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Nutritional Section

UD helps keep jockeys race ready

Aug. 30, 2010----Thoroughbred racing requires jockeys to maintain a low body weight, which often causes riders to indulge in unhealthy behaviors such as skipping meals or overeating and purging, especially on the day of a race. These actions can be dangerous for the jockeys, leading to dehydration, loss of concentration, and decrease in mental and physical abilities.

University of Delaware Cooperative Extension is continuing its partnership with Delaware Park to research how jockeys eat, and creating a nutritional program that will enhance the jockeys' performance while supporting a healthy lifestyle.

To educate and protect the riders, Cooperative Extension specialist Sue Snider and her team worked with the jockey health and welfare benefit board at Delaware Park to conduct individual assessments to determine the jockeys' eating habits and create personalized diet recommendations.

Snider and Nancy Cotugna, professor of nutrition at UD, spent six months surveying the jockeys about their diets and the practices they followed to maintain a low weight. The Cooperative Extension team then created an educational program focusing the importance of eating small amounts of nutritious, low-calorie foods throughout the day to sustain energy.

“The healthy eating practices were based on looking at the actual practices of the jockeys, their need to maintain a weight appropriate for racing, and good nutrition practices,” Snider said. “We looked at the literature, especially recommendations from other counties such as Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland.”

Snider said members of the board, along with Robert Colton, president of the Delaware Jockey's Association, and Wesley Jones, a counselor with the Backstretch Employee Assistance Program, were “extremely helpful in assisting us to understand the jockey's needs and the restraints under which they work.”

The Cooperative Extension team delivered an educational program at Delaware Park in June that brought jockeys and their families together to discuss food and nutrition.

Cheryl Bush, a Cooperative Extension agent, said the event was meant to facilitate a conversation within the family.

“It's kind of a taboo subject, jockey weight,” Bush said. “We hoped that by bringing this to the whole family, there would be more discussion between spouses, more pressure on the jockeys to eat better.”

The next step is to look at the food service given to jockeys at Delaware Park and other locations and to make suggestions for more nutritious options. A group of jockeys are assessing what foods they would like to have available in the jockey room for purchase during races.

“This has been a wonderful project,” Snider said. “The jockeys are a great group and have been extremely accepting of us. Their job is extremely demanding and hopefully our suggestions will help their performance and overall well-being.”


Jockeys are required to have strength, cardiovascular fitness and specific handling skills because of the strenuous nature of their profession.  They are required to spend numerous hours honing their skills and preparing horses for racing, with their days typically starting around 4am up to seven days per week.   

Professional jockeys face pressure to maintain a low body weight in order to participate in their sport. Failure to "make weight" for a given race can lead to fines and suspensions, or simply missing races. Minimum riding weights in Australia are 53 kg for jockeys riding in the city or provincial areas and 54 kg for country tracks. Riding weight includes the saddle and associated riding equipment excluding the whip and skull cap. Although riding weights range from the minimum up to approximately 61 kg, many jockeys strive to be the minimum weight as this maximises their opportunity of taking any ride at a given race meeting.

The need to keep weight low week after week has caused some jockeys to turn to extreme measures to control weight including severe dieting, laxatives, appetite suppressants, and the use of saunas, hot baths and diuretics to facilitate fluid loss. It is important to note that appetite suppressants, diuretics and other medications are not allowed to be used by jockeys under the Rules of Racing.  As well, jockeys in NSW are not permitted to use saunas on a racecourse.

Some studies have suggested a greater risk of disordered eating in this group.  Unlike many weight category sports, jockeys must compete at their designated weight and "weigh in" after each race at the set weight. There is no time after the initial weigh-in, prior to racing, in which they can consume additional food or drink.  In many cases they may also have additional rides which follow at a similar or even lower weight meaning that there may be little or no food or drink consumed until racing is completed for the day. Dehydration and energy depletion may compromise concentration and coordination and decrease a jockey's ability to physically and mentally perform at their best.

Training Diet

Most jockeys need to be careful with their diet in order to manage their weight.  Ongoing food restriction may lower metabolic rate so should be avoided where possible.  Jockeys should try to eat three meals per day with foods from each of the food groups; breads and cereals, fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy. 

