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'I wouldn't be where I am now if I hadn't stopped drinking' - how jockeys are battling alcohol dependency

Catherine Macrae speaks to riders about their struggles with alcohol – and the charity doing all it can to provide help to the weighing room

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Catherine MacraeReporter

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It began harmlessly enough, with a bit of drinking as a teenager. Yet by his twenties, Ray Dawson’s consumption of alcohol had developed into a coping mechanism. His battle was fought in silence and driven by a fear that asking for help would end a career only just beginning to flourish. Eventually, his coping mechanism reached breaking point.

“I wasn’t really going anywhere in my life,” Dawson says. “I was getting into my mid-20s and a racing career isn’t a very long one, so the chances were getting slimmer and the alcohol was stopping my career every time it had a chance of getting going.

“I was scared reaching out would impact my career. It was probably one of the main things that kept me living that sort of life. The fear of asking for help and of others knowing, the stigma that you’re doing the wrong thing admitting you need help, it probably kept me on that path. Jockeys can use it to cope, but it doesn’t work, that’s for sure.”

In 2019, Dawson knew he was ready to confront his struggle with alcohol. He reached out to Paul Struthers, then boss of the Professional Jockeys Association (PJA), and Jerry Hill, the BHA’s chief medical officer, and found that the answer to his problems could be provided by a charity best known for its work in football – but whose work in racing reveals the extent to which members of the weighing room can struggle with alcohol dependency.

'People can turn to alcohol to manage those emotions'

“On the whole, the number of jockeys asking for help with their relationship with alcohol is far higher than any other sport we work with,” says Colin Bland, the CEO of mental health and addiction charity Sporting Chance.

The charity was founded in 2000 by former Arsenal and England captain Tony Adams to help fellow footballers with mental health and addiction issues. It now provides help to a far broader spectrum of professional sportspeople and has worked with the PJA for several years, regularly providing support to jockeys through its in-house rehabilitation facilities and a national network of therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists.

Sporting Chance CEO Colin Bland
Sporting Chance CEO Colin Bland

While quantitative evidence is hard to gather on an issue often shrouded in silence, there are strong indications that jockeys and alcohol have a particularly troubling association.

“Jockeys have a really difficult life,” says Bland, “and there’s an awful lot putting in hard graft while the money’s not great and the hours are long – it’s tough. A lot of jockeys' lives are emotionally challenging and people can turn to alcohol to manage those emotions.

“Our numbers have increased year-on-year with the number of jockeys we’ve helped, but it’s hard to know as our numbers go up if it means the problem is getting worse or people are more comfortable with asking for help.”

When Dawson reached out for support, he was impressed by what he found. A 26-day residential programme is available to athletes at Sporting Chance’s base in Hampshire, the only treatment centre in the world specifically aimed at athletes. For those not using the in-house programme, access to regular therapy and counselling is available across Britain, while education is also provided to everyone in the sport in the hope of highlighting the support for those struggling to speak out.

“It happened at the right time for me and I was able to take the help,” Dawson says. “Everyone has their own limit on how far they go, and some don’t ever stop. I was just ready to stop battling alcohol. When that day came, when I just knew I needed help, I went to those I trusted. They did everything they could to help me and pointed me towards Sporting Chance, who I didn’t even know existed at the time.

“I went there and did a mini-rehab for a week, just to learn more about mental health and addiction, and from there I followed their advice.

“It was so good to be able to go to a place where there were a lot of other athletes with similar issues, be it alcohol or gambling or drugs. Most importantly, I felt safe. A lot of people in sport have a fear of what they’ll lose if they seek help but it’s been the complete opposite for me, and I know it’s the same for many others. I felt I could say anything and it wouldn’t come back on my career.”

Ray Dawson: "I was scared reaching out would impact my career."
Ray Dawson: "I was scared reaching out would impact my career"Credit: Edward Whitaker

This month marks four years since Dawson took that first step towards recovery, and while his career has flourished – he has passed 60 winners in each of the last two years – his relationships with those around him have strengthened even more.

