Kentucky Derby Jockey Health Risks: Arthritis, Eating Disorders, Death

JAMA Study: 1 in 5 Jockey Injuries Involved Head or Neck

Researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, looked at 6,545 injuries and three deaths among 2,500 licensed U.S. jockeys from Jan. 1, 1993, to Dec. 31, 1996. During that period, nearly 1 in 5 injuries involved the jockey's head or neck, followed by injuries to the leg, foot and ankle, back, arm and hand, and shoulder. More than half the injuries occurred while entering, within or leaving the starting gate.

As Haire explained it, horses repeatedly slam riders into the sides of sparsely padded gates and sometimes subject them to severe head and brain injuries. On Feb. 18, 2007, Manuel Caraballo, a 65-year-old jockey from Puerto Rico, was thrown from his mount at the start of a race in St. Croix after a horse a few stalls away reared and struck the door of the starting gate. Caraballo died during surgery.

The Chapel Hill researchers reported that the second most-frequent locale for rider injuries was around the finish line. Their study, published in the March 8, 2000, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that being thrown by the horse accounted for 55.1 percent of back injuries and 49.6 percent of chest injuries.

Tibone, who also is an orthopedics professor at USC and medical director for USC sports, estimated that jockeys suffer five to 10 fractures in a career, most commonly affecting the collarbone, or clavicle, which heal on their own. In a 35-year career that included a 1984 Kentucky Derby win, jockey Laffit Pincay Jr., broke his collarbone more than a dozen times, Tibone noted. Less common fractures of major leg bones, the tibia or femur, require surgical repair with rods or plates and keep riders off their mounts until they've fully recovered.

Some types of repeated injuries can set the stage for arthritis, such as fractured joints, stressed knees, tears of knee cartilage and dislocated shoulders, Tibone said. "It's really individual."

Some health hazards have to do with how jockeys take care of themselves. The enormous pressure to "be strong…and look small," has been linked to high rates of eating disorders, Haire said. In the name of weighing less at post time, jockeys abuse laxatives, diuretics, diet pills and steam rooms (sweat boxes). They smoke cigarettes to curb their appetites, vomit up meals, and try extreme diets.

"I have one rider that has major problems now, Manny Romero. He's known to have abused his body – hitting the box and heaving (vomiting)," Haire said.

Haire, who is 5-foot-6, said he never made himself vomit or spent prolonged periods in a sauna to maintain his 112-pound weight. However, he smoked to suppress his appetite, and took the diuretic Lasix. "When I think about taking one of those, I get a little pain just thinking about how it used to hurt my kidneys," he said. Fortunately, he didn't suffer permanent kidney damage.

Haire has proposed that weight formulas be overhauled to recognize the need for weight minimums that allow jockeys to be healthy.

Asked whether any of his children had followed him into the risky, but potentially rewarding racing world, Haire said: "I kept my kids away from it. My son just graduated from Juilliard. He dances and acts."

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