Robin Oakley .
Needing to take a small diversion into the nearest branch of Coral's to tend to my investments this week, I encountered a par- ticularly grisly example of the disgruntled punter. With a liberal sprinkling of F- words, he informed the assembled compa- ny that X, a particularly stylish jockey with a glittering record, was incapable of riding a finish. Never mind that the rolling slopes cascading over what had once been the punter's waist would have prevented him ever getting on a horse, let alone steering it remotely in the right direction, he was con- vinced he knew.
I heard the same hectoring tones a few minutes later in an election phone-in as another know-all poured contempt on the politicians and put the country to rights, reminding me of Speaker Weatherill's sar- donic lament that, with so many people out there in the populace who could solve in minutes the problems with which parlia- mentarians had been struggling for years, what a tragedy it was that they were all so busy cutting hair or driving taxis they could not spare the time to come to Westminster to save the country. Jockeys and politicians have one thing in common which sets them apart from, say, brain surgeons, deep-sea divers and com- puter technicians: almost everybody they encounter reckons they can do their job better than they can. And, if Disgusted from Essex might learn a little from seeing at close quarters, as I have seen, those politicians who have sacrificed their career prospects, their marriages and in some cases their health out of a desire to do something for the public good, then Five Bellies from Coral's might have gained from attending this year's Lesters dinner for Britain's jockeys, stepping past the crutches, the slings and plaster casts and the wheelchairs that paid testimony to the perils of their trade.
Another of those perils was made appar- ent this week with the news that Walter Swinbum, an outstanding big race jockey, has been forced at only 35 to quit the sad- dle for an indeterminate period to try to cope with the problems of his wildly fluctu- ating weight, problems brought on by the years of wasting a natural lOst 71b frame to try to bring it down to a riding weight two stone lighter than that. It is all the more sad because Swinbum was left fighting for his life a little over a year ago after a freak riding accident in Hong Kong when his mount crashed through the rails.
Top jockeys are well rewarded. Swinbum is probably a millionaire. But rich super- stars and the semi-unknowns who eke out a living riding no-hopers at unfashionable tracks share the struggle to reduce their bodyweight to ridiculous levels while retaining the strength to niggle an unwill- ing horse through the course of a two-mile race or to drive home relentlessly in a close finish. Some take pee pills to get rid of every last drop of fluid, imperilling their kidneys. Some have been known to col- lapse with dehydration having sweated out every last ounce in the racecourse sauna before the first race.
I have seen whey-faced young men in the weighing-room swill out their dry mouths with mineral water and then spit it out in desperation that they will not make their riding weight if they take a single swallow.
'Have you two thought about marriage or do you prefer a stable relationship?' Men like Lester Piggott survived for days on a few bites of white fish, the hunger- reducing smoke of a good cigar and the memory of their last good meal before the season opened. It is no wonder that their anorexic-style eating disorders are becom- ing a feature of life in the saddle. No won- der, either, that Ray Cochrane, who works on his weight for three hours a day, walk- ing, jogging and doing press-ups to get to a manageable 8st 51b, says that jockeys des- perate to lose weight will do almost any- thing. (One was reputed to have sat in a compost heap for some hours when no sauna was available.) And no surprise that he would have been off to Hong Kong, where the minimum weight band is 8st 41b, to enjoy a more comfortable lifestyle from this September if the Hong Kong Jockey Club had not surprisingly refused him a licence.
But it is not only the flat-race jockeys who have to struggle with their weight. National Hunt jockey Warren Marston, who can himself do the minimum ten stone without too much trouble, says that many riders have to lose 3-41b in the sauna before racing. Keeping the weight down, he says, is not so bad when you are riding every day. The metabolism takes over. But it gets harder towards the end of the sea- son with racing contracting and rides dwin- dling.
Andrew Thornton, like Peter Niven, Paul Holley and Chris Maude, is more than 5ft 10in tall yet he rides regularly at lOst 21b and gets a couple more pounds off if required for big races. He uses the sauna. But he also runs several miles before riding out. What he eats, he says, is entirely con- ditioned by what he is riding over the next few days. 'The more winners you have the easier it becomes. You get your adrenaline from the success. But it's all down to will power.' Imagine keeping that going over 20 or 30 years.
One of the biggest problems, says Thorn- ton, is all the driving. You have to stop off sometimes to kill the boredom and that is when people tend to eat. He is worried by the suggestion that racecourse saunas could be taken away to cut the risk of dehydra- tion. If that happens, he reckons, more jockeys will be driving to the races in sweat- suits with the car heater turned full on. That can scarcely be good for road safety.
There is anger in the weighing-room, incidentally, over criticism that ten jockeys put up overweight in the Monday Grand National. The suggestion was that they had overdone the festivities over the weekend after the cancellation of the Saturday race. But Andrew Thornton points out that the same ten jockeys had been due to put up overweight on the Saturday. They were down at their minimum anyway and kept to it. Saturday night celebrations there might have been. But they just meant longer in the sauna.
Robin Oakley is political editor of the BBC.