The Dark Truth
About The Sport of Kings
By Tim Heming
19 October 2017
The Telegraph Online
It is not merely the dust kicked from the clattering hooves into the dry heat of the night’s sky that makes the eyes water. Even in the hedonistic playground of the United Arab Emirates, a first place prize of $10million for the Dubai World Cup is a staggering return; this richest night in horseracing has a combined purse totalling $27.25million.
This weekend, at Ascot, Champions Day – the finale of the flat racing season – will see a record breaking £4.3million on offer.
It is no challenge to underline that this is a sport awash with money. Yet while the jockeys who provide such year-round global entertainment have the whip hand in pursuing these glittering rewards, it is only in a literal sense. Away from the adrenaline of racing, there's an alarming history of mental and physical suffering among riders.
Six-time champion jockey Kieren Fallon retired last year citing depression. The career of the late Walter Swinburn - who rode Shergar to Derby success - was ravaged by alcohol and bulimia. Tragically, he died in December last year – the same month that US jockey Garrett Gomez took an overdose in a casino hotel room in Arizona. Gomez was 44-years old and left four children.
It runs on. In his candid autobiography, A Weight Off My Mind, flat race jockey Richard Hughes writes of popping “piss pills” – dangerous and banned diuretics taken in a desperate attempt to make weight that would “suck out every last drop of energy from your body”. Jockeys Graham Lee and Mark Enright have bravely admitted their own fight with depression, the latter reflecting: “The bad days were like having a big concrete block tied around your leg. It was impossible to get the motivation to do anything and I spent 10 days in a mental hospital.”
These high profile cases of mental trauma only skim the surface. A recent Oxford University study of 187 riders claimed jockeys have twice the body fat of boxers and underscored how the physical wellbeing – of the humans, at least - is not top of racing’s agenda.
“Some jockeys can 'flip' on a piece of chewing gum,” an ex-rider explained to this writer, referencing the self-induced vomiting many turn to in a desperate attempt to make weight. “But you won’t find a jockey riding today who will admit to flipping. It is the last taboo of the racing world.”
And it is not just the riders. What of their fellow workers, the stable lads and box drivers, whose dreams of careers in a saddle have dwindled to riding out and sweeping up? “There are not many toilet cisterns in Newmarket that have failed to resemble the sleek slopes of Mont Blanc on a Saturday evening. Charlie is not merely the name of the stable cat,” wrote Chris Humbleby, a racing secretary to local trainer Roger Varian, in a damning portrait of the pervasive drugs culture of the Suffolk market town that is the home of flat racing in the UK. Societal issues, of course, but endemic and magnified in a high pressure, unforgiving industry, and certainly not the image of champagne and silks racing likes to project.
Unbolt the stable door on this picture of malnourishment and low bone density, addictions to alcohol and narcotics and tacit approval of extreme weight loss measures [denied by industry bodies, which havelaunched a campaign to warn jockeys about them], and you witness the underbelly of a sport with deep-rooted psychological issues. It is a tragedy, yes, but one compounded because racing has the means to address such inconvenient truth.
“On my introduction to the jockey world I was astounded,” racecourse doctor Phil Pritchard, says. “I walked into the changing room and the jockeys had no help whatsoever. I came from rugby, an industry of healthy, fit individuals, but nutrition and exercise was non-existent in racing. That was in 1985 and it hasn’t improved. No other sport leads a sportsman to depression more than racing.”
“You constantly battle your weight and the destiny of the race is out of your hands," says George Wilson, a sports physiologist from Liverpool John Moores University. "There are top jockeys today who are still making weight the wrong way, starving and sweating and making themselves sick. It’s witnessed every single day in the weighing room. All the welfare is on the horse and very little with the jockeys or the staff.”
It was only through Wilson’s sheer bloody-mindedness and the help of a few charitable donors that his research was funded. The official bodies apparently had no will to address the problems, until those problems became just too stark to ignore, such as in 2006.
That was the year when three stable staff at Newmarket took their own lives in quick succession. In the four years that followed, five more grooms in the town killed themselves, demanding the sport wake to its demons.
