Rockhampton based jockey Ash Butler about to head out on the track at Callaghan Park.
Rockhampton based jockey Ash Butler about to head out on the track at Callaghan Park. Chris Ison ROK101117cjockey5

Rocky jockey tells all on secret culture crippling riders

THIS year's Melbourne Cup Day all eyes were on the racing horses galloping down the track, and the exultant jockeys in their blazing colours.

But behind the scenes of the racing world is a far less glamorous story.

What many people may not know are the extreme lengths jockeys go through every day to be able to compete.

Rockhampton jockey, Ashley Butler, knows first hand how much strain the weight limits can have on health.


Rockhampton based jockey Ash Butler about to head out on the track at Callaghan Park.
Rockhampton based jockey Ash Butler about to head out on the track at Callaghan Park. Chris Ison ROK101117cjockey2

His personal struggles with weight have landed him in hospital throughout his career due to dehydration and his career progression has been hindered by his weight problems.

"The routine was put all the jackets on, the wet suits, the hoodies, the whole lot, go for a half hour run so that your body is pumping, you start to sweat, get home, get the bath running, jump in while you're still sort of sweating and then sit in there for up to an hour, hour and a half. If you lose 2, 2 and a half, you're half way. And do that over again," he said.

"If you're really really struggling...get in the sauna , which is the easy option. But I'm not a big fan of them because they're all closed in, you get light-headed, and just don't feel your best."

Mr Butler has been riding for 12 years, and currently limits himself to his lightest weight of 57 kilograms, knowing that weight can make or break an aspiring jockey's career.


Rockhampton based jockey Ash Butler about to head out on the track at Callaghan Park.
Rockhampton based jockey Ash Butler about to head out on the track at Callaghan Park. Chris Ison ROK101117cjockey4

"The biggest thing in racing is if you're a really light person, you know, say you weigh around 52, 53 [kilograms], you have some sort of ability in the racing game; you can make a lot of money," Mr Butler said.

"Whereas the heavier jockeys... there's a lot of heavier weight jockeys nowadays than what there used to be, where we can only limit ourselves to a certain weight and we might only get four or five rides ... if you're really light you can have up to eight or nine rides."

Jockeys undertake a four year apprenticeship, where they are taught everything from riding skills, seeking stable work, talking in front of the camera, self-presentation, to diet.

However, not being from a racing background, Mr Butler was unaware of what went on behind the scenes for many jockeys who struggle - like him - to lose those last few kilos.

He would go to the races, stand at the fence and cheer them on, thinking "how good is this", but when he began to struggle, he approached older jockeys who have been "there and done that" and got a few pointers.

"As a young kid coming up through the ranks; if it's good for them it's good for me."

However, the effects of fasting and then sweating it out on a horse in the heat quickly took their toll on the 27-year-old, and he felt like "rubbish".


Jockey Ashley Butler using CQ Nutrition's body composition scales.
Jockey Ashley Butler using CQ Nutrition's body composition scales. Contributed

"After losing so much weight your stomach shrinks and the last thing you feel like having is a big feed... it's not hunger pains... it's just very thirsty, very dry, you just feel lethargic," he said.

"It is bad, especially when you get into the bath the night before, knowing you still have four or five kilos to lose and then getting out of the bath and getting on the scales [and] only losing half a kilo."

Despite the energy depletion, jockeys will normally race all day without any nutrition or water intake, so as to decrease their weight throughout the day for their final race.

"If you're really struggling and your record is really bad and you've done it a few times, trainers and owners can get really filthy on you," Mr Butler said regarding the damage weighing too much can cause to a jockey's reputation.

"The day before, I don't normally have anything to eat and then normally get in the bathroom and try and lose a few kilos and then the morning of the races I might not eat for about up to two days... just to try and lose weight.

"I've had a couple of incidents where I have had to lose a lot of weight and then ended up dehydrating myself and then I don't have enough energy to ride, where I collapse after the race ... but because we're heavy weight jockeys, this is our living, you got to make a living, and that's how we've got to make money."

Mr Butler was born in Mackay and made the move to the Gold Coast and then to Brisbane after completing his apprenticeship in Rockhampton when he was 15.

As a young man, he found it easy to maintain his weight, but as he grew older and began to build muscle from riding, he began to struggle.

"Being a Brisbane based jockey you can nearly ride every day from Tuesday," said Mr Butler.

He decided to make the move back to Rockhampton after four years because of his weight and his lack of confidence in going up against the more seasoned jockeys who could easily maintain at 54 kilograms.

In Rockhampton, attending three meetings a week has helped prevent Mr Butler from letting himself go over the weekend, an issue that he had with only one or two races a week in Brisbane.

Fed up with the affects fasting had on his split-second reaction times, Mr Butler went to see CQ Nutrition dietician, Chris Hughes, who, had developed a tailor-made jockey nutrition program (Scood) to help them achieve weight goals in a healthy and sustainable way after coming across research by a U.K. Professor, Graeme Close who had worked with improving jockeys' health whilst still making weight.

"I was just fascinated by it, the things these guys put their bodies through based on...that's just what jockeys before them have done. It's really hard to try and crack that culture... for them to roll the dice on something new is quite risky," said Mr Hughes.

Long-term, fasting and extreme dieting can "wreck havoc" on the body, and through dehydration there is an increased risk of delayed decision making whilst racing, skull fractures, osteoporosis, kidney problems and "Vitamin D statuses similar to that of Gambian children suffering malnourishment".


LEFT: Chris Hughes' jockey health program includes metabolic rate tests.
LEFT: Chris Hughes' jockey health program includes metabolic rate tests. Contributed

"Not all of them, but there's a common practise in the industry called 'flipping'...where they gargle something and then force themselves to throw up."

"The thing that we're doing differently is that we measure someone's metabolism. The reason that some diets don't work for that everyone has got a different metabolic rate...we've been doing it for the last eight months and we've had great success."

Mr Butler has been seeing Mr Hughes for over a month now and says that now only has the Scood program changed his whole routine and how he feels, he is now able to eat the night before and morning of a race whilst still maintaining his weight.

On Melbourne Cup day, he took home two first places, a second place and a third place at Callaghan Park

He applauds Mr Hughes for all his help and says that he is now "feeling much better doing it the right way".

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