‘They’re Human Beings, They’re Not Machines’: The Mental Health Challenges Facing Jockeys - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

‘They’re Human Beings, They’re Not Machines’: The Mental Health Challenges Facing Jockeys

This is the second in our two-part series on jockeys' mental health. You can find Part 1 here.

“I truly believe I was on the best horse today, and if I had to blame anyone, it would be me,” said a resigned Mike Smith. “She's my everything. She's just amazing. I just wish I would've been in the race a little earlier because I think the outcome would have been different.”

“It hurts more than I can explain,” he continued, as the tears broke through in the glare of photographers' flash bulbs. “Just because she should've won, and it was my fault. It hurts.”

The year was 2010. The Hall of Fame jockey had just lost one of the most high-profile Breeders' Cup Classics in history aboard Zenyatta in a heart-breaking, so-close stretch drive – her final start and her only loss. In an unconventional move, Breeders' Cup officials asked him to come into the post-race press conference, which is usually reserved for winners.

Looking back on the moment now, Smith remembers that he wanted to say no.

“My first reaction when they asked me to step in [to the press conference] is that I didn't want to, I didn't want to go in,” he said. “I wanted to go as far away from everyone as I could, and if I found a cliff, jump off it, to be honest with you. But I don't know. It's like God talked to me and said, let's see what you're really made of. Let's see if you can step up when things didn't go so well, and if you can explain what happened.

“I had such a love for her and with it being her last race, that magnified it even more. I knew there wasn't going to be a redemption for us as a team, me and her. That really added to it. I got in there and of course I was emotional but the grace of God gave me strength and got me through it and I felt so much better afterwards. I probably would have dragged that out a whole lot longer if I hadn't done something about that.”

When most of us fall short at work, we get to do it quietly. Even if they're not riding in the Breeders' Cup, jockeys' successes and mistakes are broadcast to television and computer screens around the country in real time. (Just ask Javier Castellano, who had to head to the Kentucky Derby paddock after seeing NBC flash a graphic beneath his name showing he was 0-for-15 Derby rides before this year's running.)

With the benefit of time and the wisdom that comes from experience, Smith looks back at that day a little differently.

“It wasn't the easiest night of my life, I'll tell you that,” he said. “But it's amazing how things happen. I'm not sure I'dve continued riding any longer, wouldn't have won a Triple Crown, several of the Breeders' Cups, and my life has turned out good. Sometimes things just happen for a reason. And look, I'm not saying that's why that happened, but isn't it funny how things happen that you thought in the moment was so horrific? … It really wasn't that bad, was it? She came out of the race happy and healthy and so did everyone else involved.”

He knows though that for jockeys with less experience, losses can feel tremendous, even when they're not in Grade 1s, and even when there isn't a room full of media, cameras and recorders running, watching you cry.

“If you win 20 percent of the time, you're really successful,” said Smith. “That means 80 percent of the time, you're a failure. You've got to lose 80 percent of the time and still be happy.”

In many ways, the backstretch is a small town. The same people see each other every day, from sunup to sundown, and everybody knows (or thinks they know) what everybody else is doing. People know if you won yesterday, and they know if you lost, and they probably have feelings about it. Like a small town, rumors, innuendo, and armchair analysis spread like wildfire.

“You hear stories about what's going on with you that you didn't even know,” said Darius Thorpe, who rides primarily at Charles Town. “It's like, why don't y'all just come to me and ask me about what's going on? Why are y'all so quick to mind my business? It's always a headline for somebody.”

It's easy to get sucked into this circular game of telephone. This can be a problem for jockeys, whose business can be so transient. Most riders accept that while they have a lot of influence on a horse's finish position in a race, much of the work toward that projected goal is already done by the time they get a leg up. While an observer watching the simulcast feed may think there's variability in the way a race may play out, jockeys speak openly about horses that are “supposed to win” and those that “are supposed to run third or fourth” because, despite their dreams of the winner's circle, they know not every mount is going to get them there.

Even the best riders go through slumps. Maybe a couple of horses that were “supposed to win” got boxed in or had off days, and a couple more finished mid-pack as projected. Suddenly, a jockey can go from winning a lot to winning less until gradually, they develop a smell. Trainers get allergic to them, and the calls for good horses stop coming, perpetuating the cycle.

“You start winning, you get on better horses, you keep winning,” said jockey Ferrin Peterson. “You have some losses, you start to get on slower horses, you get taken off horses you got along with and maybe still ran better for you. It's a snowball effect. And it's funny how everyone realizes it. It's the same with trainers and their owners … and yet no one can really seem to separate that out.”

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All of this is harder if a jockey doesn't have a mentor or agent to lean on. In the European system, it's more common for a jockey to be on retainer with a trainer who may have multiple salaried riders on the same team who can help bring each other along.

