SCALE IS THE ENEMY
This is the enemy, said jockey Seth Martinez, pointing to a scale sitting in the center of the jockeys' equipment room.
"Yeah, it's the dreadful part of the day when you step on this," said Meier.
Every track sets weight requirements for each race and the amount horses are allowed to carry usually ranges from 112 to 126 pounds—an absurdly low figure that includes the jockey plus about 7 pounds of gear. Staying just above the minimum weight requirement often involves skipping meals, lots of time in the track's sauna or sometimes making yourself vomit.
A survey of jockeys conducted by the Chicago Rehabilitation Institute in 1995 found that 69 percent missed meals, 67 percent used "hot box" saunas, 30 percent intentionally vomited, and 14 percent used laxatives.
Hours before a recent race at Hawthorne, Meier weighs himself at 114, a pound over his target of 113, even though all he'd had to eat the entire day was half a Red Bull and a granola bar. He then spent the next hour on a treadmill and stationary bike while dressed in four layers of clothing (including a raincoat) so he could sweat off the weight as quickly as possible.
"I don't lift weights because I don't want muscle, because it weighs more than fat," Meier said, looking down at his thin frame. "I don't think I have any body fat percentage."
Meier recalls scary days when he first started his extreme diet where his hands would cramp up and he couldn't move them out of a claw-like grip for a brief time.
Thornton considers himself lucky for his amazing metabolism.
"I've never been one to struggle; those guys that run in the sweatsuits and everything, I don't know how they do it. I don't do any of that," said Thornton. "Diet-wise, I pretty much eat what I want and I drink a lot of Red Bull."
The 5-foot-5 Slinger has trouble staying at her optimal weight of 109 pounds. She still is considered a "bug rider"—an apprentice until she wins five races at Hawthorne—and this status means she qualifies for a slight weight advantage over other jockeys. But since she's naturally about 115 pounds, Slinger regularly has to battle her own body to slim down.
The day before a recent race at Hawthorne, she drove back from St. Louis wearing a plastic sweatsuit with long johns and thermal wear underneath so some of the weight could be burned off on the trip back to Chicago. Once she arrived, Slinger runs on a treadmill and spends time in the sauna. Finally, she'll lay down and take a nap in the jockey's quarters while still in the sweatsuit.
"Some of the others can lose 8 pounds in a day, which I can't do," said Slinger, who admits she's not had anything to eat all day and won't until after her late afternoon races. "It's not fun, but it's part of it, so ... I'm in this for as long as my body holds up."
ONLY 10 PERCENT
It's important for jockeys to stay healthy, because they're considered independent contractors, meaning they have to buy their own health insurance policies. It isn't easy; jockeys tend to be walking medical bills.
"The insurance rates are so insane," said Thornton, who said he's built a large nest egg of money in case he's unable to race. "Sometimes it's hard to find someone who will actually cover you in the first place."
Their freelancer status also means jockeys aren't eligible for injury or sick pay.
"Yeah, they have to come back quick because they don't get paid while hurt," Dorris said. "I give those guys a lot of credit because they come back early sometimes, and ride through it and it doesn't seem to faze them."
Even healthy riders, however, aren't guaranteed a significant salary at the track. A horses' owner gets 60 percent of a "purse," or prize in the race, if it wins first place. The jockey gets only 10 percent of the winnings. The commission drops significantly for second- and third-place finishers.
There's no prize money for those who finish lower than that, but jockeys also earn a small fee of about $80, called a jock mount, from owners or trainers. Twenty-five percent of the jockey's share goes to his or her agent, if he or she has one. Another 5 percent is paid to their "valet"—basically horse racing's version of a golf caddy—who must help groom the horse, prepare the rider's garments and equipment for each race.