High fibre, low glycaemic index carbohydrate-rich foods (for example wholegrain bread, high fibre breakfast cereals or fruit) will be more satisfying and help with weight control compared to low fibre options.  For more information on see our fact sheet on the Glycaemic Index.  Foods which contain protein such as meat and dairy products also have this affect on appetite and are also more satisfying.  Foods which are high in fat (for example fried foods, butter or margarine, many take-away foods, chips, biscuits or chocolate) should be eaten only occasionally as the they are high in energy and are likely to contribute to weight gain. More information on weight management can be found in our fact sheet on Body Fat Control and Making Weightor Find a Sports Dietitianin your area for individual advice.

Drinking tea or coffee at meal times may impair the absorption of iron and calcium and so these beverages should be consumed either at least 30 minutes before or 2 hours after meal times.  Calcium rich foods (for example low fat milk or yoghurt) should be included daily.  Eating calcium rich foods builds strong bones, important if accidents occur. For more information on calcium requirements see our fact sheet on Bone Health.  Lean red meat is a good source of iron and should be included approximately three times weekly.  For more information on the role of iron in the diet see our fact sheet on Iron Deficiency in Athletes.

Fluid Needs

Dehydration can cause impaired concentration and co-ordination and at the extremes in temperature seen regularly in some parts of Australia, it can be responsible for collapse and death.  Dehydration decreases the body's ability to control body temperature, increasing the risk of overheating (heat stress). Dehydration also increases heart rate and the perception of effort during riding.  Reaction time is slowed and concentration compromised. The greater the degree of dehydration, the greater the risk of serious problems occurring.

Some jockeys feel psychologically more comfortable if they stay a little dehydrated even when they don't have to make weight as this keeps them closer to their race weight.  This practice can make jockeys feel tired, less motivated to train, and may even pose a daily risk to health and safety.  Dehydration on a daily basis should be discouraged. A sensible diet and exercise program is the best way to keep weight under control. On race days dehydration should be avoided or minimised as much as possible.  If a jockey does feel the need to restrict fluid intake to make race weight, adequate rehydration with both fluid and electrolytes should be a high priority post-race.

What Should I Eat Pre-Event?

Ideally the pre-race meal should be eaten two to three hours prior to racing and should be high in carbohydrate and low in fat.  Foods that are low in fibre and fat may be less likely to cause any gastric discomfort.  It is important to ensure the meal is well planned and uses familiar foods and fluids.

Examples of suitable pre race meals are:

  • Breakfast cereal + low fat milk 
  • Fresh/dried or canned fruit + yoghurt + low fat milkshake / smoothie
  • Muffins/crumpets/toast/scones with jam or honey 
  • Pancakes + syrup
  • Pasta + tomato-based sauce or rice dish
  • Liquid meal supplement (e.g. Sustagen® Sport)

For some jockeys this type of eating plan may not be possible for all races.  A lower fibre diet for three days leading up to a race is a strategy that may be helpful in some situations.  This works by reducing the weight of food in the digestive tract whilst still providing energy.  This style of eating is likely to be less satisfying, making it harder to regulate appetite, and lacking in some nutrients so should not be followed for long periods.  It is also impractical if racing occurs on more than one or two days of the week.  A sports dietitian can help with weight management and pre-race meal plans: visit Find a Sports Dietitian.

What Should I Eat/Drink During Competition?

On race days, foods which provide maximum energy for minimum weight are ideal.  Sports products such as sports bars, gels, or meal replacement drinks are ideal for this purpose as they are a concentrated source of energy and are very light weight.  Most cycle shops or sports stores carry a range of these products.  Experimentation may be necessary to work out a race day plan that is suitable for each individual jockey.  Choosing the right race day plan depends on an individual jockey's lifestyle, habits, appetite and weight - close supervision by a sports dietitian is highly recommended.

What About Recovery?

After racing has finished for the day the first goal should be to ensure rehydration occurs as soon as possible.  Replace fluids and energy initially using a sports drink and some food. Fruit, cereal bars, liquid meal replacements and pre-packaged snacks like canned fruit and dried fruit and nuts are easy, portable and nutritious options.  A 'proper' meal should follow within 2-3 hours of finishing the event and needs to be carbohydrate based with a good source of protein (e.g. bowl of pasta with bolognaise sauce or bowl of rice with stir-fried meat and veggies) to promote muscle refueling and recovery.

