They called the scale “the oracle”, and they lived in slavery to it. In the 1920s and the 1930s, the imposts, or weights horses, were a sign to carry in races generally ranged from 83 lbs to 130 or more, depending on the rank of the horse and the importance of the race.
A rider could be no more than 5 lbs over the assigned weight or he would be taken off the horse. Some trainers trimmed that leeway down to just half a pound. To make weight in anything but high-class stakes races, jockeys had to keep their weight to no more than 114 lbs. Riders competing in ordinary weekday events needed to whittle themselves down another 5 lbs or so, while those in the lowest echelons of the sport couldn’t weight much more than 100. The lighter a rider was, the greater the number of horses he could ride. “Some riders” wrote Eddie Arcaro, “will all but saw their legs off to get within the limit.”
A few riders were naturally tiny enough to make weight without difficulty, and they earned the burning envy of every other jockey. Most of them were young teenagers whose growth spurt lay ahead of them. To ensure that they didn’t waste time and money training and supporting boys who would eventually grow out their trade, contract trainers checked the foot size of every potential bug boy, since a large foot is a fairly good sign of the coming growth spurt. Many also inspected the height and weight of a potential bug boy’s siblings. Trainer Woody Stephens, who began his racing career as a bug-boy, in the late 1920s, always felt he got lucky in this respect. In vetting for the job, his trainer neglected to look at his sister, a local basketball phenomenon.
Virtually every adult rider, and most of the kids, naturally tended to weigh too much. Cheating, if you did it right, could help a little. One pudgy 140lb rider earned a place in Rensman Legend by fooling a profoundly myopic clerk of scales by skewing the readout to register him at 110. No one is exactly sure how he did it, but it is believed that either he positioned his feet on a non registering part of the scale, or his valet stuck his whip under his seat and lifted it up. He made it through en entire season before someone caught him.
Most jockeys took a more straightforward approach; the radical diet, consisting of 600 calories per day. Red Pollard went as long as a year eating nothing but eggs. Sunny James Fitsimmonds confessed that during his riding days a typical dinner consisted of a leaf or two of lettuce and he would eat them only after placing them on a window sill to dry the water out of them. Water, because of its weight, was the prime enemy and jockeys went to absurd lengths to keep it out of their system. Most drank virtually nothing.
A common practice was to have jockeys’ room valets open soda cans by puncturing the top with an ice pick, making it impossible to drink more than a few drops at a time. The sight and sound of water became a torment. Fitzsimmons habitually avoided areas of the barn where horses were being washed because the spectacle of flowing water was agonising.
But the weight maximums were so low that near fasting and water deprivation weren’t enough. Even what little water and calories the body had taken in had to be eliminated. Many riders were “heavers” poking their fingers own their throats to vomit up their meal. Others chewed gum to trigger salivation: Tommy Luther could spit off as much as half a pound in a few hours. Then there were the sweating rituals, topped by “road work”. This practice, used by both Red Pollard and George Woolf, involved donning heavy underwear, zipping into a rubber suit, swaddling in hooded winter gear and woollen horse blankets, then running round under a blistering summer sun. Stephens remembered seeing jockeys in full road-work attire gathering at a bowling alley, so lathered that sweat sprouted from their shoes with each step. After road work, there were Turkish baths, where jockeys congregated for mornings of communal sweating.
The desiccation practices of jockeys were lampooned by turf writer Joe H. Palmer in a column written on jockey Abelardo DeLara. “DeLara has to sweat off two pounds a day to make weight. Last year, by his own estimate, he lost about 6000 lbs this way. Since he weighs about 110, it is a mere matter of arithmetic and he would be a bit more than 700 lbs if he hadn’t reduced so regularly.”
Most jockeys ingested every manner of laxative to purge their systems of food and water. Diarrhoea became the constant companion of many riders, some of whom became virtuosos of defecation. Helen Luther once watched a rider step onto a scale, only to see that he was over his horse’s assigned impost. He shouted to the clerk of scales to hang on, raced to the bathroom, emerged a moment later his pants still at half mast, and made weight. Such results could be had from a variety of products, including a stomach turning mix of Epsom salts and water, chased by two fingers of rye to stop the gagging reflex – a plant derived purgative called jalap, or bottles of a wretched tasting formula known as Pluto Water.
