LOS ANGELES — They’re the little people who hop on the backs of 1,100-pound thoroughbred horses for a 40-mph ride around a racetrack up to 10 times a day.
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What jockeys go through to prepare for those rides is something the public rarely sees. Many abuse their bodies trying to reach riding weights that range from 110 to 117 pounds.
The effects of the self-induced vomiting, lengthy sauna sessions and use of diuretics, laxatives and stimulants is shown in “Jockey,” a 90-minute documentary debuting on HBO’s “America Undercover” series at 8 p.m. ET Monday.
“I had a hunch there was a dark side of racing that hadn’t been exposed,” director Kate Davis said about her reason for making the film.
The film follows the careers of jockeys Shane Sellers, Randy Romero and 23-year-old Chris Rosier, three Louisiana natives and friends who succumbed to the same damaging weight-loss habits.
Sellers will ride The Cliff’s Edge in the Kentucky Derby on May 1; Romero, 46, is retired and awaiting kidney and liver transplants after years of bulimia; and Rosier is planning a comeback after being injured in a racing accident.
Sellers said he was speaking out in the hope racetracks nationwide will raise the minimum weights for jockeys, which vary from track to track.
“You’re asking grown men to maintain that kind of weight and it’s dangerously low,” he said. “The majority of us have 2 percent to 3 percent body fat. Any doctor will tell you that under 5 percent body weight, you’re doing permanent damage to your organs.”
Filmed mostly in Kentucky in 2002, the documentary takes viewers into the private world of jockey rooms, where riders take desperate measure to reduce weight in time to ride.
No one is shown vomiting, but Sellers provides a look at the “heaving bowl” next to the toilet stalls at Churchill Downs.
“It sounds gross and it is gross, but it’s reality,” Sellers says in the film.
He points out the room’s 105-degree whirlpool and sauna, saying, “This is what I call a jail.”
Sellers says other riders taught him how to vomit, which he did routinely for 15 years. He has capped teeth because stomach acid ate the enamel off his own. Romero’s teeth are false for the same reason.
Still photos show the extensive burns Romero suffered when he caught fire after a light bulb exploded in a sauna while he was smeared with alcohol and oil for maximum weight loss.
In the film, the seemingly skinny Rosier is told profanely to get into the sauna and lose weight before his next race.
“Eating is the hardest thing in the world to quit,” he says in the documentary.
Since filming ended, Rosier learned he’s diabetic, a condition his doctor said was likely caused by the stress of constant weight reduction.
Accident footage is shocking
“When you have to get down to 114, 115 pounds every day, that’s when it really starts putting a stress on you,” Rosier in an AP interview. “You’re so wore out and tired. You tend to have mood swings.”
The film also shows Romero’s horrific accident in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, when his mount, Go For Wand, broke her front leg. Romero was thrown headfirst to the ground and the horse later was destroyed. The jockey got up and rode again that day.
Rosier is seen in a similar accident that caused a concussion.
“Some of the footage that appears in the documentary might make the casual viewer at home wince,” said Keith Chamblin, senior vice president of marketing for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.
HBO’s decision to air the film in the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby isn’t ideal for the NTRA, the sport’s New York-based marketing arm. The group doesn’t set jockey weight limits; officials at individual tracks determine them.
Chamblin took issue with the various replays of Romero’s accident.
“We would have preferred that footage not be utilized, but nonetheless, the events did occur,” he said. “There’s no forsaking the fact that jockeys put their life on the line as many as 10 times a day when they climb on those horses.”
Most jockeys don’t like to talk about their weight-loss methods or dwell on the dangers of race riding.
Davis, the director, has shown the film at a handful of festivals.
“The general audience response has been one of real shock and outrage that these guys are at a starvation level from day-to-day,” she said. “On the other hand, audiences are feeling they’re seeing an enormous amount of courage, too.”
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