Whilst it is good to unwind after racing, drinking too much alcohol or overindulging with take away or fatty foods should be avoided as it can make it harder to make weight the next time.  Alcohol is also a mild diuretic, making it harder to rehydrate adequately.  A treat meal or dessert can be planned but should be kept in reasonable proportions. It is better to have a few smaller treats than to have a large 'binge'.

Other Nutrition Tips

For jockeys who have trouble maintaining their weight at the required levels, professional advice from a sports dietitian is very important.   A sports dietitian can design a personalised program, tailoring nutrition advice to the specific needs of the sport and hectic lifestyle.

Sports Dietitians Australia

By Remi Bellocq, National HBPA CEO

During last December’s University of Arizona Symposium on Racing, a compelling presentation regarding jockey weights was made by The Jockeys’ Guild. Click here to see their Power Point Presentation.

As the Jockeys’ Guild presentation points out, U.S. racing rules have no uniformity regarding weights. Most racing jurisdictions have established differing scales of weight, and many have different rules on weighing procedures.

For example, some rules mandate that riders weigh in without safety equipment (overgirth, helmet) but make weighing the required safety vest optional. Thus, lighter riders weigh with a vest (around 2 lbs.), and heavier riders don’t. This rule needs to be standardized.

As for a national minimum weight, science unequivocally shows us that due to better nutrition and health care, humans are, on average, bigger and heavier than 50 years ago – even those with small frames who would potentially become riders. Yet, by and large here in the U.S., the weights our racing offices assign have changed little in decades.

The time has come for U.S. racing to recognize the need for standardized rules in this area and work with jockeys, tracks, and regulators to pass more uniform weight rules.

Based on this data, The Jockeys’ Guild proposed the following changes to existing RCI Model Rules (, which serve as guidelines for local racing jurisdictions:

ARCI-010-020 Weights
C. Scale of Weights
(1) With the exception of apprentices, no jockey shall be assigned a weight of less than 118 pounds.
(2) Quarter Horses, Appaloosas and Paints minimum scale weights shall be 120 pounds for two-year-olds, 122 pounds for three-year-olds, and 124 pounds for four-year-olds and older.
(3) A notice shall be included in the daily program that all jockeys will carry approximately three (3) pounds more than the published weight to account for safety equipment (vest and helmet) that is not included in required weighing out procedures. Additionally, upon stewards’ approval, jockeys may weigh in with an additional three (3) pounds for inclement weather gear when approved by the stewards.

ARCI-010-035 Running of the Race
C. Jockey Requirements
(7) Weighing Out
(a) A jockey's weight shall include his/her clothing, boots, saddle and its attachments and any other equipment except the bridle, bit, blinkers, goggles, number cloth and safety equipment including helmet, vest, over-girth, reins and breast collar.
(b) Upon Stewards approval, jockeys may be allowed up to three (3) pounds more than published weights to account for inclement weather clothing and equipment.

By and large, the feedback I have received regarding uniformity in weight rules has been supportive. However, several HBPA affiliates have raised concern that 118 pounds is too high for a minimum weight.

Based on The Jockeys’ Guild’s research, it is evident that in many regions, the bottom weight assigned to journeymen riders is already very close to 118 pounds.

Nonetheless, if the ultimate goal is to end up with a consistent set of rules regarding the weighting of horses, I am certain the proposed minimum could be adjusted.

But on the general point of raising the minimum weight assigned to riders, I suggest this would be a benefit to horsemen for one key reason: extending the careers of those good, experienced, hard-working riders by a few years.

Some concerns I’ve been hearing are that raising the minimum weight would:
  • Just allow exercise riders to ride races
  • Result in “heavy” riders who now struggle making weight continuing to do so
  • Cause more breakdowns
I submit that raising the scale of weights by a few pounds won’t change either of the first two concerns. Skilled riders will always rise to the top, and the rule should be aimed squarely at the professional, disciplined rider who is serious about how he/she controls his/her weight.

To the third point, horses carry 140–150 pounds in the morning and, in steeplechasing, may carry 160-170 pounds over 2 ½-miles and over 18 jumps. Granted, they run slower than flat racing horses. To an 800 – 900 pound racehorse, adding another three to four pounds represents 0.5 percent of that horse’s body weight. Hardly a staggering impost.