“There's no room for that young kid to learn,” said Remi Bellocq, executive director of BCTC Equine. “They may go to a hot streak and win a bunch of races, so they go from a 10-pound bug to a five-pound bug, and then when they lose their bug, all of a sudden they're losing races and they start changing things around to try to work their way out of that slump, when sometimes you just have to wait. They need someone to say, 'You're riding fine, you're just in a slump' — that kind of guidance is super important for a young rider. Left to their own means, they don't know what to do. Three months ago, they were winning two races a day.”

Jockeys can also lose the mount on a horse for reasons that have nothing to do with them – or they may get blamed for a finish they think they had no control over. And when they hop off a horse only to be shouted at by an irate trainer, successful riders know they have to bite their tongue, even when they're aching to defend themselves.

“For that not to take a toll or make you have doubts about your own ability, you've got to have a pretty good head on your shoulders, let those kinds of things roll off your back,” said Bellocq. “Because that same trainer who you might hate right now might be the person who puts you on a stakes horse out of town.”

Even when things are going well, the social credit earned by racetrack success is fleeting.

“Everybody's always looking for you to do better,” said Andre Ramgeet, who rides alongside Thorpe at Charles Town. “Yeah, you just won two races for them yesterday, but what can you do for me today?”

As professional athletes, many jockeys say they already have a pretty good idea of when they screwed up a ride without the backstretch peanut gallery twittering about it. And most of them ruminate on it, struggling sometimes to compartmentalize and go on to the next race.

“Last night my husband rode a race,” said Julie Ramgeet, agent for her husband Andre, during an interview in April. “We were second choice but we really thought we were going to win. There was a split-second decision coming home, to go inside or outside. The filly doesn't like the inside pressure so he stayed to save ground. She dwelt there, and ended up running fourth. He came home and I think he just sat there for about an hour, defending in his own mind, I was trying to save ground. He's bringing it home. And that's coming home with a trainer who didn't verbally attack him after the race.”

Night racing at Charles Town usually has Ramgeet home around 12:30 a.m., and he's up again a few hours later to work horses – and sometimes to hear what other people think about his latest performance.

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Social media

These days, it isn't just the gossip over steaming coffee by the rail that jockeys have to filter out – it's instant and relentless feedback via social media.

Smith said disgruntled horseplayers have always found a way to let him know what they think, but concedes that the engagement many people have with social media adds a new dimension to jockeys' mental health. ESPN recently reported on a rise in online harassment and abuse towards college athletes since the rise of sports betting – noting an overlap in gambling addiction, substance abuse, and mental health disorders that can feed a culture which supports the bullying of athletes online. Sometimes the online hate directed at riders is performance-focused, but it can also morph into serious and specific threats of personal violence.

“Nowadays with social media, and as much as these younger people are on it, you're listening to someone else's opinion over and over and over again,” Smith said. “It can't be very healthy, even if it's good stuff. You start believing in that stuff, whether it be good or bad.”

Thorpe said it's frustrating to hear from armchair jockeys who are often only looking at the pan or head-on camera view of a race. A jockey's spatial awareness in a pack of horses takes time to develop, and even once it's there, they have a very different physical viewpoint from the rest of us. They may not be able to see that gap ahead of them that opened up because there's a horse in the way, or may think they're closer up on a rival's heels than they are. Decisions get made in the irons that may make no sense to a viewer at home, but had a purpose in the moment.

None of that matters to social media trolls.

Julie Ramgeet says that her husband isn't as available on social media as others, and that she gets abuse instead.

“People are crazy,” she said. “They don't view them as human. I get messages myself telling me I should kill myself because I married this [expletive]. I tell my husband, I don't know how you do it because you exhaust me. He has me, but there are a lot of guys who internalize stuff and are just struggling.

“They're human beings. They're not machines.”

Meanwhile, Ramgeet points out that some of the worst offenders of social media abuse are often among the first to send kudos or well wishes after a successful ride or a serious injury, creating a cognitive dissonance that's hard for young riders to process. Younger riders start out without the wisdom of experience. Smith believes that even when people lavish support on a rider, it's better not to take it too closely to heart.

“Trust me, sometimes I'm not near as good as my mom thinks I am,” he quipped. “You've got to keep it as even as possible.”

For as much as jockeys hear themselves talked about, they're not in a position to talk too much about anyone or anything. Riders agree that if they feel they've been mistreated, or see something in the barn they're worried about, they're not at liberty to speak. If a jockey gets a reputation for stirring up trouble, they're only too easy to replace.

Then, there's the money

As jockeys start their day with as little breakfast as possible, swiping away Twitter notifications trashing their last ride, many of them are driving to a darkened racetrack to work for free.

