Heated debate over racecourse saunas has erupted amid calls to reopen them resulting from concerns that jockeys are using “inappropriate and risky” weight loss methods.
Saunas in weighing rooms were shut during the pandemic in 2020, and the closures became permanent in what the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) described as a “significant step forward” for jockey wellbeing. A 3lb Covid allowance was brought in when racing resumed after the first lockdown to support jockeys, and in 2022 this was replaced by a general minimum weight increase of 2lb for most race categories (news, 10 February 2022).
In a Professional Jockeys Association (PJA) survey in 2021, 88% of 190 respondents voted for saunas to remain closed, but this month the PJA has asked the BHA to “reconsider its refusal to reopen saunas”.
“The PJA believes that their permanent closure has created physical and mental wellbeing issues for jockeys that far outweigh any perceived risk of dehydration by sauna use,” said a PJA spokesman.
The PJA claims jockeys are “using a range of inappropriate and more risky methods” to make weight including very hot baths, the use of sweat suits while driving, restricting fluid intake for long periods of time, or flipping [induced vomiting].
“In hindsight, the PJA accepts that it should have insisted on cast-iron guarantees from the BHA and others that the Covid weight allowance would remain before accepting the removal of saunas,” said the spokesman.
The PJA added that sauna closures, “with the absence of effective on-course supports to manage weight, has led to jockeys facing far greater risk to their wellbeing” – and that “new accurate research is needed to investigate the regulated use of saunas in the jockeys’ workplace”.
In a statement, the PJA also questioned the relevance of the research undertaken in 2013 involving eight jockeys at Liverpool University, as the study used treadmills or sweat suits to demonstrate a 3% impact upon simulated riding performance, rather than time spent in a sauna. In addition it claims that the research found no statistically significant change in jockeys’ reaction time.
In response, the BHA argued that in calling for the reinstatement of saunas, “the PJA has not only reversed its public position, but also undermined a huge body of work undertaken in a spirit of genuine goodwill”.
“Every decision concerning saunas and weight allowances has been based on expert medical evidence and following extensive engagement with and full support from the PJA. This includes the decision to close saunas permanently,” said a BHA spokesman.
“In making these decisions, the BHA and others are reliant on representative bodies to accurately and consistently reflect the views of their members. For the past year, the BHA with the PJA and others has been working intensively and at pace – taking an evidence-based approach – to develop short- and long-term proposals to support jockeys in managing their weights. At no point in that process were saunas put forward as a credible proposal.”
The BHA spokesman said that it “is simply false” to present the return of saunas as a “quick and easy fix” for jockeys’ weight.
“Not least because that ignores the obvious significant practical and economic challenges posed by such a demand. But more importantly, it ignores all of the medical advice that was considered by the BHA, and PJA, ahead of the decision to remove saunas,” he said, adding that the BHA remains committed to working with the PJA and others to discuss any “reasonable compromises”.
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