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One rasher or two: what do jockeys eat to make the weight?

Royston Ffrench eating vegetable noodles
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Scott Burton on how jockeys control their dietary requirements while winning the battle against the scales. 

There was a time, not so very long ago, when jump jockeys ate and drank what they wanted and spent more time in the sauna than with their partners, while their Flat brethren lived off champagne and fresh air. 

And while much else in the world has changed since the days of woollen racing colours, the sport still requires its human participants to weigh as little as is humanly possible. 

There is, of course, more racing in any given week than there was in the eras of Terry Biddlecombe and Lester Piggott, but exercise alone won't keep the pounds off the scale.

Now, as you sit down to your second cup of coffee – and perhaps that top-up slice of toast that will get you through to a mid-morning snack — do you know what a jockey is eating for his or her breakfast?

How many calories does a jockey need in a day?

There are many serious issues surrounding jockeys semi-permanently existing at a weight insufficient for their build. 

The Racing Post has examined the issue of jockeys 'flipping' – essentially forced vomiting – and there is scientific as well as anecdotal evidence that long periods of fasting or deprivation can have a detrimental effect on mental health. 

It was his battle with the scales that is widely believed to have led that 19th century genius among jockeys, Fred Archer, to reach for the service revolver, although the death of his wife also played a role in his suicide.

Racing has been rather late to the science of sports nutrition, something that remained the reserve of power athletes until relatively recently.

But the Professional Jockeys Association, in conjunction with the BHA and the IJF, has forged increasingly important links with the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences at John Moores University under the leadership of Professor George Wilson. 

A guide intake of 1,500 calories per day is carried on the PJA website [the NHS website suggests 2,500 per day for the average man and 2,000 per day for women] but the researchers at John Moores prefer a much more individually tailored approach. 

"When we give nutrition guidelines for jockeys, we figure out something called the resting metabolic rate," says the department's Dan Martin.

"We do a mathematical calculation or, if they can come over to John Moores University, we stick them on a machine – called an indirect calorimeter – and it gives us the amount of energy their body requires to fulfil the most basic physiological function. If we give them too little it starts to impact on bone health, metabolic health, brain health, basically on organ function."

The researchers recognise height and other physiological factors come into what a jockey's ideal calorific intake should be on a daily basis.

Martin says: "I know mine is around 2,300 and that is the minimum number of calories I should consume in a day. Because jockeys are smaller that could range from as little as 1,200 or 1,300 for a 5ft 4in male or female jockey who might weigh 7st 7lb. But for a taller jump jockey it could be as much as 1,800 or 1,900.

"Our motto is 'test, don’t guess' and the service is free thanks to funding from the BHA, PJA and the Racing Foundation."

How have jockeys adapted to the new help available?

Richard Kingscote has gained a reputation as a leader in the weighing room when it comes to taking nutrition and diet seriously and in 2017 reached the century mark for the third consecutive year since deciding to change his eating habits. 

"First and foremost I'm very lucky in my stature, so I've never had too many weight issues," he says. "I calorie-watch. There are lots of apps and my wife does the same. If I want to go out and eat some rubbish, I can. But I need to keep that in check.

Richard Kingscote believes he is much stronger as a jockey since he changed his eating habits

"It was hard when I started because I'm an all-or-nothing person and I probably was on it a little  bit too much, worrying about everything and thinking 'I can’t have this or that'. But now I’ve been doing it for a little while I'm more relaxed. I was out having pizza the other day with the family, whereas tonight I’ve got salmon and couscous.

"When it first started with John Moores it was very restrictive and I think a lot of lads struggled with it. But a lot of jockeys have adapted now and it's a much healthier environment."

What does the Kingscote diet look like on the plate? 

Kingscote's solution is to cook batches of healthy dinners for himself so his body can properly refuel at the end of the day, whatever the time he finishes riding and wherever he finds himself. 

He says: "I would always have breakfast, say a slice of bread with two fried eggs – not fried in a load of fat – to try to keep my protein up. 

Richard Kingscote's meals for a week, which the jockey prepares in advance

"I also worked out this morning [Kingscote recently converted his garage to a gym]. Then a protein bar on the way to the races, some grapes, a chicken wrap for lunch and a few wine gums. Tonight I have a protein yoghurt and then salmon, peas and couscous for tea.

"For me, balance has been key. A few months ago I tweeted a picture after I'd prepped my meals for a week. I did it last night so I have the next three days sorted.

"But during the summer it got a bit much trying to prep meals while I was riding here, there and everywhere, as well as staying up north. It’s trying to find that balance between what you realistically can and can’t do."

Tales from the bad old days

Steve Smith Eccles was another jockey who had size on his side when it came to keeping his weight down through most of his career, although the man who partnered See You Then to a hat-trick of Champion Hurdle successes in the mid 1980s rode in an era when nutrition was an alien concept. 

"My idea of deprivation was having three rashers of bacon instead of four!" says Smith Eccles, now a jockey coach in Newmarket. "But I lived with guys who virtually starved themselves on a daily basis. Hywel Davies was a tall lad and I don’t remember one racing day when I didn’t see him in the sauna.

See You Then (nearside) and Steve Smith Eccles lead from Gaye Brief on their way to a second Champion Hurdle triumph in 1986

"I got into a routine where I would have a cup of tea with three sugars and a piece of toast in the morning. I'd drive off to the races and then when I got home I would have an evening meal. I did that for year after year and have stuck to it today."

In the days before summer jump racing kept so many jockeys on the go year round, Smith Eccles suffered far less of a boom-and-bust relationship with his weight than some colleagues. 

"Ian Watkinson had two sets of clothes," he recalls. "He would struggle to do 10st through the season and then in June and July he would balloon up to 12½st or even 13st.

"I was a 7lb claimer and he would drive me to the races. At the beginning of the season it would be red-hot outside and Ian would have a sweat suit on, all the windows wound up and the heating on full blast. I'd be sat there in my underpants."

Hugo Bevan: a little internal heating for the riders on a cold day at Huntingdon

Another big difference from that era was racing's relationship with alcohol. 

Smith Eccles says: "I remember one cold and frosty afternoon at Huntingdon, when racing was only just on. It started snowing and Hugo Bevan, the clerk of the course, came into the weighing room with a bottle of whisky. He put it on my seat and told me, 'Make sure you warm the boys up, Steve'."

Can today's jockeys still live a little?

Kingscote may seem to have got the issue of nutrition and weight sussed. But he still has one weakness . . . as well as plentiful temptation that can play on it.

"I have a sweet tooth and I still have sweets to keep my head happy," he says. "My wife is a pastry chef and sometimes I want a cake.

"I think if you try to deprive yourself too much, in the end you just crave it and give in any way. If I fancy something I'll have it and, as long as I'm for the most part under calories, my weight is in check."

First published November 28, 2017

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So, how much does a jockey really earn?

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Look back on a sizzling year of racing in the new edition of the Racing Post Annual, which has 208 colour pages packed with the best stories and pictures of 2017. Order now at or call 01933 304858


When we give nutrition guidelines for jockeys, we figure out their resting metabolic rate
E.W. Terms
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