A weighty issue: Hidden world of jockey heaving bowls

Story highlights

  • The stereotypical image of sportsmen is of bulging six-packs -- except jockeys
  • Horse riders are put under enormous pressure to meet racing weights
  • Drastic methods include vomiting in "heaving bowls," found at U.S. race tracks
  • Teeth fall out due to constant vomiting, some to the point of needing dentures

From the moment the ancient Greeks held the first Olympics 2,700 years ago, our picture perfect image of elite sportsmen has revolved around the oiled, ripped, macho body.

But not all our leading sports stars fit the stereotypical bill of chest-thumping demigods.

Some, such as jockeys, instead go to extreme lengths to stunt their growth -- sometimes down to the size of a pre-pubescent child.

In an industry where just a few extra pounds can rule you out of a multi-million dollar race, jockeys are put under enormous pressure to meet miniature weight requirements.

In the U.S the minimum riding weight is 53kg -- around the average size of a 14 to 15-year-old boy.

Jockey Jeff Johnston.

And for the rider desperate to shed a crucial pound before a competition, one seemingly drastic option may be to purge themselves in a specially designed "heaving bowl".

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It may sound shocking to those outside the racing industry. But the basins installed at U.S. race tracks for vomiting, or "flipping" as it is known in the trade, is one of the more extreme dieting methods used by professional jockeys.

The use of heaving bowls still remains largely taboo, with 2004 HBO documentary "Jockey" causing a stir after it showed footage of the bowls at Churchill Downs race track -- home of the prestigious Kentucky Derby.

Retired jockey Jeff Johnston says they are still a regular, if unspoken, sight at many U.S. race tracks.

"It's a square, porcelain bowl with a big hole to flush down the vomit," said Johnston, now regional manager for The Jockeys Guild -- the riders' welfare association. "They're usually in their own cubicle at the end of a line of toilets."

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Riders would lose their teeth due to the constant acidic bile, some even to the point of needing dentures.

However he added that some of the basins had been removed since he quit riding professionally six years ago. New race tracks also tend not to install them.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association and The Jockeys Guild did not have figures on how many heaving bowls were still in use.

Johnston never used the bowls himself, instead relying on strict dieting, saunas and diuretics, known as "water pills," which help the body excrete fluid.

"I wouldn't say heaving bowls are frowned upon within the trade," he said, adding: "Everyone has their own methods of losing weight, but rather than vomiting, I'd say the number one way is still dehydration. It's not uncommon for guys to lose three to four pounds a day in the hot box.

"We're just in the process now of educating jockeys on safe dieting and bringing up minimum weights -- the U.S. is a lot behind Europe in that sense."

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Sweat suits, saunas, hot baths and starvation are still very much in use in the racing industry on both sides of the Atlantic, even if there is a growing movement to change it, says Dr Adrian McGoldrick, chief medical officer at the Irish Turf Club, which regulates racing in Ireland.

"The bad old days of extreme dieting methods haven't fully gone by any means," he said.

"Starvation is still a very common practice in that the jockey may not eat for 24 hours or more before a race, and combine this with a sauna or hot bath."

Among Irish jockeys, 14% use vomiting as a method for meeting weight requirements, Dr McGoldrick and his team found in a 2011 study into dieting habits. Another 71% admitted to restricting their food intake, while 81% exercise in sweat suits and 86% use saunas.

Malnutrition, muscle depletion, decreased blood flow and even depression, were some of the consequences of such rapid weight loss methods, according to Dr McGoldrick.

Anna-Louise MacKinnon, medical adviser at the British Professional Jockeys Association (PJA), which promotes the interest of riders in the UK, said there was no evidence small amounts of weight loss -- such as two or three pounds -- was dangerous -- but larger amounts, such as over seven pounds, posed long-lasting health risks.

She added that one of the biggest concerns was slower reaction times in dehydrated jockeys. A hungry, dizzy rider on a 450kg horse galloping at 40km, posed a danger to everyone on the track, she said.

The PJA is now hoping to raise its minimum weight , currently the lowest in Europe alongside Italy. At 49kg, it's roughly the same size as an average 13-year-old boy.

While some jockeys still undertake dangerous crash dieting methods, things have vastly improved in the last ten years, with a new emphasis on education and support services in Britain, Dr McKinnon said.

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British jockey George Baker, who at 6ft is one of the tallest riders in the game, acknowledges it is a constant struggle sticking to strict diets.

Jockey George Baker.

The 30-year-old must keep his weight down to 57kg, following a regime of low-calorie meals, hot baths and exercise in sweat suits.

For breakfast, Baker will usually have a bowl of cereal and a cup of tea. Lunch consists solely of a piece of fruit and for dinner he will tuck into some steamed chicken and vegetables.

"On a Saturday night I might treat myself to a nice meal -- a starter and a main course," he said. "Mentally, it's very important to have a break now and then."

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So why do some jockeys still put themselves through such a punishing, potentially dangerous routine in the pursuit of getting to -- and staying at -- the pinnacle of their sport?

"Some of them just love to ride," says Johnston. "But for others it's a livelihood and they've got a family to support. By whatever means necessary, they've got to keep putting food on the table."

Whether the jockeys themselves will also enjoy that food is a different matter.