BALTIMORE (AP) – Eurico Rosa da Silva was in a dark place.
On the track, the 30-something jockey won races and made money. At home, he struggled with suicidal thoughts every day.
“I got to the point where I had no choice but to ask for help,” he recalled recently. “I went because, if I had no choice, I would kill myself.”
Da Silva got help in 2006 and rode for over a decade before retiring. He’s one of the lucky ones.
Earlier this year, horse racing was shocked 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 driver Mike Smith, said he had seen similar tragedies over the course of three decades.
“I know several pilots that I knew very well who committed suicide when all was said and done,” Smith said. “This is not happening all of a sudden. Is happening. You’ve never heard of it.
The dangers of Thoroughbred riding at high speed add up to an average of two jockeys dying in races each year and 60 being paralyzed, according to an industry veteran, citing data dating back to the 1940s. punters and riders need to maintain the low weight needed to establish a career, and jockeys have silently suffered as long as they’ve been riding horses.
While jockeys interviewed for this story are concerned that racing has fallen behind other sports in accepting the importance of their mental health at work, there is hope that renewed conversations on the topic will lead to real change.
“This needs to be addressed,” said jockey Trevor McCarthy. “We took a lot of beatings mentally and physically. With mental and physical state, when you mix the two it can be a recipe for disaster. Look, there’s proof of that, 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 were his father-in-law and his wife, Katie Davis McCarthy. They’re all used to the ups and downs of the job, from having a broken pelvis and collarbone from a stroke during a race in November to uncertainty in a race.
A particularly difficult summer, including flying up and down the East Coast to ride horses, took a toll on McCarthy, who at 118 pounds could feel her diet and lack of calories affecting her work. He wanted to give up.
“I was going absolutely crazy and my body couldn’t take it,” McCarthy said. “You are constantly playing mind games. And I think a lot of guys get into that with the weight and the mind game of not doing well or thinking they’re not good enough.
His wife made him promise to see a sports therapist. McCarthy did this for months, learning to find a better work-life balance that helped him win 28 races this year.
Now 47, da Silva has been named Canada’s Best Jockey seven times and is a Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Famer.
“In 30 years of riding horses, I can tell you that I’ve never heard anyone talk about emotional pain, I’ve never talked about getting help,” said da Silva, who is now a mental health coach and spoke Tuesday at the first ever mental jockey health symposium in Lexington, Kentucky. “I’ve approached a lot of jockeys who I feel need help and many times I’ve said, ‘Ask for help.’ I motivate them to seek help. They just listen but don’t really want to talk about it.”
Dr. Ciara Losty of South East Technological University in Waterford, Ireland, pointed out that jockeys have an “underdeveloped sense of themselves within their sport”, compared to team sports or Olympic athletes who are less likely to burn out because they look for others. Activities. She said jockeys may also be less familiar with mental health topics due to low levels of literacy and a lack of support system from a coach or coaching staff.
“Keeping a low weight and obviously disordered eating is a big part of it,” said Losty, co-author of a 2018 study on the mental health of jockeys. “Being a jockey you are at risk of serious injury and if you have suffered a serious injury the fear of getting hurt again when you get involved or get back on the horse can affect your performance or lead you to some sort of injury. lesion. Suffering.”
Lewis King, now at Shannon Technological University in Ireland, did his PhD in 2021 on the subject because he wanted to explore what makes jockeys susceptible to mental health issues and what stops them from seeking help. In talking to 84 jockeys in Ireland, he said, he found that 61% had met the threshold for adverse alcohol use, 35% for depression and 27% for anxiety.
King’s research has shown that despite nearly 80% of jockeys having at least one common mental disorder, only a third have seen a professional. He said most feared losing their jobs.
“The main barrier was stigma and negative perceptions from others,” King said. “But mostly it was related to the negative perceptions of coaches. There was a perception among the jockeys I interviewed that if they spoke about their mental health issues or in any way got back to their trainer, it could affect whether they got rides. The trainer may perceive them as not in the right headspace, for example to ride their horses.”
Trainers told King and his peers that they felt similar concerns with sharing their own mental health concerns with owners.
McCarthy, who has been a jockey since 2011, said that in recent months he has confronted trainers across the United States, telling them not to berate other jockeys after races.
The whole cycle shows that horse racing is “an old-school sport,” McCarthy said. Losty attributed the lack of progress in mental health to the masculine nature of the industry, and da Silva said the topic was 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 57. “You certainly don’t want to show any signs of that. We must be tough and be able to handle everything.
The Jockeys’ Guild and the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority recently submitted an anonymous survey – the first of its kind – to assess the best ways to support riders’ mental health and wellbeing, a hotline is among the ideas being considered.
Results from that survey, returned by 230 jockeys, included 10% describing their mental health as “poor”, a third saying that sadness, depression or anxiety had been causing challenges in their daily life in the last month, and 93% expressing concern about financial stability. and supporting their families.
The jockeys surveyed also said that money, weight concerns and the pressure to win were among the biggest stressors; they cited fear of losing work and stigma around seeking support as barriers to seeking help.
“It is important for the industry to come together on this and other issues to grow our industry and ensure that equine and human athletes are served,” said Jockeys’ Guild President and CEO Terry Meyocks, a third-generation equestrian whose daughter, Abby is married to jockey Javier Castellano, winner of the Kentucky Derby.
“It’s important that people talk about this,” said Meyocks, who noted that an average of two jockeys have died and 60 have been paralyzed annually since 1940.
McCarthy only started talking seriously about it after he got married and daughter Riley was born, knowing he is at the forefront of thinking about mental health and how backward other jockeys are.
“We’re a little behind the 8 ball with this,” he said. “It will be baby steps, but we still have a long way to go.”
AP Sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports