Researchers tackle issues around jockey diets

Jockey Franki Dettori with Dr George Wilson.
Jockey Frankie Dettori with Dr George Wilson.

Experts have designed and implemented a scientific diet plan for jockeys in a bid to prevent dangerous weight control measures used to achieve target riding weights.

Researchers are continuing to work on measures to end the use of these risky techniques, with the programme including specific psychological treatment strategies to treat related potential mental health problems.

The health and wellbeing of jockeys has long been an issue, with many choosing to undertake severe food and drink restriction, use of laxatives, self-induced vomiting and chronic use of sweating to reach target weights.

These practices are dangerous to the physical and psychological health of jockeys, as well as impairing their riding performance.

Researchers at Liverpool John Moores University, along with a team that includes a clinical psychologist, physiologists, nutrition experts and a medical doctor, have designed and implemented a scientific diet plan for jockeys, in tandem with specific psychological treatment strategies.

Now, the work undertaken with high profile British jockeys, including Franny Norton, Frankie Dettori and Harry Haynes, has been taken internationally through a partnership with Sheikh Mansoor Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, in a move that will help progress the research.

Dr Graeme Close, senior Lecturer in exercise metabolism and nutrition at the university, said work with the sheikh’s Global Arabian Flat Racing Festival would allow the group to promote the physical and psychological wellbeing of all jockeys worldwide.

“We have put together a team including a clinical psychologist, physiologists, nutrition and a medical doctor who has worked for 25 years with jockeys.

“The international research study will focus on solving the problems facing the jockeys to ‘make weight’ and eliminate the risks involved in implementing severe food and drink restrictions.

“The solution lies in designing and implementing a scientific diet plan to allow jockeys to make weight without resorting to dangerous techniques. Secondly, to correct micro-nutrient deficiencies that improves bone quality and reduces the risk of fracture. And, finally, to implement specific psychological treatment strategies to treat the mental health problems at the same time as improving jockeys’ performance.”

Jockey Harry Haynes.
Jockey Harry Haynes.

Lara Sawaya, director of the Global Arabian Flat Racing Festival, expressed her thanks to the sheikh, saying his initiative was appreciated by all jockeys who took part.

A special laboratory parallel to the one in Liverpool will be duly established and equipped, most likely within the Abu Dhabi Equestrian Club or the Wathba Stables surroundings to conduct all necessary tests for the jockeys, she confirmed.

The team consists of Dr Graeme Close  Dr George Wilson, and  Dr Philip Pritchard (also a jockey), and Dr James  Morton, all from Liverpool John Moore University; Professor William Fraser, from the University of East Anglia; and Dr Costas Papageorgiou, an experienced consultant clinical psychologist, who provides specialist psychological clinics in the northwest of England.

Jockey Dettori said: “It is great to see that jockeys will now have access to the same sports science expertise that all other sports currently benefit from.”

He said he fully supported the project.

Flat Jockey Franny Norton said said he had previously benefited greatly from the sports science support provided by Wilson, Close and their colleagues, and continued to do so today with his rehabilitation from injury.

He said the partnership between the university and sheikh can only be of great benefit to the health, fitness and wellbeing of jockeys worldwide.

“This is why I fully support this future research. I was having my best season this year and it was down to having not to sweat or miss food thanks to the university team.”

Jockey Tony McCoy has also pledged his support for the project, saying it was a fantastic boost that the researchers had gained the support of the sheikh.

The chief executive of racing welfare, said: “Jockeys constantly face extreme physical challenges and, often, a gruelling schedule – as do so many of the staff that work in racing.

“It is essential to expand our knowledge of the effects of this upon their wellbeing and how to enhance their health and fitness.” He, too, welcomed the new partnership.

Consultant clinical psychologist Dr Costas Papageorgiou said: “To reach riding weight, a very large proportion of jockeys endure a rigorous regime, such as binge eating and self-induced vomiting, to significantly reduce their body weight, which closely resembles the behaviour observed in individuals with eating disorders.

“From a clinical psychological perspective, these unhelpful weight-control strategies not only lead to emotional and mood disturbances, but also the potential development of psychiatric disorders such as bulimia nervosa and clinical depression.

“In turn, the jockey’s psychological skills for riding are affected and contribute to impairments in their performance. Working together as a multi-disciplinary team covering all aspects of jockeys’ health will facilitate the identification and treatment of a range of psychological problems with interventions that also allow opportunities to enhance psychological skills for improved performance.”

Professor William Fraser explained: “The combination of low vitamin D status, high bone turnover, low bone mass density and a fall from a horse at around a height of over 6 feet will inevitably lead to a very high risk of fractures and the data from the Liverpool studies suggests there is an approach that could significantly reduce the health risks to all jockeys.”

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