Gary Zimmerman - Medical Consultant, Racing Victoria Limited

Gary Zimmerman
'Jockeys sit two metres in the air on a beast that weighs about 500 kilos, travelling at around 60 kilometres an hour. So these guys don't have a lot of protection.'

Gary is a sports physician who works not only with jockeys but also with elite AFL and Australian Open tennis players. Like several of our November interviewees, he followed in his father's career footsteps   his dad also worked in sports medicine treating jockeys and football players.



What do you do as medical consultant for Racing Victoria Limited?

I oversee the management of Victorian jockeys' injuries to get them fit and well and back to work quickly. My involvement is not as an on-course doctor, so I'm not at the races, but I get notified after they've been injured. I then liaise with the hospital and medical team, help organise transfers and generally streamline their injury management. I'm on call 24 hours a day, so I find out when a jockey gets injured anywhere in Victoria on any given day.

I manage the treatment and look at all the areas that need to be looked at, like exercise, weight management, psychology and rehabilitation. We've got a very good network, a good team approach to looking after them.

Part of my role is also to liaise with the family. I speak to the relatives, wives and girlfriends, just to let them know what's going on and reassure them. It's very traumatic when someone in your family is injured and you don't know what's going on.

What sorts of medical issues do jockeys have?

Jockeys are athletes by occupation, and they're a unique group of athletes in that most of them are lightweight – usually weighing between 50 and 60 kilos – and they sit two metres in the air on a beast that weighs about 500 kilos, travelling at around 60 kilometres an hour. So these guys don't have a lot of protection. If there's an incident and a horse clips heels, or knocks into another horse or goes over, these guys are propelled through the air like a bullet. Then they've got the problems of the other horses behind them, trampling on them and crashing into them. It's a very risky profession and they're a pretty tough group of guys.

Injuries can be simple things like fractures and trauma, but they can also experience major trauma, in which case they're well looked after by the major trauma centres. If the jockey doesn't need a major trauma centre then he or she will usually go to the Epworth Emergency Department.

How do you draw the line between what weight loss practices are acceptable for jockeys' career needs and what is just too unhealthy?

There are supposedly a lot of unhealthy practices that jockeys use to keep their weight down. We understand this is their lifestyle and what goes on in their day-to-day work. Studies have shown that they are chronically dehydrated but able to function cognitively well in their job. Our role is to educate them in proper hydration and dietary advice and make sure that they're well looked after to prevent negative consequences of chronic dehydration and poor diet.

How did you get involved working with jockeys?

My background is in sports medicine and the psychologist for Racing Victoria asked me if I'd be interested in getting involved with treating jockeys. It's interesting because my father was a doctor who looked after a couple of well-known jockeys right through their careers in the 1960s, so as a kid I knew these guys very well. It was a bit like history repeating itself!

Does your workload increase during the Spring Carnival?

No, not really. On the big days the racecourse medical officers are the people who do all the acute stuff. I'm not there at the racetrack, I don't go to the races all the time. But I'm certainly around in the wings, keeping a low profile and making sure everything that should happen, happens.

Who else is in the team?

Des O'Keeffe, CEO of the Victorian Jockeys Association, is a fantastic guy who looks after the jockeys like they are his own children. We have a very good psychologist, welfare officer and person in charge of acute short-term injuries. There are also a couple of people working in risk management. We all have our roles and we have regular meetings where we make sure the jockeys are managed properly.

Do you generally get the jockeys back on the track very quickly?

Last year we had a well-known jockey who sustained an ankle fracture during the Spring Carnival. It was managed surgically during the critical Spring Carnival period. We were able to keep him riding throughout the carnival and no one knew about it. He had a bit of success during the carnival too. There are times when people have serious injuries but no one knows about it.

We treat these guys as sports people, and they can make big money at certain times of the year. So it's important that they keep working if they can. We don't want to put them at risk but I really enjoy the challenge of trying to get them back as soon as possible with minimum risk.

What's your career background?

I did my Medical Degree at Melbourne University and had training at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. As I was always interested in sports medicine I became one of the inaugural fellows at the Australasian College of Sports Physicians. I did my fellowship in the first year so I'm one of the 'old boys'.

My father was a GP and he looked after Essendon FC and jockeys for many years. I suppose I followed in his path as I look after the AFL team, the Western Bulldogs, in Melbourne. I've been there for many years now, and I'm also one of the medical consultants at the Australian Open, where I look after all the elite tennis players when they come over. It's a fun area, because you're looking after highly motivated people who want to get well and better, and it's a challenge doing that.

I've also got a private practice and a sports physician practice where I treat people from all areas of life with muscular and skeletal injuries.

What would you say to someone considering pursuing a career in sports medicine?

It's a great job because you're always learning. There's not a day goes by that I don't learn something new. It's a challenge to grow as a practitioner but it's important to try to improve yourself and improve what you do. It's also a very positive area of medicine   it's a lot of fun. While it can be very stressful, especially in the football situations where you have to make quick decisions and there is pressure to get players back quickly while not taking unnecessary risks, it's very rewarding. You don't get bored, I'll put it that way!

You are a member of Sports Medicine Australia (SMA) – how has this helped you on your career path?

When I first started out it was called the Australian Sports Medicine Federation and, especially in my younger days, I was very actively involved with the group. It opened up a lot of doors for me   such as getting involved in the Olympic movement in my early days. I went to the International Olympic Academy as a representative of the Australian Olympic Federation in the 1980s which was a fantastic experience   I did a lot of work with the Olympic movement.

Can you give us a tip for the Melbourne Cup Carnival?

The funny thing is I don't bet on horses! I'm not a betting person and I wouldn't have a clue who's running! Obviously I'd like an Australian horse to win. There are a couple of jockeys I've looked after this year who've had some pretty serious injuries and one of those jockeys who is back riding now is Luke Nolen. I'd like to see someone like Luke win because he's had a tough time and now he's back into it. I'll probably be looking at who the jockey is rather than the horse.

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