We’ve lost some of our best homegrown riders to slightly higher minimum weights. Imagine if Steve Cauthen or Cash Asmussen could have ridden their entire careers in the U.S.?

It’s time to work together to pass sensible and uniform weight rules. 


UD Helps develop nutritional program for jockeys

In thoroughbred racing, speed is the name of the game. Jockeys have to meet strict weight requirements to participate in races and not impede the speed of their mounts. For example the weight limit for jockeys riding in the Kentucky Derby is 126 pounds. Some other tracks have limits down to even 107 pounds. 

These stringent weight limits often lead jockeys to participate in unhealthy behaviors. Many of them develop eating disorders such as purging after eating to prevent weight gain. Many of them go without eating all day to pass the weigh-in, which may hinder their riding ability and safety aboard the horse.

In recognition of the potential threats to jockey health and the accompanying potential threats to the race horses, the Delaware Jockey's Health and Welfare Benefit Board and the Delaware Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association asked Sue Snider, University of Delaware Cooperative Extension food and nutrition specialist, to help them develop a nutritional education program for Delaware's jockey colony.

On Saturday, Sept. 12, the Delaware Jockey's Health and Welfare Benefit Board presented a check for $2,000 to the UD Cooperative Extension to fund a nutrition study for Delaware jockeys.

Snider said, “I am excited about the collaboration with the Delaware Jockey's Health and Welfare Benefit Board and the Delaware Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association to provide nutrition education for jockeys at Delaware Park. We are forming an advisory committee made up of current and former jockeys so that we can provide a program that meets their needs. Hopefully, this program will improve jockey's current performance as well as have long-term health benefits for them.” UD Daily 9/14/09

Pictured are, from left, Rodney Soodeen, jockey; Robert Colton, retired jockey; William Hollick, jockey; Wes Jones, Backstretch Employee Assistance Program; Bernard Daney, chairperson, Delaware Racing Commission; Anna Napravnik, jockey; Rosemary Homeister Jr., jockey; Janice Seitz, associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and director of UD Cooperative Extension; Sue Snider, UD Cooperative Extension food and nutrition specialist; Ed Kee, Delaware Secretary of Agriculture; Edward Stegemeier, chairperson, Jockeys’ Health and Welfare Benefit Board; David Cohen, jockey; Gabriel Saez, jockey; Justin Shepherd, jockey; Larry Saumell, Jockeys’ Guild regional manager; John Mooney, executive director of racing, Delaware Park; and Bessie Gruwell, executive director, Delaware Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.


Jockeys are still battling weight issues
By Richard Rosenblatt
The Associated Press
Tues., April 29, 2008

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Imagine downing a juicy cheeseburger, fries and a milkshake — then going to the bathroom a few minutes later, sticking a finger down your throat and vomiting.

No, we’re not talking about teenage girls with bulimia, or models struggling for the high-fashion gaunt look. These are grown men trying to keep their jobs as jockeys, those diminutive athletes in colorful silks sent out to ride 1,200-pound racehorses worth millions of dollars.

The quest to ride in next Saturday’s Kentucky Derby begins long before 3-year-old thoroughbreds take to the track. All across the country, jockeys compete to get the best mounts, the most victories and establish their reputations.

A big part of their success is making weight, staying light enough to ride based on limitations set by racing officials. In an age when sports seem all about bulking up with steroids and human growth hormone, race riding is about slimming down. It’s been this way for more than 100 years, although minimum riding weights have started to rise — to much approval by the jockeys.

“The other professional athletes have to be stronger, bigger, faster,” top rider John Velazquez said before the races one morning at Keeneland Race Course. “We have to be smaller, skinnier and lighter — and stronger at the same time. There’s a lot of discipline involved, and not everyone can do it.”

Jockeys can weigh a luxurious 126 pounds for the Derby, as much weight as many of these horses will haul around a track. When it comes to everyday racing, however, weight assignments can be 110 pounds and lower, quite light in today’s bigger and stronger world even for a man of short stature.

The never-ending weight watch has led jockeys to resort to extraordinary and often dangerous means in an attempt to shed pounds quickly and keep them off.

