Meet Dr Gary Zimmerman, the jockey doctor

15 May 2023 Written by Michael Lynch

The job of a jockey is a dangerous one, and injuries are a reality. Dr Gary Zimmerman is medical consultant to the Victorian Jockey Association and Racing Victoria and the first port of call for any jockeys who have injuries or medical questions.

He is perhaps better known as that moustachioed man with the long curly hair who appears on your television screen whenever one of the Western Bulldogs star players goes down with an on-field injury during an AFL game.

But the distinctive-looking Gary Zimmerman is far more than a footy medic.

He is also known to those within the racing fraternity as the ‘Jockey Doctor’, the man who attends to all the Victorian riders’ aches and pains, ailments and concerns and treats them for anything that might prevent them from taking their place in the saddle.

The role has less of a public profile than his job with the Bulldogs, but the sports medicine specialist enjoys his job with the riders every bit as much and sees its variety and different challenges as just another way he can enhance his personal professional development – and help out elite sportsmen while he is doing so.

You could say that Zimmerman was bred for the job, as he explains how he took on the position of chief medical officer for Racing Victoria.

“It started out probably 20 years ago when I was approached by Des O’Keeffe (then head of the Victorian Jockeys Association, now the boss of the Australia-wide group) and our psychologist Lisa Stevens and also David Charles (who was with the apprentices).

“My history with racing goes back a long way. My father, who was a GP and was one of the original sports doctors in Victoria, looked after the Essendon Football Club. He also looked after (former champion jockeys) Roy Higgins and Harry White, and as a youngster I spent many times with Roy and Harry. Dad was very fond of them both.

“That gave me a connection with racing, and I will never forget how fondly he would talk about not only what terrific people they were, but also what great athletes they were, and how they were courageous and what great ambassadors for their sport they were.

“I was brought up around athletes. My father looked after Ron Clarke and Derek Clayton (two world-famous Australian distance runners of the 1960s) so I had a very good insight into what top sportsmen needed from a very early age.

“When they approached me, I thought about my dad. He died at the age of 44, I was only a young whippersnapper of 16 when he died, and I thought, ‘this is an interesting case of history repeating itself’.

“Zimmy (Gary’s father Izzy) was involved with football and racing, and at that stage I was at the Bulldogs as their doctor, so when racing came along I jumped at the chance.”

It was a new role, and Zimmerman and his team were essentially making it up as they went along.

“Initially, it was about overseeing the injury management of the riders if they got hurt. If it was a surgical case, I would try to get involved in the surgery, direct the treatment and look after them from that point of view. I would follow them up afterwards, oversee their injury management and make sure they could get back into action as soon as possible, in good condition both medically and mentally (through Stevens).”

As the jockey ranks have grown and more emphasis is now on health and wellbeing, so Zimmerman’s input has increased.

“I love looking after them. The jockeys as a group are fantastic people. They are very grateful and appreciative of everything we do for them.

“They know I am on call for them, so they ring me whenever they need me and we do our best to make sure they are in the best physical and mental shape.”

These days, jockeys are far more savvy about their bodies and what is needed to maintain fitness. Gone are the days when a jockey’s breakfast was ‘a quick smoke and a good look round’.

“We don’t seem to see a lot of problems relating to wasting and losing weight these days. Racing Victoria does a sensational job in educating and teaching the jockeys about their medical status, their diet and how to look after themselves from a young age.

“Falls are the main reason for the injuries that I get involved with, and they tend to be very different to those suffered by footy players.

“They don’t get injuries from overuse that you tend to see in footballers; these are usually things that occur in pre-seasons, like sore Achilles or sore tendon issues.

“Jockeys tend to get more trauma issues, as falling off a horse is a violent action. They can hurt anything from their neck, their back, their pelvis, leg, arm, shoulder, hand. They will get more fractures than footballers.

“You are sitting on an animal that weighs 500kg travelling at 60km an hour, sitting two metres in the air. You weigh 55 kilos and you are balancing on your toes with only a helmet and safety vest.

“They have to learn to protect themselves in the fall if they can, in that fraction of a second before they crash to the turf. So the injuries they can sustain can be very significant: not just fractures, but also head injury, chest injury or abdominal injury, so there are all those major issues that they might have to face.”

A key part of his job is advising riders on the pitfalls of various medications.

“This is a major issue for them, as we have very strict drug protocols and alcohol protocols. With supplements these days you have to be extremely careful because of the risk of contaminating ingredients,” he said.

Still for all its challenges, it’s something the ‘Jockey Doctor’ relishes ... and his grateful patient-base is glad!

VRC National Jockeys Trust Race Day acknowledges the amazing jockeys who bring every race to life with dedication, bravery and skill. Join us as we raise awareness and funds for the National Jockey Trust which provides a range of important support to ill or injured jockeys and their families. Tickets selling fast, don't miss out!