Joe Carter, an addiction and recovery advisor, was brought in by the charity Racing Welfare to address the situation. To do so, he set about learning what gave those in the industry purpose. Carter discovered that it was not money, nor the pursuit of glory that motivates these men to lead such extreme lives [as Pritchard points out, "a jockey can never win a race: the horse does that. But the jockey can sure as hell lose it.”] What drives and unites these people is very simple: their love of horses.
Equine therapy is not new. It has been used with disabled and mentally handicapped children for years, often with impressive results. But Carter took things further, tailoring the therapy to racing's needs. In 2014, he secured funding for Thoroughpeutics, a bespoke equine therapy project, and Chester University agreed to independently review the results after six months. The researchers found that Thoroughpeutics was integral to saving lives. “Suicide had become the only answer I had, the only solution,” says Jamie*, a 40-year-old who had worked in racing for 29 years. “Thoroughpeutics was the turning point.”
Carter did not come from racing stock; his background was in transport design, though he'd turned his attention to addiction when tackling his own issues with the illness. Over time, he channelled his empathic personality into becoming an integrative counsellor who specialises in substance abuse – but he still needed a foil for Thoroughpeutics to access the hurting heart of racing. That foil came in the form of Michael Peace, one of the country’s premier horsemen, renowned for taming difficult horses.
“Thoroughpeutics was developed for anyone in racing,” Peace says. “Assistant trainers, farriers, head lads, across the board. It was a mix.” The programme, in a nutshell, was to welcome individuals suffering mental challenges in the racing industry and introduce them to retired racehorses in a controlled environment. Peace and Carter would then guide the development of a fledgling relationship and, in turn, help those struggling to see that destructive actions have a root cause; but critically one that can also be addressed.
“Joe will not judge a person with addiction,” Peace says, explaining the ethos. “He has complete empathy as to their history. When I work with a horse that looks a nightmare, I see that tiny glimmer of softness below the surface that I can appeal to and expand upon. Joe does that with humans, so there are lots of parallels between what we do.”
Each session at Thoroughpeutics lasted an hour and began with the individual picking a horse from the stable yard to work with. “We’d walk around the school and I’d first ask where the balance of power lay between the horse and handler,” Peace explains. “Asking them to verbalise it led me to explain that any relationship has to be balanced. Horses are herd animals and understand the idea of cooperation. If somebody is pushing down on them, they’ll kick back, and if someone is feeling a bit low, they’ll pick them up.
“If I’m schooling a young horse, it’s perfectly reasonable to direct what that horse does, but it’s also my responsibility to only ask the horse to do what he’s capable of so he doesn’t become frightened. It might be the horse doesn’t understand the balance either. It may have spent its whole life on the end of harsh reprimands and think: ‘That’s just life. Next opportunity, I just need to knock this person over.’ Some might choose a timid horse and some a bold horse. The question is why. Then we have a conversation starter.”
The funding came through the Racing Foundation, which has tens of millions of pounds held in trust for charitable causes that benefit racing. It made an immediate, positive impact; the independent review led by Dr Stuart McNab at Chester University concluded: “The results from this evaluation provide strong evidence to support the programme’s efficacy and its benefit to people working within the racing industry. It is recommended that the programme builds upon, develops and extends the approach with regard to the specific areas of mental health for which Racing Welfare provides support.”
The most compelling evidence, though, came from those that took part. “It was the chance to really stop and listen. To horses. To myself,” says Rob*, a 50-year-old who has been in the sport for 36 years. “Thoroughpeutics has re-sparked my passion and ability to work and has been part of celebrating a year of total abstinence from all substances.”
And then it was over. In autumn 2015, the programme was curtailed and Carter was made redundant. “To pull the plug on it altogether was a shock, it was going phenomenally well,” Peace says. “With his experience of helping those with addiction, people in the town absolutely loved Joe and when the report came back from Chester University, I thought it was obvious to continue.
“Yet from a PR point of view racing is in a bit of a crisis. It’s not attracting young people like it used to and they don’t want negative press. We were being a bit too open about what is going on – and I don’t think they are ready to hear it. The Sport of Kings didn’t want its dirty little secret revealed.”
