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Jockey Suicides and Mental Health Issues Unleash Safety Challenges for Thoroughbred Racing

30 Aug, 2023 Chriss Swaney

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Sarasota, FL ( -- 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.

“It’s important for the industry to come together on this issue of mental health for jockeys 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 is important to talk and to get the jockeys talking about their needs,’’ said Meyocks.

Industry analysts say the dangers of riding a 1,700- pound thoroughbred at 35 mph add up to an average two jockeys dying from racing each year and more than 60 being paralyzed. “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,’’ said Kelly Ryan, medical director for Maryland race tracks.

“Maintaining a low weight and obviously disordered eating is a big part of it,’’ said Ryan. “Being a jockey, you have the risk of re-injury when you engage or get back on the horse again may impact your performance and lead to some kind of distress,’’ said Ryan, who spends time checking on injured jockeys and their families.

But help is on the way. The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) and the Jockeys’ guild have created a Steering Committee to recommend and develop programming in support of mental health and jockey wellness. The announcement comes on the heels of a symposium held this summer in Saratoga. The Steering Committee will be co-chaired by Earle Mack, a businessman, philanthropist and former U.S. Ambassador to Finland and thoroughbred owner and breeder, and Yuval Neria, a professor of clinical medical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center and Director of Trauma and PTSD at New York State Psychiatric Institute.

Data recently collected by HISA and the Jockeys’ Guild-commissioned survey, as well as independent research, will be used to establish specific guidelines to better support and protect rider mental wellness.

“Raising awareness is critical to keeping jockeys and the horses they ride safe,’’ said Tiff Haub, director of Norten Sports Health at historic Churchill Downs. “We are here to support the jockeys. We find that many of their injuries are similar to those suffered in car accidents,’’ said Haub. “It is continuity of care that we work to maintain,’’ she said.

But unless a jockey is riding at one of the top tier spots then they are probably not making enough money to pay for health examinations. But some tracks help offset medical expenses and health exams. Still, experts report that jockeys have to pay their agents and valets before they get a portion of their income and they have families they are trying to support.

Then some jockeys may have to race at different tracks in one day and that is another added expense of traveling to various venues, and that adds stress to their day, according to Ryan. “We developed Headcheck – a system of records for jockeys -so we have information on jockey injuries and it gives us a baseline when we do concussion tests,’’ Ryan said. “Because of the fast speed jockeys are falling from; we see spinal fractures, dislocations and ligament tears,’’ Ryan said.

And a recent report by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) found that some thoroughbred trainers are using non- therapeutic drugs on horses to mask health problems. For example, Rick Dutrow, the trainer of the 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown, open admitted to giving his horses Winstrol, a steroid that is illegal for equine use in 10 states, although not in the three states that host the Triple Crown. Before it was banned in Pennsylvania, nearly 1,000 horses were tested for steroids and more than 60 percent tested positive.

Racing estimates show that more than 100 jockeys have died as a result of racing accidents since 1950, and five jockeys were killed between October 1988 and September 1991, the latest figures available. There are more than 300 thoroughbred race tracks in the United States.

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    About The Author

    • Chriss Swaney

      Chriss Swaney is a freelance reporter who has written for Antique Trader Magazine, Reuters, The New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, the Burlington Free Press, UPI, The Tribune-Review and the Daily Record.

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