Author: Howard Wright
When Sam Shinsky, head of stewards at the Emirates Racing Authority, addressed delegates at the eighth International Conference for the Health, Safety & Welfare of Jockeys at Meydan a fortnight ago, he highlighted two challenges the governing body of horse racing in the UAE faced with regard to visiting riders. Since this group of professionals makes up the bulk of jockeys taking part in the 26 week UAE season, it was no surprise to learn that access to hospital in the event of an accident and the presence of suitable insurance for racing related injuries were top of the ERA’s list of priorities.
However, it might have come as a surprise to delegates, it certainly was to this observer, to hear Shinsky explain that while two ambulances follow the field for every race, among the personnel present is an insurance officer. “This is so, if there is an accident, he can report on the condition of a rider and make sure he is admitted to hospital,” Shinsky said. “We have had no issue gaining access to hospital ever since we introduced the measure.” On the subject of insurance cover, Shinsky pointed out that visiting jockeys are licensed by the ERA and as part of the process get certain standard cover, which is funded by a deduction of Dh100 from each riding fee of Dh600 and covers accidents on the track and during training.
“The fund can get quite large and every couple of years we reimburse the jockeys,” Shinsky explained, although he also pointed out that the 2017/18 season had been ‘a bad one’ for injuries, with seven jockeys hospitalised, compared with two and three respectively in the previous two seasons. “It’s a situation we’ve been addressing,” he added. On that basis, and even allowing for last season’s hefty increase in injuries serious enough to warrant a hospital visit, the UAE’s safety record is good. However, another joint presentation at the well attended conference, generously sponsored by Al Basti Equiworld, raised a potential comparison in which some elements could well be useful to improve the careers and lifestyles of jockeys in the UAE.
It was made by Dr John O’Reilly and Dr Sinead Sheridan, two sports scientists who, with the support of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, have been conducting research projects with professional jockeys. For example, they sought to compare body composition, bone health and markers for immune function before and after a full racing season, having regard to stories of potentially dangerous and chronic weight making practices among riders, which Dr O’Reilly reported, produced ‘poor bone health, poor hydration status, impaired mood profile and tiredness, and a question about immune function, all things we shouldn’t be seeing in professional athletes’.
Taking a group of 17 jockeys, 14 of whom were available for the full season, the main findings of the research were that at the end of the season, half the riders had a low neutrophil (white blood cell) count, which can adversely affect the immune system; testosterone was significantly reduced but protein was correspondingly higher; and a third of the riders revealed lower lean muscle mass. “All these factors will have negative implications on health,” Dr Sheridan observed, with colleague Dr O’Reilly suggesting that the framing of the Hong Kong racing programme could be at the heart of potential problems. Hong Kong generally races only two days a week, on Wednesday and Sunday, and O’Reilly observed: “The five day break gives jockeys greater opportunity to go down the wrong route.”
Comparisons between Hong Kong and the UAE in terms of the racing environment are not exact. Two racecourses play against five and produce a slightly greater average of 2.6 race meetings per week in the UAE than in Hong Kong. The strong handicap system in Hong Kong, driven by the needs of and support from punters, makes for many more close, frenetic finishes than in the UAE. However, there are certain similarities that affect the lifestyle of jockeys in both jurisdictions, which operate in vibrant cities where life really does go on 24 hours a day. They rely heavily on visiting riders during significant parts of the season; riding work starts very early in the morning but consequently finishes early and allows plenty of downtime during the day, and the climate in both countries can be a shock to the regular system and stamina sapping.
The answer, for Hong Kong at least and according to Dr O’Reilly, is to shift from observational research to a more individualised intervention among jockeys. He added: “Provision of a suitable exercise programme for jockeys to improve bone health and body composition, depending on individual needs, along with nutritional support to enhance body composition, bone health and immune function is required. In addition, regular scans are warranted to monitor bone metabolism and enhance future health outcomes of professional jockeys.” That is the situation in Hong Kong, and being well aware of their Jockey Club’s insistence of doing everything to the highest standard, it would be no surprise if further studies along these lines did not emerge. What of the UAE? Given that the results of similar research studies to that conducted in Hong Kong have produced similar findings about the need to secure the wellbeing of jockeys, there seems little reason to suggest a study would unearth different results among UAE-based riders. But no one will know for certain until such research has been carried out.