“I’m completely different,” he says. “I’m more reliable, I’m more focused, I’m turning up fit, healthy and determined. It’s very hard to do that when in the back of your mind is alcohol. It’s nearly impossible.

“There’s absolutely no doubt I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t stopped drinking. I probably wouldn’t have a career at all.”

Dawson’s inspiring tale is not the only one to come out of the weighing room. Fellow jockeys like Oisin Murphy, Kieran Shoemark, Alan Doyle and Joe Williamson have spoken candidly in recent years about their struggles with addiction.

Yet their stories paint only a small part of the picture. For many jockeys, alcohol still plays a prominent and often dangerous role in what is an intense lifestyle. Constant battles with long hours, weight management and the pressures of competition contribute to what appears to be a worrying number of riders having an unhealthy connection with alcohol.

Sadly, it has been this way for many years.

When three-time champion jockey Richard Hughes became a regular in the British weighing room in the mid-1990s, he found that alcohol was simply part of the culture. Hughes managed to overcome his addiction and is now 18 years sober, but he relied heavily on the help of another legendary rider, Johnny Murtagh, who has himself admitted to alcohol issues that at one point left him contemplating suicide.

“When I grew up in racing there was a huge drinking culture,” says Hughes. “In Ireland you’d stop for an ice cream on the way home, and when I came to England they used to stop at an off-licence. You’d drink three or four drinks on the way home.

“In the weighing room if someone won the second or third race and got a bottle of champagne, we’d open it, and there was drinking in the sauna while we’re trying to lose weight. That culture was always there, from owners coming to the yards, to racedays, to drinking in the Ascot car park. It was all around me. I thought everyone drank when I was drinking. It’s only when you’re sober you realise some people do actually go to the pub for one drink and that’s it.

“I genuinely believed that I’d ride better after a night out. That’s how baffling it is. It’s the only disease that tells you you don’t have a disease. I think I left a bar at 2am the Monday before Royal Ascot and rode the first three winners. I felt invincible.”

Richard Hughes: helped reignite the Gallaghers’ love of racing
Richard Hughes: "I genuinely believed that I’d ride better after a night out"Credit: Alan Crowhurst

As well as the culture, Hughes identifies other reasons for jockeys’ reliance on alcohol that are hard to change, among them the nature of the sport itself.

“It’s a tough sport, because most of the time you lose,” he says. “If you’re doing well, the loss is only temporary because you know a winner is not far away, but the guys at the middle or bottom, they have to go a long time without a winner and invariably owners will blame the jockey. If you're not a big name, it’s easier to blame the jockey.”

Then, of course, there’s the fact that, for all the laudable advances in jockeys’ nutrition, many of them still spend a lot of time unable to eat or drink in normal quantities.

“There was probably an alcoholic in me all along, but the combination of not eating and drinking accelerated it more,” Hughes adds. “It becomes a crutch.

“When I started going to AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] there were people from all walks of life and I would have made an excuse, said: ‘You don’t know what it’s like, not being able to eat or having to lose weight every day.’ I was very lucky to have Johnny Murtagh there as my sponsor to help me through all that.”

'How do we get people to reach out for help earlier?'

Whatever the reasons for those jockeys who struggle with alcohol, though, for Bland and the team at Sporting Chance there is a far more pressing question.

“We’re always asking: ‘How do we get people to reach out for help earlier?’" he says. “And we’ve not mastered that.

“The support racing gives its members is second to none, but trying to create a safe space where jockeys can admit they have a problem is the biggest challenge. People are very private, they’re self-employed, trying to get rides and make a living. They don’t want to advertise that they might have a problem. It’s important that they can trust that Sporting Chance is a safe place.

“One of the things we hear most about jockeys is that there’s a culture that’s very accepting of alcohol, and this normalisation can be another reason why people wait a long time to ask for help. Quite often the people who have come to us have gone through something, a disciplinary problem or falling-off-the-cliff moment that leads to them asking for help.”

