Ensuring the wellbeing of racing athletes

Ms. Victoria Carter, Deputy Chair of New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing, opened Thursday’s Plenary Session 7 of the 38th Asian Racing Conference (ARC), titled ‘Ensuring the wellbeing of racing athletes’, by asking: “Are we, the administrators, doing enough to support our jockeys? They may be self-employed, but without them we have no sport.”

Historically, the psychological demands on a professional jockey have largely been unknown. For centuries, weight loss and depression have been two of the most common problems encountered by jockeys, yet until recently very little research had been done on the effects of the physical and mental demands placed on riders.

Moderator Mr. David Eades set the scene by asking Melbourne Cup-winning jockey Ms. Michelle Payne and former South African Champion Jockey Mr. Anthony Delpech for their perspectives on the challenges that jockeys face.

Mr. Delpech was the reigning champion rider when his career was abruptly cut short by a race-riding accident at Turffontein in April, 2018. Suddenly he found himself without a job and it felt as if his life was over: “Riding was all I knew, it was my life. I was adamant I was going to get back into the saddle, although in the back of my mind, I knew I was never going to ride again.”

Ms. Payne survived a potential career-ending injury. After fracturing her skull at 19, she had to relearn the most basic of skills. Her body healed, but she admits that it took almost four years before she was mentally back to her best: “Like Anthony, I had to go through it alone. It was a very lonely time, but I was passionate about racing and it got me through.”

Mr. Delpech admits that loneliness is one of the biggest problems for jockeys: “Mentally, we don’t want to talk about how difficult and lonely it is. We bottle it up. Even when your body is giving up on you, you push yourself to the edge just to get that next ride.”

Ms. Payne concurred: “You are starving, sleep deprived, exhausted and thirsty. It is such a relentless game that you push yourself to the limit.”

According to Mr. Graham Bailey, headmaster of the South African Jockey Academy (SAJA), the days of just teaching an apprentice jockey to ride are over. Professional jockeys now need to be treated as elite athletes, performing close to their physiological limit on a daily basis. They are required to stay at peak performance all year round. For example, a professional jockey operates at approximately 90% of maximum heart rate during a race without returning to the baseline between races. Thus, jockeys require a superior VO2max in order to return their heart rate to as close as possible to a resting rate between races.

Along with the physiological demands, the professional jockey is also faced with the demands of making weight. Chronic weight-making strategies have been shown to lead to poor bone health, poor hydration, body weights that are close to anorexic and impaired mental capacity. Taking this all into account, the SAJA has adapted and tailored its apprentice program to include a multi-disciplinary team comprising of a riding department, nursing sister, sports scientist, biokineticist, sports psychologist, nutritionist and academic staff. To assist each apprentice with their individual wellbeing, the team meets monthly to discuss everyone’s performance, fitness levels, hydration and body fat percentages, thereby giving the elite athletes of tomorrow as much assistance as possible.

Sport Psychologist, Ms. Kirsten van Heerden, takes this approach a step further, delving into the mental health of elite athletes. She pointed out that jockeys may be mentally tough, but that doesn’t exempt them from mental health problems such as depression. She said that boxing champion Oscar de la Hoya has 10 world titles and an Olympic gold medal to his name, yet he called depression his toughest opponent.

There is a stigma and a culture of silence around mental health, explained Ms. Van Heerden: “Jockeys may be elite athletes, but we need to look after them as a person first and foremost and not just as elite athletes.” She said that despite the known problems of depression among jockeys the world over, there were unfortunately no real guidelines in the horse racing industry regarding mental health.

Therefore, the aim needs to be the creation of mental health best practice guidelines. These could include referral networks, educational awareness campaigns and mental health screening. Ms. Van Heerden concluded by reminding the delegates that guidelines are all good and well, but unless those guidelines are put into practice by racing administrators and educators alike, they are just words on a piece of paper.

During the panel discussion, both jockeys admitted that they had seen psychologists and intimately felt that “shame and stigma” that Ms. Van Heerden had talked about.

“I felt embarrassed that I went to see a sport psychologist after my accident” said Ms. Payne, “but I am so glad I went.” Mr. Delpech agreed: “The first time I went to see a sport psychologist, I thought it meant that I was weak and yet it was the best thing I ever did.”

For more information on the 38th ARC, visit www.arcsa2020.com