I was obsessed about my weight.
From a very early age, I was worried that I would grow too much, that I would be heavier than I needed to be in order to be a flat jockey.
On the morning of my 15th birthday, on the day that I applied for my apprentice’s licence, I went for a run. I just figured that I needed to get into a way of doing things, into a routine, if I was going to keep my weight down low enough to allow me to ride on the flat.
I could have ridden at 7st 11lb or 7st 12lb at my lightest. That was light, but you had a 10lb claim when you started riding, which reduced as you gained experience and rode more winners. That meant that, in most races, the horses that you were riding were allowed to carry 10lb less than their allotted weight. That was in order to compensate for the jockey’s relative lack of experience, and in order to give owners and trainers an incentive to give opportunities to young inexperienced riders.
But it meant that I couldn’t claim the full 10lb off any horse that was set to carry anything less than 8st 7lb or 8st 8lb.
I struggled with my weight. All my career, I struggled with my weight. Nearly every jockey did. Nearly every jockey in the weigh room was riding at weights that were well below their natural body weight.
Hungry and cranky
I never made a big deal about it, I never really talked about it that much, it was just something that I wanted to do on my own without making a big fuss about it. But it was a big thing for me. Your whole life is governed by what you can eat and when you can eat it. You are continually hungry and you are often cranky because of it.
I suppose, when you have to be about a stone and a half lighter than your natural body weight, it’s going to have an impact on you mentally.
Strangely, my biggest concern when I was starting to ride was about my weight. It was head and shoulders above everything else. I never really worried about injury, even though I knew that it was a part of it, and I never really worried that much about getting the opportunities, and I never really worried about not being good enough.
I suppose I just figured that opportunities would come if I worked hard. But I always worried about my weight. It didn’t help that people would say it to me often. ‘You need to keep your weight down.’ ‘You’ll probably get too heavy.’ I was determined that I wouldn’t.
But the most difficult time for me with my weight was not when I started riding, but more when I was in my early 20s, just at the time that I was starting to ride for Dermot Weld. You’re transforming from a boy to a man at that stage in your life, and you start to develop physically.
I found myself broadening across my shoulders, I could see physical changes in myself, and I tried to halt or stall those changes. That’s when you are really battling against nature. I became obsessed with it all, in a very unhealthy way. I was watching everything I ate and everything I drank – I was constantly thinking about food and drink.
It became an obsession, and it became a huge battle, a daily battle, not just for me, but for most jockeys.
People generally didn’t appreciate what jockeys had to go through in order to be able to ride at their racing weights. Even trainers probably didn’t fully appreciate it. It was mental torture. You’d be thinking about food all the time. You’d be hungry, but you knew that you couldn’t eat. Or drink. That was the killer, when you couldn’t drink. The dehydration.
When you were that light, anything you drank, tea, milk, soft drinks, even water, you put on weight. Your body was like a sponge when it was that light, it craved nutrition, any nutrition. You’d wring your body out in the morning in the sauna, bone dry, then any fluids it could get, it would soak them up and retain everything.
It took an awful lot of hard work, and it wasn’t really until I met Frances that I started to get it under control. Not a lot of people would have known that I struggled with my weight. You knew the jockeys who struggled with their weight in general, their weight issues were well known. Mine weren’t. People probably thought that I was fine with my weight, that it was easy for me to keep it under control, but it wasn’t. I struggled badly. I just chose to keep it to myself.
It was always on my mind, though. First thing in the morning, every morning during my riding career, I would think about my weight. I would get out of bed and stand on the scales. Then I’d think, can I have a bit of breakfast, or can I have something to eat today? If you have 4lb or 5lb to take off before racing, that rules that out.
I probably went about it the wrong way in the early part of my career, before I became more educated on food and learned a little about nutrition and diets. Running and sauna, that was how I used to do it. Sweat it out of you. When I came on the scene 25 years ago, that was how it was done. You learned from the lads who were ahead of you, and that’s how they did it.
I would usually go without breakfast, maybe have something small in the middle of the day, and then try to eat something healthy in the evening.
I went through a phase of eating chocolate. I’d stop at a garage on the way to the races and get some chocolate. I felt that it gave me energy, it gave me a sugar-rush. As time went on, I tried to develop a better diet and better eating habits, but it wasn’t easy.
I couldn’t ride with food in my stomach. I just couldn’t do it. I would feel unwell. I always liked to be a little bit hungry when I was riding. I always thought that I performed better if I was a little bit hungry.