But the undisputed champ of the purgatives was bon in the enterprising mind of a jockeys ‘masseur named Frank “Frenchy” Hawley. Prowling round the Tijuana jockeys room in reassuringly medical-looking Dr Kildare attire, Frenchy was the self-appointed mad scientist of the racing world. Operating out of a gleaming-white training room, Frenchy stocked every manner of weight loss facilitator, including electric blankets, “violet-rays”, vibrating contraptions and rubber sleeping bags and sheets. He also dreamed up a particularly foul smelling recipe for self-parboiling that required riders to steep for up to thirty five minutes (fewer if they became dizzy) in piping hot water mixed with three to five pounds of Epsom salts, one quart of white vinegar, two pouches of household ammonia, and a mystery lather he called Hawleys Cream. He kept careful records or the weight he had stripped from riders. By 1945 it totalled 12, 860 lbs – more than 6 tons.
One of Frenchy’s cardinal rules of reducing was to “keep the contents of the bowels moving down and out steadily and regularly.” To devise a mix that would bring this about, he tinkered with God knows what until he stumbled upon a home brew that delivered a ferocious kick. This caustic laxative worked so well that Hawley marketed it commercially under the disarmingly innocuous name Slim Jim. Former jockey Bill Buck remembered it with a shiver: “It’ll KILL you.” He wasn’t kidding. Frenchy’s bowel scourer proved to be so fabulously potent that bottles of it spontaneously exploded in the jockeys’ room lavatory. Imagining their intestines going out in a similar blaze of glory, even the jockeys began to fear it, and Hawley’s Slim Jim experiment went down the tubes.
For jockeys who were truly desperate there was one last resort. Contact the right people and you could get hold of a special capsule, a simple pill guaranteed to take off all the weight you wanted. In it, was the egg of a tapeworm. Within a short while the parasite would attached to a man’s intestines and slowly suck the nutrients out of him. The pounds would peel away like magic. When the host jockey became too malnourished, he would check into a hospital to have the worm removed, then return to the track and swallow a new pill. Red Pollard may have resorted to this solution.
In denying their bodies the most basics necessities, jockeys demonstrated incredible fortitude. They paid a fearsome price. Most walked around in a state of critical dehydration and malnutrition, and as a result were irritable, volatile, light headed, bleary, nauseated, gaunt, and crampy. The heavers, exposing their mouths to repeated onslaughts of stomach acids, lost the enamel on their teeth and eventually the teeth themselves. Other jockeys suffered bouts of weakness so severe that when boosted in to the saddle they would fall right off the other side. Dehydration left them so prone to overheating even in mild weather, that their valets prepared huge bins of ice cubes into which they could flop to cool off. Other riders suffered fainting spells or hallucinated.
Many jockeys’ bodies could not function under the strain. To take off enough weight to ride a horse in Windsor, Canada, Sunny Greenberg steamed in a Turkish bath, guzzled Epsom salts mixed with jalap, took a boat from Detroit to Windsor vomiting all the way- donned a rubber suit over several layers of heavy clothing, and ran around and around the track. He staggered into the woods, collapsed and either fell asleep or fainted. He awoke in a pool of sweat and tried to clear his disorientation by downing a half ounce of whisky. Dragging himself to a scale he found that he had suffered away 10.5 lbs in one night. It was all for nought. By post time, he was too weak even to sit upright in the saddle. He gave someone else the mount and retired soon afterwards.
Greenberg escaped without permanent damage, but others, including Fitsimmonds, may not have been so lucky. Severe reducing was thought to be the culprit behind an epidemic of fatal lung diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis among jockeys. Other long-term health problems may also have stemmed from reducing practices. In a single day, to make weight on a horse, Fitsimmonds endured purgatives, an entire afternoon in a Turkish bath, heavy exercise on horseback and on foot while swaddled in several sweaters and a muffler, topped off with an hour standing inches from a roaring brick kiln. He lost 13 lbs. Thick-tongued and groggy; he won the race by a nose but could not repeat the weight loss performance and retired from the saddle not much later. He soon experienced the first shooting pains from the severe arthritis that would grotesquely disfigure his body. He came to believe that one terrible day of reducing may have triggered the onset of the crippling disease.
There was the mental toll. Stephens described his realisation that he could no longer take the punishment of reducing as “the biggest disappointment of my life.” The legendary 19th century European jockey Fred Archer understood the emotion. Falling into severe depression attributed to his taking constant doses of purgative to fight a weight problem he could not bear, he shot himself to death at age 29.