In addition to vomiting, also known as “flipping” and “heaving,” jockeys spend hours in a hot box sweating off pounds, jogging in rubber suits or popping diet pills. These unhealthy practices can lead to major medical woes such as esophagitis, osteoporosis, heart problems, dental issues, electrolyte disturbances, drug addiction — and even death.

In 2005, Emanuel Jose Sanchez, a 22-year-old jockey, was found lying on the floor of the shower in the jockeys’ room after riding a horse named Bear on Tour at Colonial Downs in New Kent, Va. He went into a coma and died a short time later. The official cause of death was listed as undetermined, but The Washington Post reported at the time that the rider had shown signs of dehydration, basing its report on accounts that Sanchez had been battling weight-loss issues.

Since there are no set rules in racing addressing weight-reduction methods, many jockeys’ rooms are equipped with “heave bowls” for flipping and hot boxes — saunas, steam rooms or whirlpools — for shedding pounds.

Garrett Gomez, the Eclipse Award winner as the nation’s leading rider in 2007, will be aboard Court Vision in the Derby. The 36-year-old Gomez eats when the urge hits. “I flip,” he says. “I like food. I like to eat. I see McDonald’s, and if I crave it I’ll eat it.”

Then he’ll regurgitate.

“You make sacrifices,” says the 5-foot-3, 114-pound Gomez, who dropped more than 30 pounds several years ago to make a comeback after a two-year absence to deal with a cocaine and alcohol problem. “No one said I had to come back and be a jockey. The flipping, the wear and tear on your teeth (from flipping), and your body sitting in a hot box for long periods of time ... you’re always under constant stress to make sure of your weight.”

Velazquez, who will ride Cowboy Cal in the Derby, chooses the strict diet route to maintain his 114-pound riding weight. No flipping or daily sweating for him. He virtually starves himself until dinner. He eats a half-cup of dry cereal in the morning, sips coffee, sucks on an orange or bites into a banana, and drinks water before eating his one normal meal of the day.

“It’s my way of keeping my weight down,” says Velazquez, an 18-year veteran who years ago learned his nutrition lessons at a riding school in his native Puerto Rico. “Is it normal? No, it’s not normal. It’s part of my life. It comes with the territory.”

Shane Sellers, who won more than 4,000 races before retiring in 2004 due to injuries and a constant battle with weight, has criticized racing officials for years for ignoring riders. In his newly released autobiography, “Freedom’s Rein,” he estimates more than half of American jockeys “battle life-threatening eating disorders and push themselves beyond their personal boundaries to lose weight.

“Almost every jockey utilizes the hot box. ... Almost every jockey has heaved or resorted to diet pills at least a couple of times so that they can make weight for a race. Almost every jockey has done things that other professional athletes would never consider doing because that is just part of the sport.”

Jockeys are not the only athletes to deal with weight issues. Wrestlers and boxers also often have to drop weight before competing. But when 20 of the world’s top jockeys climb aboard their horses for the Derby, it’s a safe bet that just about every one of them — at one time or another — resorted to some type of harmful practice in a desperate effort to drop weight.

“I’d say nine of 10,” says Gomez.

There is hope. Racing finally began to address the weight issue three years ago, and tracks in California, Florida, Kentucky, New Jersey and New York have raised minimum weights about 3 or 4 pounds or more to 115 or 116 pounds. It could go higher. Nutrition and healthy weight management programs are being introduced and research is being sought to examine the problem in more detail.

“The industry has to take some responsibility,” says Martin Panza, Hollywood Park’s racing secretary, who helped initiate the weight increase in 2005. “The good news is racing is talking to each other and raising weights will continue. It’s a gradual process.”

Retired Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron recently opened the North American Racing Academy in Lexington — the first jockey school in the United States. A nutrition course is required.

“Every jockey in the country should take advantage of the opportunity these racing secretaries have provided by bumping the scale up a little bit, and use that cushion to kick start a development of discipline,” says McCarron, a two-time Derby winner.

He says educating young, aspiring riders about healthy weight management is the most important step in creating change.

“We need to teach them early on about how to eat properly, how to avoid the pitfalls that many jockeys are subjected to,” he adds. “Lasix, hitting the hot box and bulimia are very prevalent problems.”

