to the jockeys in the form of raising the scale of weights.
But will these temporary solutions become permanent when life returns to normal and might eliminating the saunas in jockeys' quarters ultimately prove to be a solution that helps riders stay healthy? These are questions already being discussed.
The saunas, which many saw as a necessary evil, are a small, confined space where several jockeys might congregate. With social distancing a means to combat the virus, tracks had no choice but to shut them down. Jockeys' Guild President and CEO Terry Meyocks estimates that 75% of all jockeys go into the box before riding to shed a few pounds. For them, losing access to the hot box could have been a serious problem, but several tracks stepped in and allowed jockeys to ride at higher weights. It started at Gulfstream, where three pounds were added to what would have been the weight a horse carried in the pre-COVID-19 world.
“I think Gulfstream had the right idea,” jockey Tyler Gaffalione said. “With social distancing and wanting to keep everyone spread out, going into the hot box and to be in a confined area with numerous other guys is too risky. Tracks have done the right thing helping us jockeys.”
Monmouth Park has also added three pounds to the weight a horse carries and the least any journeyman jockey carried on the card that featured the GI Haskell S. was 118 pounds. With NYRA not yet making any adjustments to the weights, jockeys at Saratoga have taken matters into their own hands. No matter how much weight their horse is assigned, no journeyman jockey will ride at less than 120 pounds. Jockeys who can ride at a lighter weight will make sure that they are overweight, oftentimes by using a heavier saddle than they would normally use.
Changes have also been made overseas. In Ireland, two pounds have been added to the scale of weights. In Australia, they added one kilogram, the equivalent of 2.2 pounds.
For now, the days of seeing a journeyman rider having to make 114 or 115 pounds have disappeared.
“You have to be happy with this,” said Monmouth regular Antonio Gallardo. “I don't mind having to lose weight. We used to be able to go in the hot box or use a gym. You can jog outside, but what happens when it rains or it's too hot or cold? Then you don't have anything and how can you lose weight? You really need something. There are some jockeys who are really light. They don't care. But what about the rest of the jockeys? When you do 116, that means when you are naked you have to weigh 113 or 112 to do that. Only bug boys can do that. It would be great if the minimum weight was always 118.”
Jockeys are obviously pleased to be able to tack on a few extra pounds and the changes haven't led to any noticeable backlash from trainers, owners or gamblers. Many seem to not have even noticed that the weights have changed. The Jockeys' Guild and its members have long been campaigning for tracks to raise the scale of weights and Meyocks said the issue is not going to go away.
“It's always been on our list to have the scale of weights raised,” he said. “For the most part, tracks have done that. Is it 100% where we'd like it to be? No. We understand you can't continue to increase them and increase them more. There is a fine line. We have a situation at the NYRA tracks where there are only three or four jockeys who can do 116 without having to pull weight. These kids coming up are bigger now than they ever were.”
Jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. said he'd be all for maintaining the weights at current levels once the hot boxes are re-opened.
“Everybody has dealt with it and nobody is complaining about it,” he said. “It's been a positive thing for everyone. We've all been able to maintain our weight and those couple of extra pounds has really helped some people.”
In Europe, the coronavirus forced the sport to look at whether or not providing easy access to a hot box is ultimately the right thing to do.
“We've been wanting to remove saunas from the racecourse environment for some time and for various reasons we haven't,” Lisa Hancock, the president of the Injured Jockeys Fund told the TDN. “Now, the jockeys can't use the saunas and they're finding they don't need them and there are much better and healthier ways of maintaining appropriate weight. It's things like that that we'll be really trying to keep as the new norm. I think there are some real benefits to the restrictions and we'll hopefully take some good points away from it. As things get back to normal we'll hopefully create a new normal that might even be a little bit better.”
Hernandez said he sees, with the saunas shut down, more jockeys taking better care of themselves.
“We've all been doing what we have to do with no hot box,” he said. “People are using different methods. Guys are exercising more and watching their weight better. Everyone is trying to make adjustments to the situation.”
There's little doubt that spending too much time in the hot box can have a negative impact on the physical and mental health of a jockey. It can't be easy to ride, particularly on a hot day, after dehydrating yourself. In some cases, it has been fatal. A handful over the years have died from the effects of reducing and starving themselves.
Is there a solution that works for everyone? Would tracks be willing to raise the scale of weights permanently if jockeys agreed to have the saunas removed from their quarters?
“I don't know,” said Joe Bravo. “I wasn't a guy sitting in there hours on end but it was an everyday thing for me. If they took it away I'd miss it.”
Gaffalione is open to the idea.
“It would be an adjustment,” he said. “If you look into the science of it, it might be good having fewer people having to reduce and lose that much weight in a day then have to perform in 90 degree weather. That has to be a health risk.”
Gaffalione is lucky in that he doesn't have to take drastic measures in order to ride. But what of those that do? For now, they are getting a break, sometimes as much as three pounds. Where this goes after the coronavirus has stopped upending everyone's life is a question that has yet to be answered.