I incorporated running and sweating into my routine. I built a little gym at home, and I built a sauna. I used to sweat every day, pretty much every day, all my life. Even if I didn’t have to ride light on the day, I’d still have a sweat in the morning. It just became part of my routine.
My weight dominated everything. Even when we were away on holidays, I wouldn’t be able to relax. Not fully. The first two or three days, I’d let my hair down a bit all right, have a bit of craic, have good food, have a drink, but after the first couple of days, I’d start thinking about my weight again.
Even though we wouldn’t be nearly at the end of the holiday, I’d be thinking, the heavier I get, the more difficult it’s going to be to get the weight off. I would be able to feel my body getting heavier, and I didn’t like it.
So I’d even spend most of my holidays watching my weight – I’d go to the gym every day, too, for the last few days. I just didn’t have the mental strength to take off lots of weight. Other lads could do it no bother, you’d see them do it, take off 7lb or 8lb or 10lb when they’d get back from holidays. I just wouldn’t have been able to do that, so the best thing for me was not to put it on in the first place.
I did get advice. I’d go through phases. I remember going to see a dietician in the Blackrock Clinic, and he put me on this programme that allowed me to eat three meals a day. I followed it initially, for a week, but I found myself putting on weight after a few days. I started to panic, so I reverted to my own way. Maybe I never really gave it a chance but, at the end of the day, you know your own body, you know what works for you.
You end up finding your own way of doing things. And you’d treat yourself every now and again. Everybody did it. You’d be on a night out and you’d have a nice meal, maybe a couple of drinks. Things that most people do as a matter of course, go out and have a nice meal. You’d be craving a good meal.
It’s a strange mindset. We might go out on a Saturday night or a Sunday night, depending on racing, and you’d know that you had to get back to your racing weight on Monday, but you’d treat yourself anyway. Then you’re up on Monday morning and it’s torture, getting the weight back off. Back to square one.
I was always 8st 9lb. That was always my racing weight. Fifty five kilogrammes. I have ridden out at 60kg, but when I was going racing, I would be 55kg. Even if I was riding at 10 stone, I still went racing at 8st 9lb. I just figured that, in order to do things right, I needed to have some consistency in my weight, and my racing weight was 8st 9lb.
When I started my chemotherapy, the doctors and the nurses were all on to me about the importance of keeping weight on. We had a laugh about it. I told them that there would be no problem keeping weight on.
I gave up alcohol at the end of 2017, when I started to feel my back pain. I just figured that I wanted to give myself every chance of having as long a career in the saddle as I could have, and that giving up alcohol would be no harm.
And I didn’t really miss it at all. I never would have been a big drinker anyway, but I just wanted to give my body every opportunity. I didn’t get heavy when I stopped riding, I didn’t get fat, but I still put on a stone and a half after I stopped.
The weights that horses carry went up a couple of pounds between the time that I started riding and the time that I stopped, but I always thought that they should have gone up by more. When I was riding, I was very much of the mentality that, if you couldn’t ride at nine stone, you shouldn’t be riding. Just get on with it.
But I changed my mind on that later. It was an issue of health, in my eyes. Jockeys’ health. People were getting progressively bigger. I felt that I was one of the bigger lads in the weigh room at the start of my career, but by the time I retired, I was one of the smaller jockeys.
Dr Adrian McGoldrick did a lot of research on the raising of riders’ weights, and it was great stuff. Lots of horsemen, as they were known in America, would have been opposed to it; they argued that the risk of injury to horses is greater if the riders are heavier, but that was not scientifically proven. All that was proven was that race times would be slower, which makes sense. Horses carry bigger weights, that’s going to slow them down.
But it would be easy to cope with that if it meant that jockeys’ health and wellbeing was going to be enhanced. Horses have been exercised for years on a daily basis by riders who are much heavier than jockeys. And it was always more about being a good rider than being light.
If you were able to distribute your weight evenly across a horse, not to be jumping up and down on them, that would always counteract any risk of injury to horses.
As well as the wellbeing issue, there was also the fact that, if you ran this forward to its nth degree, racing would run out of riders. We know that humans have been getting heavier for years, and soon there wouldn’t be many people who would be able to ride at the lower weights.
Champion by Pat Smullen with Donn McClean is published by Gill Books and is out now, price €22.99.
The Irish Field has made a donation to Cancer Trials Ireland on behalf of Gill Books who gave permission for this extract to be published.