Everything about the 2003 movie Seabiscuit is inspiring. Watching the stories of a broken businessman, a misunderstood trainer, a half blind jockey with a temper, and a horse one step away from the glue factory, all coming together and achieving the impossible. The best part about this movie is just about everything shown in the film is true. Laura Hillenbrand authored the biography Seabiscuit: An American Legend, and the movie stays true to her book.
While watching this movie, I did wonder about Red Pollard and the life of a jockey. Many of the jockeys during the 1920s and 1930s were teenage boys as young as twelve. Many were orphaned or given to the trainers by their parents who could not support their sons during the Depression, just like Pollard. None of them had schooling past the 8th grade.
Once a boy won his first race, he officially became an apprentice jockey. When his name was printed in the racing program, he would have an asterisk added by his name, which looked like a bug. So he became known as a "bug boy."
Usually after the boys went through their growth spurts in their late teens, they had to quit because they became too heavy. Before hiring and training a bug boy, trainers would measure the bug boy's feet. If the boy had large feet, it was a good sign he would grow out of the required weight limit range.
The boys would be sold between trainers without any notice. Sometimes the trainers were kind and treated them well, others would beat them if they lost their races and withhold food to keep them underweight. Being a jockey was emotionally difficult and lonely, but meeting the physical requirements was what drove many of the boys away. It even drove some with no other options for making a living to suicide.
For a boy to become a jockey, he could be any height, but he had to meet the weight requirements. The jockey worships the scale, and prays it points to a low number. During the 1920s and 1930s, many of the horses were assigned to carry between 83 to 130 pounds. A jockey's weight could not exceed 5 pounds over the horse's assigned weight. Red Pollard was 5'7" and weighed 115 pounds. Like many other jockeys, he went to extreme lengths to keep his weight down. During one year, he was known to only eat eggs, and stuck to 600 calories a day.
The quickest way jockeys lost weight was by ridding themselves of water. The most common methods were to not drink water, sweating it out, vomiting, or using laxatives. Soaking oneself in a salt bath was another popular method. There are many stories of jockeys losing 10 pounds of water weight overnight. It would not be uncommon to see a jockey faint before or after a race from dehydration. If a jockey was very desperate, he would swallow a tapeworm and have it surgically removed later after he lost weight. Consequently, many jockeys became malnourished and lost their teeth and suffered from pneumonia. Some jockeys were able to cheat the scale by bribing the official checking the weights. Others were able to figure out where they could stand on the scale so it would not register their full weight.
Even today, jockeys range typically between 4'10" to 5'6" and weigh between 108 to 118 pounds. While required to be light, they must be strong enough to control a 1,200 pound horse running 40 miles per hour. I e-mailed with a professional jockey to see what its like to work in this profession today, and to see if anything has changed since the 1930s.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. Did you grow up with horses? When did you learn to ride?
My name is Víctor Rodriguez, I am from Montevideo, Uruguay. I grew up with horses; my father was a trainer with many horses at the racetrack. I started going to the stables at 7 years old, 6:00am most mornings. I learned to ride as a kid, taught by my dad and other trainers and jockeys at the track. I started galloping the racehorses at 12 years old, and ran my first race at 15 years old. I decided to come to the United States after the track in Uruguay closed in 1997.
What is your height and weight?
5'5" and about 115 pounds.
When did you decide to become a jockey? How does one become a jockey?
All my life I wanted to be a jockey. My dad was a jockey, and both my brothers are jockeys. It is the family business.
Most jockeys in the US are from other countries, and have a professional jockey license from their home. In Uruguay, you start by galloping (exercising) a lot of horses for practice. When the trainers think you are ready, you get sent to "Jockey School." Here, you learn professional jockey skills, such as how to use your whip/change whip hands, how to break a horse from the gate, the "traffic" rules of the track (stay in your lane, how to pass, when you can move over). School also teaches you how to manage your weight.
In the United States, there is no official school. You first must get permission from the track stewards to become a "gallop boy" in the mornings at the track. You then practice with the seasoned, professional jockeys. You must also practice breaking horses from the gate with the gate crew. The gate crew and seasoned jockeys must approve of your riding skills; their recommendations get sent to the Racing Commission. You then get an "apprentice license," and are considered a "bug boy" and can ride in races. You then must prove yourself under the pressure of racing before being considered professional.
How tall can a jockey be and what is the weight limit?
A jockey can be any height, as long as he can make weight. A jockey's weight is determined by how much weight that horse is allowed to carry for that race. Each horse is different. The rules surrounding how much weight a horse carries are complicated, but in general if the horse has a better record than the competition, it must carry more weight. Most horses carry 118-122lbs. This weight includes equipment (saddle, bridle etc) so the jockey actually weighs 5lbs less. If a "bug boy" is riding, the horse is allowed to carry 10lbs less to make up for the rider's lack of experience (which means bug boys weigh less than 115lbs).
A professional jockey can be up to 5lbs overweight and still be allowed to ride, but the trainers get angry if the rider doesn't make weight. If a jockey is consistently overweight, he will lose the rides from that trainer (and therefore, in essence, his paycheck).
Also, jockeys must weigh-in before every race (at Charles Town, we have 8 races per night, Thursday-Saturday). Jockeys learn their required weights 3 days before the races.
How does a jockey keep fit enough to race and stay under a certain weight limit?
Everyone stays fit in their own way. Most of the jockeys gallop horses in the mornings (also let's us get to know the horses we will be racing later in the week). I usually gallop 10-15 horses every morning. Running is also a common form of exercise.
To keep weight off, we all wear a lot of clothes when we work so that we sweat off the weight. Usually we eat once a day, at dinner. On raceday, sometimes we do not eat at all that day. We also use the hot box in the jockey's room to sweat off weight (up to 7lbs if needed).
What muscles hurt the most after a race? Shoulders, arms, legs?
Shoulders and back
What kind of fitness routines do jockeys commit to to be in good enough shape for a race?
Riding and galloping horses is the best way to get and stay fit.
Victor's usual schedule
6:30 am: Arrive at the track. Gallop about 10-15 horses.
10:30: Head to private farm to work/break some green horses.
Noon: Head to another private farm to work a couple more green horses and do some chores
1:00: End of work day. Nap, run errands, etc
Thursday- Saturday (racedays)
Same as earlier in the week, but he may gallop fewer at the track.
1:00-5:00 nap, relax
5:00 go to jockey room, sit in hot box, hang out with other jockeys.
7:00 First race.
11:30 Finish racing 2 to 6 races.
Sunday: Rest a bit, then do some side work such as riding race Quarter Horses. Twice a month they race, other Sundays he gallops those horses.
As your can see from this interview, not much had changed in terms of weight limits and methods used to keep a jockey's weight down. I really hope none of them uses the tapeworm.
I am Amy. I love movies, TV, and horses. I grew up with horses and taught kids how to ride during my summer breaks from school. Now I am a country girl living in a city hoping to someday move back into a rural area and own a horse again.