Body Blows

Updated: February 7, 2001, 3:50 PM ET
By Bill Christine | Special to

The jury will be out indefinitely on how much Chris Antley's losing battle with weight contributed to the talented jockey's tragic death. In New York at least, long before he came to California, his drug problems predated his weight problems by almost a decade. Few noticed, but another jockey named Chris died young last year. Chris McKenzie, about a month shy of his 30th birthday, hadn't won a Kentucky Derby, as Antley had done twice, and McKenzie's June death, at his home near a small track in Grantville, Pa., wasn't marked by boldfaced headlines and a media glare. Unlike Antley, there was no intrigue surrounding McKenzie's death; he was just a kid too small to play baseball--his first love--and too big to be a jockey, and he died trying to stay light enough to ride horses. "He reduced so hard, he killed himself," said John Giovanni, the former rider who is national manager of the Jockeys' Guild. McKenzie died from an arrhythmic heart that gave out after the potassium levels in his body all but dropped off the charts. "This was so sudden and there were no signs," his cousin, Donna Bellerose, wrote in an emotional letter to the Jockeys' Guild. "He was the only son of my aunt, Rose McKenzie. My aunt is so heart-broken, I couldn't even begin to put it in words. She loved him so much. Christopher's passion was racing. He was a wonderful person, humble, intelligent and caring." Actually, the track physician at Penn National Race Course, aware that McKenzie was badly abusing his body, unsuccessfully tried to have him banned from riding. "Like it or not, [McKenzie's death] reflects only a tiny part of the horse racing industry's long-standing human resources problem," said Curtis Barrett, a Louisville psychologist who is a consultant for the Jockeys' Guild. "Like it or not, organizations that profess national-level leadership in our industry, frequently making news in the industry's publications, have ignored the clear, convincing evidence that the problems exist. Anyone who doubts this need only call me to hear chapter and verse." Jockeys everywhere identify with McKenzie's sad tale. Not many riders are natural lightweights like the legendary Bill Shoemaker, who would have had to gorge himself just to top the 100-pound mark. Not many are like Pat Day, an 11-time Breeders' Cup winner, who can't remember the last time he weighed more than 105 pounds. Closer to the norm is Laffit Pincay, 54, who broke Shoemaker's races-won record in December 1999, his reward for a career of hourly scale-watching and monastic calorie-counting. "When you get too heavy, your whole life is consumed by trying to lose those extra pounds and stay that way," said Wesley Ward, now a trainer at Santa Anita but in 1984 one of the country's most promising jockeys. As a 16-year-old, he won 335 races--only Day, Russell Baze and Chris McCarron won more that year--and his mounts earned $5.2 million. But five years after winning the Eclipse Award for best apprentice, Ward was out of work and in search of another career. He remembers the last race he rode, the 1989 Joe Gottstein Futurity at Longacres in suburban Seattle. "Stripped, I weighed 120 pounds that day, and I knew it was over," he said. "The next day, fully dressed, I weighed 147. But at least I could move on to something else. The days when I was so dehydrated, so miserable, the days when I was probably close to death, were behind me." Ward is now 5 feet 11 and weighs 190 pounds. "To think," he said, "that when I was 16 I weighed 95 pounds and was considered the runt of the class. But then I started growing, and no matter what I did, I couldn't keep my weight down." Jockeys who sprout like Ward have two strikes against them. In 1929, Mel Wright led the country in wins, but he was close to 6 feet tall and was almost automatically overweight. Pete Pedersen, a steward at Santa Anita, remembers Wright starving himself to lose about a dozen pounds so he would be able to ride in a stakes race. "He got to the scale to weigh out for the race and he collapsed," Pedersen said. "Just fainted in front of everybody. They had to get somebody else to ride the horse." Some help for overweight jockeys has belatedly arrived. Through persistent lobbying from the Jockeys' Guild, which represents about 2,000 riders nationally, the scale of weights, long overdue for revisions, is finally creeping upward. The minimum for nearly all races in many jurisdictions is 116 pounds, instead of 114. "Two pounds might not seem like a lot, but it is," said Giovanni of the Jockeys' Guild. "Each generation gets bigger and bigger, so this is more realistic. This is what guys are doing [riding at]. You can look at the overweights at various tracks every day and see that." To keep riding, desperate jockeys will do virtually anything to make weight. Trainers frown on the rider who comes in above the weight his horse has been assigned. In a 1995 study of jockeys by the Chicago Rehabilitation Institute, 69% of the riders said they skipped meals; 34% used diuretics; 