HBO’s “Jockey” is better suited as a piece of journalism than dramatic filmmaking. It’s a surprise, really, that ultimately it has a point — that jockeys face tremendous health risks by being forced to ride at 112 pounds — and a conclusion that most will find uplifting. But the setup is too long, viewers are asked to connect too many dots and the pain faced by its three subjects face doesn’t hit home as hard as it could.
Kate Davis, whose “Southern Comfort” won the grand jury prize at Sundance in 2001, takes a blank canvas approach, opening the doc with printed horse-racing data ($17 billion business, etc.), ominous music and an introduction of the three subjects with only a single common bond — all three hail from Louisiana. Details are slow in coming although its pretty obvious she’s found a rookie, a rehabbing vet unsure if he’ll return to riding and a former jockey-turned-agent.
It’s the third story that is “Jockey’s” most intriguing. Randy Romero was a racing legend whose body was ravaged through the effects of weight reduction — the forced vomiting has ruined his teeth, a light-bulb explosion in a sauna resulted in extensive burns over his body, and his kidneys are failing from decades of pills and injections. Add to that the danger of the sport — with 23 incidents of bone breakage, he has become uninsurable.
Shane Sellers, the vet jockey rehabbing a knee, spends his days with his wife and three children, undecided about whether to get back in the game. He’s comfortable living 20-plus pounds over his riding weight and refuses to drop back down to 112; eventually he becomes a crusader to elevate the bottom weight and to finance the care for his friend Romero.
The rookie, Chris Rosier, serves as an example of how hard it is to break in to the sport of kings and how the cycle of physical abuse, much of it self-induced, will not be broken any time soon. His story is generally superfluous, though, like the tales of Romero and Sellers, it has an uplifting finale.
“Jockey” is not quite the indictment of the horse-racing industry that it could have been. And it isn’t interested in getting the other side of the story — there are no comments from trainers or track owners.
Sellers offers a great perspective — “If this were the NFL, the union would say ‘we’ve got a problem’ and fix it” — that underlines the predicament of the jockeys: They have no voice in their sport. “Jockey” certainly sheds light on how nonglamorous a jockey’s life truly is and it may well elicit feelings of empathy, but it’s unlikely to sow change.