Oct. 22, 2006

On the road back from the race track in West Virginia, Sean Deveaux talked about all the food he loves the most and all the meals he will never eat. He gushed about the joys of a thick, juicy steak with potatoes on the side. Mouthfuls of pizza and ribs while playing cards with the guys.

And most of all, milk.

He could drown himself in gallons of the stuff, swallowing down gulp after gulp of the cool liquid.

He called himself a “tyrant” for milk, and grinned as cars zoomed past on the freeway, their headlights illuminating Deveaux’s sunken cheeks, his small but muscular frame.

He could drink milk like a newborn baby if he didn’t have to worry about keeping his 5-foot frame at about 115 pounds during racing season at Thistledown race track in North Randall.

But even one cup of skim milk has 85 calories, and in the jockey business, every calorie counts when weighing a little less might get you a mount on one more horse. And one more horse increases the odds that you will be atop a winner, which means a bigger paycheck and success in a fickle career.

Deveaux tells anyone who asks about his restricted diet that even salad, loaded with innocent, calorie-low lettuce, still is priced by the pound in grocery stores. Liquid carries weight, too. And weight is the enemy.

Which is why when he chomps on a piece of gum when trying to “pull” weight — the jockey term for the daily crash diet needed to make the necessary pound-total to ride — he sucks in the saliva that gathers in the corners of his mouth and launches it to the ground. All of it counts.

But in the car, he savored delicate sips of Pepsi while speeding back to Cleveland. He’d just finished another doubleheader of racing that started with a 4:25 p.m. mount at Thistledown and concluded with a 9:55 p.m. race at Mountaineer Race Track, 109 miles away in Chester, W.Va., where there is gambling and, therefore, bigger purses. His girlfriend, Lesley McBain, slept stretched out in the backseat.

The two came to Thistledown two years ago from Fort Erie, Ontario, when McBain got a job galloping horses in morning workouts. Deveaux has had trouble getting regular mounts at Thistledown, so lately these doubleheaders have become more common as they try to add income. That means just two races in one day — and 218 miles on their PT Cruiser.

It was after 1 a.m. when Deveaux stopped the car to recount his menu for the day. He’d had one small coffee in the morning, and another in the afternoon while McBain piloted the 1½-hour drive to West Virginia. A ginger ale after his evening race. His first and only meal of the day was in a coffee shop at 11:30 p.m., a pale and unappetizing turkey and bacon sandwich — of which he ate about half. And now a soft drink spiked with empty calories.

He never drinks diet soda, and when he drinks his coffee, he orders it with both cream and sugar. He gets so little, he wants to enjoy every last drop.

But even with his stomach grumbling, when someone in the coffee shop asked what Deveaux would do if he wasn’t a jockey, his face twisted in honest thought.

McBain said he should be a lawyer because he has the gift of talking that puts others at ease — and he could persuade anyone to do anything.

Everyone laughed, and conversation turned to horses and to Deveaux’s two teenaged sons, who split time with him and their mother in Ontario.

Later, as he walked to the car, Deveaux paused in the parking lot and answered the question that had been posed earlier: He really didn’t know what he would do if he weren’t a jockey.

A lifelong love

Deveaux isn’t sure how he came to love “the game” so much that he’s willing to ride with constant pain from injuries, willing to live far away from his children when they’re in school in Canada, willing to live on a modest and unpredictable salary, and willing to diet every day of his life.

He grew up in the Canadian Northwest Territories, where winters reached minus-40 degrees and he sometimes saw more animals than people in the desolate wilderness. His parents weren’t horse people. Neither were his two brothers and two sisters.

But he went to visit an uncle in Ontario as a teenager, and the two visited the track. Deveaux saw his first races, and that was it. From that moment, he wanted to be a jockey.

Deveaux equates it to the craving a drug addict must feel. He gets one win, and it’s not enough. He has to try for another. It’s not the money from the victories he craves, but the time atop the horse, the competition with the fellow jockeys, the thrill of coming in first, the way he can sometimes relate to horses better than people and coax a little extra effort out of them when no one else can.

He loves all of it so much, he often says he would ride for free in the darkness of midnight.

Which is not to say he was made for the job. True, he stands just 5 feet tall, but he lacks the long, willowy frame of most jockeys. Instead, he is all thick, compact muscles. Once, after placing an order for his custom-made riding boots, he got a return call. The boot company was sure he had provided incorrect measurements. It had never seen the circumference of a calf measure so large on a professional jockey.

And muscle is harder to lose than fat, so Deveaux regularly has to lose about 5 pounds — mostly water weight — each week. He gains it on the two days off from racing he has each week, when he can relax his strict diet the tiniest bit. Sometimes he relaxes too much on his days off, which makes pulling weight tougher. Once, in a jam, he pulled 8½ pounds in a single day by eating and drinking nothing and spending hours sweating in the Hot Box. Though he monitors his weight vigilantly during racing season, it will climb to a more manageable 125 pounds in the off-season.

Weight requirements vary by race and horse, and Deveaux typically won’t ride anything that demands less than 113 pounds.

He whittles down to that weight by spending time in The Box.

