THE start of Mental Health Awareness Week on Monday was marked in UK racing by the publication of ‘stark’ findings in research undertaken by a team at Liverpool John Moores University’s School of Sport and Exercise on the impact of mental health on individuals involved in the sport.

The research, which involved detailed interviews with 131 people employed in racing including jockeys, trainers, stud and stable staff and other stakeholders, was commissioned by Racing Welfare.

It will also lead the response to its findings, which include a suggestion that “the weekly workload [required for many roles in racing] potentially seems unsustainable individually or organisationally”. The concern, the report continues, “is that extensive working hours, including overtime without pay, is now normalised, placing great psychological strain on those involved.”

It is a stark assessment of the working lives of many of the individuals and groups without whom the sport would cease to function, but it appears to be backed up by interviews with the people concerned.

For instance, almost 87% of the jockeys interviewed said that they are currently experiencing “stress, anxiety or depression”, or had experienced one or more of these during the last 12 months. For trainers, the figure was 74.6%, while among stable and stud staff it was 72% and 79% respectively.

Nine per cent of trainers and 13% of jockeys reported “problems due to alcohol use”, while only 9.3% of riders responded to a list that also included problems due to gambling, illegal drugs and memory problem by saying that they “had suffered no such health concerns”.

In terms of stress, different groups within the sport listed different principal causes of stress in their working lives. Jockeys, for instance, listed “financial uncertainty” as the number one cause of workrelated stress, followed by “finding rides generally” and “maintaining appearance of success (status)”.

Concerns about being “jocked off” rides as well as weight management were also mentioned, along with isolation, long hours driving to the races and both online and verbal abuse from “the gambling public”.

“Downtime, there isn’t any,” one rider said. “I suppose if you were one of the top 15 jockeys you could afford [it] or not worry about missing anything … but me personally, I couldn’t take time off (to p5) as such to go on holiday. If you are one of the top boys, if they had a week off they’d be almost guaranteed to get their rides back where if a journeyman jockey was to have a week off halfway through the season, somebody jumps on them horses, or wins on them, you’d probably never get back on them again.”

Another highlighted the pressures of getting to the races on clogged roads, and the potential impact on performance, saying: “Saturday, I rode up in York and I literally only just got there, the traffic was horrendous and I got there and I was shaking cos I had just driven so fast up the road, and then you’re straight on the back of a horse and you’re riding this horse like a lunatic because you’re head’s going round a million times an hour, you haven’t had time to sit down, a cup of tea or anything, straight on the back of a horse and then you’ve got all these people’s expectations riding on your back for this minute that you’re on this horse and then it’s all over.”

Among those interviewed, nearly 70% said they were taking home ‘less than £29,000’ (about R530,000) a year .

In terms of weight management, a third rider reporting “doing [losing] 13½lb (about 6,1kg) in 22 hours” when “sat in the car with the heaters on full blast and … I had two tops, coat, woolly hat on and we were sat in in traffic … there’s people with their convertible roof down and shorts and T-shirt it’s something like 28 degrees outside and I still had to get there and drop another 4lb (1,8kg).” That required a run around the track and three hours in the sauna, and then, having shed the weight, the horse “didn’t even jump off”.

For trainers, meanwhile, the three leading “stressors” in their jobs were “injuries to horses”, “financial uncertainty” and “bad debts from owners”, with “owners’ expectations” and “balancing family/personal alongside work” also a concern for a significant number.

Among those interviewed, nearly 70% said that they were taking home “less than £29,000” a year income, and more than half said that training provided their sole income. Training, the report concludes, “is not an incredibly lucrative profession with only 14.5% earning more than £60,000(R1,1-million) per year”.

Among stable staff, the most significant causes of stress were “ensuring wages cover personal costs”, “feeling must work even when sick, ill or injured” and “working overtime without pay”.

Here too there are disturbing personal accounts of working conditions and attitudes, including one pregnant groom who describes being “treated like shit” and having “to leave on maternity early and paint houses instead”, and another who says that “they did not know a day without pain”. – The Guardian. 


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