Inside the brutal world of jockeys – tragic suicides, strict weight limit and harrowing injuries

By Staff 9 Min Read

From maintaining a low weight to risking their lives on horseback, professional jockeys are under immense pressure and it can have devastating impacts on their mental health

Making a living as a jockey is incredibly tough and the physical and mental demands ‘can be a recipe for disaster’.

Last year, Grand National-winning jockey Graham Lee, 48, suffered life-changing injuries in a racing fall that left him paralysed from the neck down. And he’s not alone – it’s estimated that an average of two jockeys die every single year from racing and 60 athletes are paralysed by the sport.

To be a professional rider, you must maintain a low body weight, train hard and face the dangers of riding thoroughbreds at high speed. The immense pressures mean jockeys have been left quietly suffering, and many athletes are concerned that racing is behind other sports in accepting the importance of mental health.

Eurico Rosa da Silva, a retired jockey who raced for five years in his native Brazil, told The Independent last year that during his victory in his 30s, he was fighting suicidal thoughts every day at home. He said: “I got to the point where I have no more choice but to go for help. I went [to seek professional support] because if I have no choice, I would kill myself.”

Now a mental health coach, Da Silva said he’s never heard anybody talk about the “emotional pain” that jockeys face throughout his three-decade-long career. He described horse racing as an ‘old-school sport’ and said the topic is still ‘taboo’. But in recent years, he’s confronted trainers in the US about going easier on fellow jockeys after races.

In 2023, two young jockeys devastatingly took their own lives less than six weeks apart – Avery Whisman, 23, and Alex Canchari, 29. American jockey Trevor McCarthy said it’s ‘proof’ that mental health “needs to be addressed”. He said: “We take a lot of beatings mentally and physically. With the mental and physical state, when you mix both of them together, it can be a recipe for disaster.”

American jockey Mike Smith, a friend of Whisman, said it’s not the first time he’s witnessed fellow sportsmen suffer. He explained: “I know several riders that I knew very well committed suicide when it was all said and done. This is not all of a sudden just happening. It’s been going on.”

In July 2021, a young jockey took his own life with a “promising career ahead of him”. Michael Pitt was an amateur rider at Warren Greatrex’s yard and was tragically found dead aged 19. The son of racing trainer Tim Pitt had acquired an amateur jump jockey’s licence to compete before his death.

An inquest into his passing concluded that alcohol played a huge part in his decision to kill himself. Berkshire assistant coroner Jenny Goldring said Mr Pitt had no history of mental health issues and described the incident as “out of character”.

A study by Dr Lewis King, now at Ireland’s Technological University of the Shannon, found 61 percent of jockeys met the threshold for adverse alcohol use, 35 percent for depression and 27 percent for anxiety. His research also found that nearly 80 percent of jockeys have at least one common mental health disorder – but only a third have sought professional help.

In 2020, Grand National-winning jockey Liam Treadwell died aged 34 after taking a cocktail of strong drugs. A coroner concluded he could not be certain the rider had intended to take his own life. Treadwell died just four months after his friend, jockey James Banks killed himself.

Disordered eating is also not uncommon within the sport, as the spectre haunting almost every rider is extra weight. A jockey must typically weigh between 100 to 120lbs and be physically fit. To keep their weight down, in extreme cases, athletes have avoided drinking fluids and resorted to diets of as little as 600 calories a day.

Some have been known to use sweat suits, saunas and hot baths in an attempt to rapidly lose pounds. Back in the day, ‘heaving bowls’ were on the side of US race tracks for vomiting, or ‘flipping’ as it is known in the trade. In poor cases, riders would lose their teeth due to the constant acidic bile.

Retired jockey Jeff Johnston said in 2012: “It’s a square, porcelain bowl with a big hole to flush down the vomit. They’re usually in their own cubicle at the end of a line of toilets.” He said, a decade ago, they were still a regular sight at many American race tracks, but that newer tracks tended not to install them.

If you’re struggling and need to talk, the Samaritans operate a free helpline open 24/7 on 116 123. Alternatively, you can email [email protected] or visit their site to find your local branch.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, please contact your GP, or seek specialist eating disorder support. Help is available from Beat via their web chat service or email. If you’re in England, call 0808 801 0677.

Do you have a story to share? Get in touch. Email [email protected].

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