Michael Caulfield can certainly empathise with Bland. The renowned sports psychology consultant was chief executive of the PJA for 15 years until 2003 and one of the very first people to send jockeys to the doors of Sporting Chance, but he recalls facing an uphill battle getting jockeys to reach out.

“You can encourage and prompt but there comes a point when people have to accept they have a problem, and that normally comes when something drastic happens,” he says.

Michael Caulfield:
Michael Caulfield: "We were terribly aware of these issues long before they became well recognised"Credit: Edward Whitaker

“We’ve seen it in recent years with jockeys; they often have to fall deep into the hole before they can get better. It’s a really awful time, because you can maybe see there’s an issue but they have to want to seek help. People are very good at living in denial. I know it’s prevalent in other sports too, but alcohol and racing are joined at the hip. We were terribly aware of these issues long before they became well recognised.”

However, there is hope the answer might lie in a new mental health campaign being launched jointly by Sporting Chance and the PJA on Tuesday, part of which is aimed at making jockeys more aware of the help available to them for alcohol addiction and other issues, allied to a long-term vision at the PJA to normalise the idea of jockeys seeking help.

PJA chief Ian McMahon is optimistic that an atmosphere less tied to alcohol and more accepting of open discussions can be fostered.

Speaking before recent upheaval at the PJA, he said: “There’s a culture jockeys are coming into and we’re trying to shape that culture to make asking for support normal. We want people to feel comfortable stepping forward to us in private. We’re working on it, but understand at this moment there’s a stigma potentially attached to asking for help.

“We’ve partnered with the very best people in Sporting Chance who have the benefit of working with all kinds of athletes. I’ve worked in other sports and had the benefit of living in other countries and these resources are as good as I’ve ever seen. It’s the gold standard.”

Training for jockeys to recognise symptoms in colleagues and direct them to the right resources will be increased, while McMahon is eager to tackle the external factors which could improve jockeys’ mental health.

“We want to make people more aware of what support is available,” McMahon added. “Jockeys see each other every day and will notice who’s having a bad day, so we want to teach jockeys to recognise not only what’s going on internally but also among their group of peers who may be having challenges.

“These are some of the hardest-working athletes I’ve ever been around. They have long days and are watching their weight all the time. I think there’s a lot of elements that could lead to an unhealthy relationship with alcohol or substances and we have to think about making sure they get the necessary breaks and know what options are out there for when they are finding things difficult.

“Jockeys are probably not treated as well as some professional athletes that I’ve been around, so that’s what we’re trying to improve, be that with facilities or education. It’s getting better and better and it’s just about getting it to where jockeys are treated, paid and respected as I believe they should be. Any chink in that armour could contribute to these issues, so we need to be proactive.”

Hughes believes that things are improving for jockeys today, but stresses the importance of having peers willing to lend their voice and support those struggling.

Richard Hughes byline pictures
Richard Hughes: "Jockeys speaking to other jockeys is key"Credit: Alan Crowhurst

“The issue wasn’t really talked about when I started recovery,” he says. “The world has changed a lot since then. I’m an alcoholic, it’s in me, I have one drink and I’m gone. I’ve accepted that, but it probably took me a few years to come to terms with it. There’s one point knowing you’re one but accepting you’re one – that’s the golden ticket.

“Jockeys speaking to other jockeys is key.”

Dawson would certainly concur with that.

“I think the more people talk about it, the more normal it will become,” he says. “It will take time, but it’s going the right way. It’s important to keep the conversation going. A few years ago we would have talked about the issue and then let it go again but we need to show people struggling that there are ways forward.

“Hearing others talk about their experiences gave me confidence and made me feel less alone. It’s a ripple effect, you don’t realise how many people are affected by the issue and speaking about it helps me as well.

“When you start getting better there’s so many people around you who benefit from it. It’s changed my life, and hopefully talking about it can change someone else's too.”

You can contact Sporting Chance for support here.

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Published on 15 May 2023Last updated 12:44, 18 May 2023