Pat Day agrees. The retired Hall of Famer was one of the lucky ones with the perfect jockey frame — 4-11 and 100 pounds. He says riders will try almost anything to make weight, whether it’s set at 125 or 160 pounds. But teaching healthy habits is a start to changing that mind-set.

“Educate these riders on what they need to do, how they need to do it so they make weight and retain their health so when they compete, they don’t have to worry about it,” says Day.

The Jockeys’ Guild estimates there are about 1,300 licensed riders in the United States, with about 1,000 riding on a regular basis. The union has been pushing for racetracks to agree to a standard minimum weight of 118 pounds, with body fat levels no less than 5 percent.

Currently, tracks decide on their own weight ranges, a complicated system based on type of race, a horse’s age, gender and past performances.

“We are making progress, but not as fast as I’d like to,” says Terry Meyocks, who took over as manager of The Jockeys’ Guild last year.

The union also is seeking grants to study the consequences facing jockeys with eating disorders.

“We want to find any way to see how we can do better for the jockeys,” says Velazquez. “Any deterioration of your body is not good, especially when it’s going on for so long. How long can you sustain it is always the question.”

For years, the argument against raising jockey weights involved horse safety. Too much weight could put too much stress on a horse, increasing the chance of injury.

In other countries, minimum weights have been higher for years without a rise in injuries to horses. In Australia, the bottom weight is 117 pounds, in Ireland it’s 116. Also, steeplechase horses carry riders weighing 150-160 pounds over 2½-mile courses with jumps. And there are exercise riders weighing over 150 pounds who climb aboard horses for morning workouts.

“There has to be some leverage for the jockeys and make them comfortable, but you also have to draw the line at a certain point,” says top trainer Todd Pletcher. “The entire industry needs to come together with the jockeys, and decide a fair assignment that is safe for the jockeys and for the horses.”

A best-case scenario would see riders taking more responsibility for their well being and tracks continuing to make adjustments in weight allowances.

“We should definitely care as the health and lives of the human and equine athletes are at stake,” says University of North Carolina professor of eating disorders Cynthia M. Bulik. “The fear is that there will always be someone out there who is willing to do damage to their body for the competitive advantage, and only a culture change can alter that background acceptance of unhealthy behavior.”

“I don’t know if there’s a perfect solution,” says Panza, “but we are moving in the right direction.”



Thoroughbred Jockeys' Leaderboard: Mount Earnings
1.   Javier Castellano $10,184,013
2.   Jose L. Ortiz $9,622,848
3.   Irad Ortiz, Jr. $9,586,989
4.   John Velazquez $7,810,007
5.   Forent Geroux $7,072,403
6.   Mario Gutierrez $5,842,222
7.   Luis Saez $5,679,088
8.   Julien Leparoux $5,633,040
9.   Joel Rosario $5,359,749
10.   Rafael Bejarano $5,181,874
As of 06/13/16
Thoroughbred Jockeys' Leaderboard: Wins
1.   Jose L. Ortiz 171
2.   Javier Castellano 140
3.   Irad Ortiz, Jr. 137
4.   Antonio Gallardo 135
5.   DeShawn Parker 135
6.   C.J. McMahon 119
7.   Russell Baze 118
8.   Albin Jimenez 115
9.   Florent Geroux 115
10.   Juan J. Hernandez 111
As of 06/13/16
Quarter Horse Jockey Standings: Mount Earnings
1.   Agustin Silva $1,508,246
2.   Ivan Carnero $1,142,883
3.   Rodrigo Vallejo $1,103,287
4.   Francisco Ramirez $946,159
5.   Omar Reyes $872,703
6.   Ricky Ramirez $838,130
7.   James A. Flores $807,047
8.   Raul Ramirez, Jr. $722,954
9.   Esgar Ramirez $669,332
10.   Damian Martinez $605,485
As of 06/13/16
Quarter Horse Jockey Standings: Wins
1.   Rodrigo Vallejo 68
2.   Omar Reyes 52
3.   Ivan Carnero 48
4.   Agustin Silva 46
5.   David A. Alvarez* 44
6.   Cesar De Alba 44
7.   Antonio Alberto 37
8.   Ricky Ramirez 35
9.   Tony F. Guymon 35
10.   Jesus Ayala Rios* 35
As of 06/13/16

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