Some tracks – though not all – are known as “working tracks,” at which it's common for trainers to have jockeys work horses in the morning for no pay, only the promise that they'll try to find them an afternoon mount. While the set-up can be appealing for a young rider trying to get their name out there, it puts the jockey at an immediate disadvantage. They have no recourse if a trainer doesn't keep to their word, and they're missing out on the per-horse fee that exercise riders working alongside are getting. Bellocq said freelance exercise riders in Kentucky make between $15 and $20 for each horse they work in the mornings, and salaried exercise riders make between $850 and $950 per week, sometimes with a day off.

Andre and Julie Ramgeet say that at Charles Town, jockeys routinely get on eight to 12 horses six mornings a week with no pay, crossing their fingers they'll someday make it back during the races.

Afternoon or night-time earnings, for all but the most elite jockeys, often aren't much to write home about for a jockey just starting out. Wins earn the jockey 10 percent of the owner's portion of a purse. They're looking at 5 percent for a second- or third-place effort. Race riding veteran T.D. Houghton said that in Ohio, where he's riding a lot these days, finishing second in a race with a $30,000 purse nets the owner 20 percent, or $6,000. Jockeys get 5 percent of that, bringing his pay to $300. Then, the jockey pays his agent and his valet, shaving 20 to 30 percent more off the pre-tax total, leaving him around $225.

If they don't hit the board, a jockey can collect what's called a losing mount fee. The losing mount fee for cheaper races in Ohio is $65. If the race is a little nicer, it may go up to $75 or $80. In Kentucky, there's a sliding scale based on the purse of the race and the amount can go up to $100. That can make it worthwhile to forego a $15 fee for galloping a horse – but only if the trainer keeps their word and names the jockey on the horse.

“The wins are where we really make the most money,” said Houghton.

For jockeys in the top third or so of the country's earners, Bellocq says their reputations afford them a nicer quality horse running in a more expensive race, so they're able to gradually ride fewer horses if they choose without changing their pay. He estimates it takes at least two to five years to get to that point of being able to ease off the gas a little – and before that, it's a struggle financially.

After taxes, there's the expense of a rider's equipment. Houghton said he pays about $80 for a dozen pairs of goggles (about $6.66 per pair), and he has no idea how many packs he buys a year. Valets will sometimes stretch plastic wrap across them to preserve them from the grit that's in the kickback from the racing surface, but sooner or later, they get too scraped up to use.

Houghton's safety vests cost him $300, and his helmets are $375. He tries to have more than one helmet on hand so it's easier for valets to get equipment set up for him several races ahead. Jockey boots are often at least $100 new. Houghton remembers one fall in which he broke his tibia, along with several other bones, and stopped emergency medical personnel from cutting his boots off, sliding them off his broken leg instead to avoid one more expense later.

All of this – the expense, the constant hunger and thirst, the physical exhaustion, the emotional isolation – is that much harder to take when a jockey isn't winning or is laid up with an injury. Bellocq believes that for many jockeys, especially those who are in their late teens or early twenties starting out, their profession becomes their entire identity. When you suddenly can't be the thing that defines you, it's easy to spiral into a bad headspace.

“You feel like your whole life revolves around trying to get good horses and being a good jock and you're just not doing the right thing,” said Thorpe. “It takes a mental toll on you.”


Racing fans are aware that top jockeys have battled substance issues. Chris Antley, Garrett Gomez, Patrick Valenzuela, and Kent Desormeaux have all made headlines through the years for action against their licenses related to alcohol or substance use.

But people who see what jockeys go through daily say it's not just a sad coincidence that some of the most talented riders are also “troubled” by substance issues – it's a wonder that more of them aren't.

Darin Scharer has been the executive director at the Winners Foundation for six years, steering the non-profit's mission to provide support and referral sources for anyone in the California racing community that has been impacted by substance use disorder, mental illness, compulsive gambling, or other issues.

“I'm not a jockey, but what we do hear from them is that when you're winning, everything's great,” said Scharer. “But when you're losing, it's a lot of pressure.”

Scharer can't comment on the prevalence of substance in jockeys, but believes the extraordinary pressures on riders from all sides can erode mental health and make substance or alcohol use a more tempting solution either as a release from pressure or a way to help manage weight. In addition to the challenges of their job, Scharer said it's not uncommon to find jockeys or backstretch workers struggling with unprocessed trauma, which can increase their likelihood of getting involved with drugs or alcohol.

For many, Scharer said the psychological dependence on a substance is a more powerful force than physical dependence.

“If you were drinking and you were successful, if you had a problem with drinking you want to go back and recapture what you originally had when you were successful. But it doesn't work that way,” he said.

On top of all that, there's stigma attached, both to substance use disorder and to mental health issues.

“Jockeys can't come clean and say, 'Hey, I have depression or bipolar disorder,'” he said. “If they do that, mental health [problems] are still looked down on in this country, especially among athletes. They don't want to take medications [for these issues] because if I take medications, then I'm going to be stigmatized as having this disorder, and I could test positive and people might find out.”