67% sweated off pounds in hot-box saunas; 30% "flipped," the jocks' room term for self-induced vomiting; and 14% took laxatives. There is a downside to any of these methods. Cocaine and amphetamines are appetite suppressants that can become addictive. The coroner's report on Antley, which concluded that his death at 34 was accidental, found evidence of four drugs in his body, including methamphetamine and Clobenzorex, a weight-control drug that can't be sold legally in the United States. None of the racing officials and jockeys interviewed for this story had ever heard of Clobenzorex, which is said to be available in Panama and Canada. Clobenzorex has been compared to Redux, the controversial weight-loss drug that was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1996. Known as fen-phen, the drug reportedly led to dozens of fatal heart attacks by its users and was outlawed in September 1997. "You could get quite a high if you took enough of Clobenzorex or fen-phen," one doctor familiar with both drugs said. Some jockeys, such as Wesley Ward and Corey Black, just go as far as they can with their weight struggles and then give up. Black, once a junk-food addict who won more than 1,500 races, rode for 15 years, including a couple of flings in France, where the scale of weights is higher than in the United States, before he quit in December to become the booking agent for jockey Gary Stevens' mounts. Jack Kaenel, who was 16 when he won the Preakness with Aloma's Ruler in 1982, has won more than 2,000 races, but he's quit several times, including the summer of 1999, when his weight soared to 150 pounds. At 5-7, he is tall for a jockey. Along the way, he has fought alcohol abuse. Steve Cauthen, who won the 1978 Triple Crown with Affirmed, emigrated to England, where horses seldom run with fewer than 120 pounds, and later he was treated for alcoholism, which, some experts theorize, can be a companion to anorexia. Jerry Bailey, who celebrated a win in the Preakness with a bottle of Perrier and a cup of Baltimore's famous crab soup, also once had a drinking problem. Hall of famers from another era, Johnny Longden and Eddie Arcaro, labored to keep their weight down. "The riding was easy, it was making weight that was hard," Longden said. Arcaro once said that he frequently took the train from Belmont Park to Manhattan, to visit a favorite Turkish bath that took off more pounds in less time than the facilities at the track. Unlike Arcaro, Longden and Cauthen, Pete Anderson was never enshrined at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., but the retired New York rider surely belongs in another Hall of Fame: In his lengthy riding career, he estimated that he gained and lost an aggregate of 2,000 pounds. "For many jockeys, the hot box is their home away from home," said retired rider Darrell Haire, now the West Coast regional manager for the Jockeys' Guild. "You can get rid of two or three pounds with about an hour in the box. But if you need to reduce five or six pounds, that's very hard. After the first two or three pounds, the next couple of pounds might take another two hours." Haire said that the working title for almost any jockey's autobiography could be, "Just a Little Too Big." Haire's father, who was a jockey, was 5-4 and his mother was 4-10, but their son grew to almost 5-7. Haire rode for 15 years. "I won almost 1,500 races," he said. "But I should have quit eight years before I did. I'd hit the hot box on a daily basis. I'd take water pills, but they can make you weak and destroy your kidneys. Considering all I went through, I'm lucky that I have my health now." In his opinion, the scale of weights needs more overhauling. "I don't think there would be much difference if they made it between 120 and 124 pounds," he said. "Opponents have said that that would lead to more horse breakdowns, but I don't think so. "In the mornings, some exercise riders weigh 145 pounds, and they're using saddles that weigh another eight pounds or so. If the weights were higher, I think you'd see more healthy jockeys competing." Bailey once said that when many jockeys retire in their 40s, they're leaving the game with 70-year-old bodies because of the rigors of reducing. "It makes you respect someone like Laffit Pincay even more," Haire said. "I've been in the box with him and seen what he's gone through. He loves riding so much, and he's so dedicated. He's got it down pat on just exactly what he can eat. He knows what he has to do to stay out there." Pat Valenzuela, in and out of riding because of drug and alcohol abuse, was a 100-pounder when he was 17, winning the Santa Anita Derby with Codex in 1981. Last week, he said he weighed 124 pounds and needs to pare 10 more before another attempt at getting relicensed next month. "Those early years, I was very light," he said. "I'd be eating cheeseburgers in the jocks' room, kind of laughing at Laffit and Eddie Delahoussaye as I watched them suffer. But I didn't have good eating habits, and about five years later, I was right up there with them [in weight]. It's been a struggle ever since."