Extreme measures

Everyone has their own way of surviving The Box. Deveaux’s routine includes a bucket of ice water, baby oil and a no-calorie citrus drink.

Every routine is a mix of trial-and-error and time-honored truths passed down from jockeys who have sat in The Box for years. In the early days, jockeys used natural “saunas” to shed weight: burying themselves in piping-hot manure.

At Thistledown, The Box is a compact sauna of dry heat alongside a smaller steam room. Industrious jockeys figured out that if they propped the doors to both rooms open, the steam from the nearly unbearable steam room filtered into the dry-heat sauna. It makes the dry sauna a little more useful, the steam heat a bit more tolerable.

Deveaux hits The Box every day before he races, always needing to shed a few pounds before his official weigh-in. Once inside, he slicks every inch of his body with baby oil so that sweat rolls off in puddles to the floor. A few jockeys at Thistledown suck down flavored frozen ice, certain that the contrast between cold and heat causes more sweat. Some do pushups in the smothering heat until the sweat streams from every pore.

Deveaux hunches over into a riding pose, unconsciously swaying like he’s galloping a horse. His skin is on fire. Every few minutes, he takes long swipes at his arms and legs to slide the sweat to the ground.

When the heat becomes overpowering, Deveaux squeezes a sponge heavy with the ice-cold water from the bucket over his feet. The momentary coolness brings a few seconds of relief.

When it becomes almost more than he can bear, he sticks his face down next to the ice, where the steam rises up. A few seconds breathing near the bucket brings back memories of making childhood snow angels with faces buried in snow. All the while, the rest of his body smolders.

And when he is close to passing out, that is when Deveaux might take a swig of the no-calorie drink, quenching his thirst briefly. He won’t keep the liquid in his stomach. After The Box, Deveaux hits The Heaver.

In the last toilet stall in the locker room is the heavy-duty urinal made specifically to handle vomit. A 3-foot-long carpeted bench sits in front, at a perfect height for kneeling. Deveaux says that many jockeys use purging as a standard practice in their weight-loss routine. Jockeys will deny they do it, but their gold-capped teeth are a sure sign of purging, as stomach acids weaken teeth with consistent vomiting.

Deveaux admits he does, too. When he’s asked to an evening poker game with a few trainers, he pledges he’ll be there. They promise to have pizza and ribs for everyone. Deveaux rolls his eyes.

Sometimes he can’t say no to the food in front of him when everyone is there enjoying it. But he won’t keep it in. Not if he wants to make weight for his race the next day. He’s 43 years old, and that’s how he’s lived every one of his 16 years in racing.

New leaders of the Jockey’s Guild have promised to fight for jockey’s rights, including a raise in weight requirements, and most of all, medical insurance that is impossible to secure without assistance from tracks because of the constant danger of catastrophic injury.

The same body that Deveaux keeps whisper-light sits atop a 1,200-pound horse that travels 40 mph. Horses are injured, jockeys fall, and the combination of the fast-moving beasts and little protection means every jockey carries a long catalog of injuries.

Deveaux rattles off his like a grocery list: torn cartilage in one knee, a severed lip from hitting the ground face-first, broken collarbone, bruised sternum, torn muscles in his neck. And then there is the right foot that he shattered in 11 places in 1989. It got caught in a gate, and he had to sit out for a year. An X-ray of his foot from a few months ago shows one bone still lying side-by-side with the part of bone it should meet. A large lump protrudes from the top of his foot. He shrugs.

Nothing’s certain

After so many years of racing, Deveaux has learned the tricks of “the game.”

He is gregarious and well-mannered in the way he stops to greet a trainer he would like to ride for, or coos into the muzzle of a horse he wants to race. After two years at Thistledown, he still has to fight for regular mounts, making the rounds from barn to barn in the morning to sweet-talk trainers, a job that typically is reserved for agents.

Just as there aren’t enough mounts to go around for regular work at Thistledown, there aren’t enough agents for all the jockeys. But agents take 25 percent of the paycheck, so Deveaux isn’t too concerned he’s on his own, for now.

His only guaranteed paycheck is $45-$50 to ride a horse in a race. And from that, he pays 10 percent, win or lose, to a valet who maintains his equipment. Another cut goes to the Jockey’s Guild for insurance, and then a slice to taxes. If jockeys finish in the top three, only then will they receive a piece of the winnings.

So when Deveaux rode He Rose Again to fourth place at Thistledown one day this summer before bolting to Mountaineer, he had made the same amount as the eighth-place finisher.

In the end, Deveaux pockets about $23 per race in each of his 15-20 mounts per week. His pay can fluctuate wildly, from one particularly bad week where all but one of his mounts was scratched and he earned $23, to a very successful week where he can make $4,000 to $5,000.

For that, Deveaux watches every morsel he ingests, and maintains his weight like a teenager trying to look good in a bikini.

Yet, just as he pulled his car into the parking lot of his Streetsboro apartment complex after 2 a.m., with the prospect of only a few hours of sleep before he headed to back to Thistledown at 6 a.m. to start the whole thing all over, he considered it all.

“I love ‘the game,’ ” he said, grinning. “Absolutely love it.”