Scharer said that the fishbowl nature of a jockey's life makes battling back substance issues even more challenging. Fans, colleagues, and media tend to ask a jockey fresh from a rehabilitation program how it's going, but if the rider doesn't stay sober, they're set up for even more shame when things fall apart.

“It's a very delicate balance of trying to help people, assist, give them resources, but at the end of the day they're under a lot of pressure,” Scharer said. “And that pressure, usually, not all the time, but usually results in them returning to something that worked for them.”

Jockeys told the Paulick Report that while breathalyzer tests are done routinely in some states, drug tests aren't as common. Several indicated they had been aware of riders in a jockey's room who may be impaired but said the self-contained environment of the room makes it difficult to say anything to racing officials. All said they wanted to see more routine drug and alcohol testing – to protect themselves from riding alongside someone with impaired judgment, but also in hopes that a positive test could trigger a colleague to get help.

Some riders have figured out how to time substance or alcohol use to avoid positive tests in the jockeys' room, Scharer said, although this strategy sometimes stops working as they age and their liver function slows.

Scharer said that even when someone is ordered by the state to complete a rehabilitation program, it can be effective, contrary to the popular belief that a person has to seek help voluntarily for it to stick.

“A long time ago, we used to think that about treatment, that if you weren't ready to get treatment, it was pointless,” said Scharer. “But realistically, there's a [model] called the stages of change, and where they are in the stages of change has a lot with how much you can do to at least plant the seed for them, and maybe show them a different way. A lot of it is really good counseling. It doesn't have to be where they initially want it, but maybe through great and effective counseling, someone can see a path to how to do something different than what they were doing before.”

Winners Foundation, which has been in operation for 39 years, is able to connect people with the right size and style of rehabilitation program that is most likely to help them, as well as connecting them with educational and therapeutic resources to support their recovery.

Winners is only structured to assist members of the racing industry in California, however; Scharer said there are programs in New York and Kentucky that function similarly, and Canterbury Park has an equine-assisted therapy program available to jockeys using OTTBs, but the model isn't the same everywhere. At many tracks, chaplains are the only racing-oriented resource for services like this – and they have a lot on their plates already.

The most important thing Scharer believes the industry can do to help jockeys, both those with and without substance use disorders?

“We need to reduce the stigma of mental health,” he said. “People need to understand it more. Education doesn't just need to go to people who have mental health challenges, education is needed for people who don't understand, or are afraid of it, or don't know how to treat it.”

An emotional Alex Canchari salutes his father after winning the Temperence Hill Stakes with Carlos L.

The way forward

It's been about two months since Ashley Canchari's brother Alex died by suicide. The Canchari family are a racing family, and Ashley remembered that her brother was so proud when he first began riding races in 2011 after dreaming about it for years.

“The last years had been very dark for Alex,” Ashley Canchari wrote in a Facebook post. “I, as well as the rest of the family and most of his closest friends didn't understand it. I attributed it to his career and the never-ending pressures of the industry. Maybe it's the head injuries, or the constant flipping, the gambling addiction, or lack of sleep. I would try to rationalize what was going on even though it was completely nonsensical and just not Alex. It was such odd behavior that no one understood and no matter the attempts we made to get him back into the family, he went the other way.”

Ashley Canchari remembered taking time off work to fly to wherever Alex was to help him when he was in a slump, cleaning the house or helping him catch up on his bills when it seemed he couldn't.

“I hope you all remember Alex as the happy, charismatic, loving soul that he was,” she wrote. “He was so much more than a talented rider. As much as he wanted to entertain and give people all he could through riding, he did that in his friendships and relationships too. Alex just wanted people to feel at home, to feel loved, to feel important – to feel like they mattered. I'm heartbroken he didn't see or feel this within himself.”

Canchari said she believes her brother is now at peace, in a way he couldn't be on Earth. She's hopeful that his suicide, which followed closely on the heels of Avery Whisman's in January, advances an industry-wide conversation about mental health in jockeys.

In April, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority released an anonymous mental health survey to jockeys which could guide the availability of resources to riders.

Jockeys who spoke to the Paulick Report unanimously endorsed the idea of access to a sports psychologist or therapist in every jockeys' room, whether that means connecting riders to a local professional or providing the opportunity to use telehealth services to speak with someone. Many also suggested that having a nutritionist available to riders – a resource that is available to jockeys in England – could help them better manage the pressures of weight and physical fitness and relieve some of the daily grind.

But those solutions are systemic and largely in the hands of racing's stakeholders. Canchari believes there's a lot individuals can do, too.

“Let's all try to be kinder, to be nicer despite challenging times and circumstances,” she wrote. “There is literally never a time to call someone worthless, say that they are nothing, or to cuss them out. Words do hurt and can kill. No one knows the struggle people face each day within their own minds, so why not be kind?”


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