Caustic feedback, serious injuries and the quiet mental health suffering of horse racing jockeys
BALTIMORE (AP) — Eurico Rosa da Silva was in a dark place.
On the track, the jockey in his early 30s was winning races and making money. At home, he was fighting suicidal thoughts every day.
“I got to the point where I have no more choice but to go for help,” he recalled recently. “I went because if I have no choice, I would kill myself.”
Da Silva got help in 2006 and rode for more than a decade before retiring. He's one of the lucky ones.
Earlier this year, horse racing was stunned by the suicides less than six weeks apart of two young jockeys, 23-year-old Avery Whisman and 29-year-old Alex Canchari. A friend of Whisman's, Triple Crown-winning rider Mike Smith, said he has seen similar tragedies over three decades.
“I know several riders that I knew very well committed suicide when it was all said and done,” Smith said. “This is not all of a sudden just happening. It’s been going on. You just never heard of it.”
The dangers of riding thoroughbreds at high speed add up to an average of two jockeys dying from racing each year and 60 being paralyzed, according to one industry veteran, citing data dating to 1940. Combine that with criticism from owners, trainers and bettors and the need to maintain the low weight necessary to establish a career, and jockeys have been quietly suffering for as long as they have been riding horses.
While jockeys interviewed for this story worry that racing has lagged behind other sports in accepting the importance of their mental health on the job, there is hope that renewed conversation about it prompts real change.
“This needs to be addressed,” jockey Trevor McCarthy said. “We take a lot of beatings mentally and physically. With the mental and physical state, when you mix both of them together, it can be a recipe for disaster. Look, there’s proof of it, right? We lost two guys.”
McCarthy last year, like da Silva before him, sought help before it was too late. His father was a jockey, as is his father-in-law and his wife, Katie Davis McCarthy. They are all used to the ups and downs of the job, from the broken pelvis and collarbone from his spill during a race in November to the uncertain hold on a ride.
A particularly rough summer, including flying up and down the East Coast to ride, took a toll on McCarthy, who at 118 pounds could feel his diet and lack of calories affect his work. He wanted to quit.
“I was going absolutely nuts, and my body couldn’t handle it,” McCarthy said. “You’re constantly going through mind games. And I think a lot of guys get caught up in that with the weight and the mind game of not doing good or thinking they’re not good enough.”
His wife made him promise to talk to a sports therapist. McCarthy did so for months, learning how to find a better work-life balance that has helped him win 28 races already this year.
Now 47, da Silva was named Canada's best jockey seven times and is the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.
“In 30 years of riding horses, I can say to you that I never heard anybody talk about the emotional pain, never talked about going for help,” said da Silva, who's now a mental health coach and spoke Tuesday at the first jockey mental health symposium in Lexington, Kentucky. “I approached many jockeys that I feel like they need help, and many times I said, ‘Go for help.’ I motivate them to go for help. They just listen, but they don’t really want to talk about.”
Dr. Ciara Losty of South East Technological University in Waterford, Ireland, pointed out that jockeys have an “underdeveloped sense of self inside of their sport," compared to team sport or Olympic athletes who are less likely to burn out because they seek out other activities. She said jockeys can also be less familiar with mental health topics because of low literacy levels and lack the support system of a coach or coaching staff.
“Maintaining a low weight and obviously disordered eating is a big part of it,” said Losty, who co-authored a 2018 study on jockey mental health. “Being a jockey, you have a risk of serious injuries, and if you’ve had a serious injury the fear of re-injury when you engage or get back up on the horse again may impact your performance or lead you to some kind of distress.”
Dr. Lewis King, now at Ireland's Technological University of the Shannon, did his doctoral degree in 2021 on the subject because he wanted to explore what makes jockeys susceptible to mental health problems and what stopped them from seeking help. In talking to 84 jockeys in Ireland, he said, he found 61% met the threshold for adverse alcohol use, 35% for depression and 27% for anxiety.
King's research showed that despite nearly 80% of jockeys having at least one common mental health disorder, only a third saw a professional. He said most feared losing their jobs.
“The main barrier was stigma and the negative perceptions of others,” King said. “But primarily it was related to the negative perceptions of trainers. There was a perception within the jockeys I interviewed that if they spoke about their mental health issues or it somehow got back to their trainer that it may impact whether they get rides. The trainer may perceive them as not in the right headspace, for instance, to ride their horses.”
Trainers told King and his colleagues they felt similar worries about sharing their own mental health concerns with owners.
McCarthy, who has been a jockey since 2011, said in recent months he has actually confronted trainers in the U.S., telling them to ease up on berating fellow jockeys after races.
The entire cycle speaks to horse racing being “an old-school sport,” McCarthy said. Losty pinned the lack of progress in mental health on the masculinized nature of the industry, and da Silva said the topic is still “taboo” in racing.
“Asking for help in our sport is almost a sign of weakness, sad to say,” said Smith, who rode Justify to the Triple Crown in 2018 and is still riding at 57. “You certainly don’t want to show any signs of that. We’re supposed to be tough and be able to handle it all.”
The Jockeys' Guild and Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority recently sent out an anonymous survey — the first of its kind — to gauge the best ways to support riders' mental health and wellbeing, a hotline is among the ideas being considered.
The results of that survey, returned by 230 jockeys, included 10% describing their mental health as “poor,” a third saying sadness, depression or anxiety were causing challenges in their daily life over the past month and 93% expressing concern about financial stability and providing for their families.
Surveyed jockeys also said money, weight concerns and the pressure to win were among the biggest stressors; they cited the fear of losing work and a stigma around seeking support as barriers to seeking help.
“It’s important for the industry to come together on this issue and other issues to grow our industry and make sure equine and human athletes are taken care of,” said Jockeys' Guild president and CEO Terry Meyocks, a third-generation horseman whose daughter, Abby, is married to Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Javier Castellano.
“It’s important that people talk about it," said Meyocks, who noted an average of two jockeys have died and 60 have been paralyzed annually dating to 1940.
McCarthy only started talking seriously about it after getting married and daughter Riley was born, knowing he's at the leading edge of thinking about mental health and how far behind other jockeys are.
“We’re just behind the 8-ball a little bit with that,” he said. “It’s going to be baby steps, but we have a long way to go.”
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Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press