When in 1944 National Velvet took 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor to victory in the Grand National, a star was born. As Velvet Brown, Taylor's international career was assured. Yet although the horse, 'The Pie' was trained rigorously for the race by a young Mickey Rooney, Taylor was not subjected to the usual regime for jockeys. Urging the horse to the winning post did not mean she spent hours sweating in the sauna, exercised vigorously from day to day, suffered a restricted food intake, or renounced drinking water whilst swathed in doonas and multiple sweaters through long nights to rid her body of the liquids lurking within.
Not until she was older did the weight gain-weight loss cycle finally take over Elizabeth Taylor's life. Some forty years on, although only 5'4" in height, throughout the 1980s she topped the scales at 180lbs, dropped to 119, then yo-yo-ed back and forth.between the two. Along with movie-making, romance and marriage, years of drinking wine and spirits were interspersed with drying-out at the Betty Ford Clinic. Canapés and lashings of caviar surrendered to double and triple hamburgers-with-cheese, to be replaced by lettuce leaves and grapefruit, as a prelude to southern fried chicken and French fries.
'Though ultimately ruled out as winner because Velvet did not ride in the saddle to the victor's enclosure, The Pie did not suffer the fate of so many horses running the Grand National. Each year, on average, three equine fatalities occur during the three-day calendar. Since 1839, the generally accepted starting date of the famed steeplechase, some sixty-six horses have died during the final race of National Velvet fame. Since 1984, twenty-two horses have met their death on that last day.
The danger to the runners and the efforts of animal rights demonstrators have resulted in the building of a new on-site veterinary surgery at Aintree racecourse. Five 'mobile' vets are on hand to respond immediately to falls and injuries, with more positioned elsewhere on the ground. Horse ambulances and police escorts are ready to transport injured animals to University of Liverpool veterinary facilities when the Aintree surgery is inadequate. At the finishing post, water and oxygen assist labouring horses, while jumps have been modified in response to protests. Still, few horses complete the course, most dropping out through accidents and injury. Of those that do not die at the jumps, many never race again.
Horses are endangered not only when running the Grand National. Animal Aid UK reports on a study 'showing that for every 22 races, at least one horse suffers an injury severe enough to prevent him or her from finishing a race'. Another study estimates that annually '800 Thoroughbreds die from racing-related injuries in North America'. Many are put down through a reluctance on the part of owners to pay veterinary costs, whilst others are raced despite their injuries.
As for the British and Irish racing industries, Animal Aid UK says that every year some 18,000 foals are born, with 'only around 40% going on to become racers'. Of the racers, 'around 400' die annually – 'raced to death'. Being bred for speed rather than strength, 'many sustain limb and other injuries, and are shot'. Further, race horses 'commonly develop serious racing-related illnesses such as bleeding lungs and gastric ulcers'. Whipping – although counterproductive through causing pain and 'making horses fearful and distracted', is employed by jockeys seeking to spur horses on.
Money dictates action. In horseracing, the highest paying races run 2- and 3-year-olds in competition, meaning horses are forced into training and racing before their skeletons mature. Under-developed bone-growth plates means horses frequently suffer injuries and ailments of the lower-limbs, including 'fractures, pulled ligaments, and strained tendons'. Such injuries are 'common in horse racing'. As well, Animal Aid UK investigations have found 'top breeding stallions to be over-worked and kept isolated from other horses for years'. Meanwhile, mares kept for breeding 'are subjected to an endless cycle of pregnancy often involving use of drugs and other artificial interventions'.
As for the 60% of horses left behind as 'not making the grade', their future lies in 'repeatedly changing hands in a downward spiral of neglect' or being sent to the slaughterhouse.
So, what of the jockeys?
The media assails readers, listeners and viewers with stories of 'top models' starving themselves to death or at least to skeletal dimensions, with 'celebrities' aping their mannequin sisters. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge-eating followed by strict dieting are accepted as endemic within the modeling, movie and celebrity industries. Governments establish inquiries and set up panels and committees to investigate the media's role in promoting or at least prompting girls' and women's embrace of the search for the 'size zero' body: no longer is it enough to be a '10'.
So where are the inquiries, committees and concerns about the men who 'must' diet to maintain their jobs and increase their number of rides? Although the racing industry does not influence millions of men to emulate jockey-body-image, the impact of the need to maintain low weight is influential on all who take up riding in races.
The BBC reports on a study finding 82% of ninety-nine jockeys surveyed dieted, taking 'extreme measures' including 'exercising with "sweat suits", fasting, skipping meals or vomiting before a race'. Jockeys aimed at maintaining weights below their natural body-weight, with one, Tony McCoy, known to 'slim down' to 1½ stone below his natural weight, weighing in at 10 stone for some races, albeit measuring 5'10" tall. Defending such practices, McCoy says: 'It's standard procedure really … [T]here are few fitter sportsmen than jockeys. If you were drastically dehydrated you wouldn't be able to perform at your optimum level.'
She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.