Racing Welfare says the service could not have continued at the racing school in Newmarket, but it has taken lessons to develop other support services. “It wasn’t totally disbanded,” Simone Sear, the charity’s head of welfare, says. “The pilot gave us evidence that equine-assisted therapy would be beneficial for racing people and we identified a couple more potential pilots, one of which was Horseback UK in Aberdeen, who have worked with the military and injured servicemen.” Three years on from Thoroughpeutics being closed, the first group of individuals have now been sent from Racing Welfare to Horseback UK.
“We have just commissioned a mental health study with Liverpool John Moores University that will take place over the next year,” Sear continues. “It will help supply the industry with evidence and data because quite frankly we don’t have it and I think a lot of assumptions get made. People have taken their lives, but people have taken their lives from all industries and it’s very sad when that happens.”
Racing Welfare provides face-to-face counselling, telephone counselling, and an online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy programme. As well as its headquarters in Newmarket, it employs regional staff and works closely with Oaksey House in Berkshire and Jack Berry House in Yorkshire, two rehabilitation centres funded by the Injured Jockeys Foundation. It will be the same arrangement when the Peter O’Sullevan House opens in Newmarket in 2018.
Robin Mounsey, of the British Horseracing Authority, says the sport is aware of the unique challenges faced by jockeys and staff in the industry and is addressing them.
“Racing is open and transparent about this, and to suggest that this is not a top priority for the sport, or that no advancements have been made in recent years, is utterly unfounded," he says.
“The BHA places the welfare of its human and equine participants as its number one priority. For example, the BHA has recently published the initial findings of two major studies into jockey wellbeing, alongside Oxford and Liverpool John Moore’s University. Those studies are detailed scientific projects looking at the physical impact of the jockey lifetstyle, and how better nutrition and welfare practices can help riders deal with the challenges of being an elite athlete in a weight-making sport.
“Tests, fitness assessments and bespoke weight control programmes which enable weight-loss whilst maintaining health and performance levels are all available free of charge. There is no doubt that bad weight-making practices still take place, but we are tackling this head on.
“Participants' mental health is also a top priority. The BHA, alongside Racing Welfare and the Professional Jockey Association are signatories to the Mental Health Charter for sport and recently appointed the mental health charity Mind as an advisory body to assist the sport achieving its commitments to the Charter."
If it sounds as if the sport is taking its issues seriously at last, the daily pressures to make weight at all costs is culturally ingrained.
Pritchard believes around half of jockeys have ‘flipped’ during their careers, an act that can result in dizziness from the low blood pressure that's brought on by dehydration, increasing the risk of a potentially serious fall. The low bone density that is linked to poor nutrition can then increase the chances of fractures.
“Thirty years ago, at least you had a trainer as a mentor,” Pritchard says. “Nowadays it’s out of the window. Instead, ‘coaches’ tend to be jockeys who have done the wrongs things in the past and are not best placed to advise a young kid. It’s difficult to find well-educated, proper professional athletes in the jockey world. When a champion jockey lives on crisps and mayonnaise and high energy drinks, and bingeing and flipping is handed down, the apprentices will follow.”
“A lot of young lads copy what others do at the races,” jockey George Baker agrees. “A few years ago at York races a young lad was in the toilet trying to make himself sick. He hadn’t eaten anything, so I asked: ‘What are you trying to bring up?’ He’d seen others doing it at the races and was trying to copy, thinking it was an easy fix.”
A proposal to ban saunas at racecourses – known to dehydrate performers to the point of fainting during a race – was rejected by riders fearful of not being able to shed the necessary pounds. The British Horseracing Authority’s chief medical advisor Dr Jerry Hill admits it could take a generation to have them removed. “Racing is full of smoke and mirrors and excuses,” says George Wilson from Liverpool John Moores. “People are doing the same thing to make weight, with the same excuses as they were 200 years ago. The riding weights haven’t changed that much, but jockeys are a lot bigger.
"The whole of racing needs to look after the athletes. The people who run the industry need to have concerns for their welfare and wellbeing. It doesn’t need evolution, but revolution.”
*Names have been changed