Jockeys: The Case For Weakness

Robbie McNamara: no place for weakness

Robbie McNamara: no place for weakness

The Case for Weakness, by Tony Keenan

I don’t know Robbie McNamara. Any knowledge I have comes from watching him on television racing coverage, seeing him at Cheltenham previews or listening to him on podcasts. I want to think I can empathise with his situation to some degree, a horrific case of having something you love taken from you long before it was due, but maybe I can’t as the circumstances are so extreme. How the jockey chooses to deal with his injuries is at his own discretion but there is something in the coverage of his situation that has made me uneasy from the start. It has been too upbeat.

The issue here is not McNamara himself but the racing bubble we live in; we know no other way to tell the story. McNamara has been faced with savage injuries and framing them in a totally positive light could be a mistake. This is paralysis we’re talking about. I’m not saying these situations can only be grim and there is never any light for the victims but I do wonder about the sort of culture we are creating about how we deal with them; does everything need to be totally positive and where is the space for weakness?

The jockey’s lot is a tough one, perhaps the toughest in professional sport. They face a demanding lifestyle: early mornings, extensive travel, surviving on the junk food that is the only thing available at motorway services after an evening meeting. For many, the job is not financially rewarding and then there is the wasting, perhaps worst of all. In a world where we are all getting bigger with advances in nutrition and medicine, there is something warped about a life where three meals a week and hot baths are the norm.

This wouldn’t be so bad if they got some respect but as PJA chief executive Paul Struthers pointed out just last week, jockeys are the victims of institutional under appreciation. They are the small people at the mercy of the whims of the big power of owners, trainers and racing authorities. Instead of being treated like the talent, they are often seen as a necessary inconvenience, many racecourses unable to even provide proper food on both sides of the Irish Sea.

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This is a hard sport and I’m reminded of the words of an old headmaster and racing fan when he said ‘there are no soccer players here.’ At any given race meeting, only six or seven jockeys can win and the mental toll of such failure, along with the daily rigours they face, has to be hard to take. Dr Philip Pritchard, the GP of choice for many of Britain’s top jump jockeys, conducted a study last year in which 15 of the 20 volunteer jockeys could have been diagnosed with depression and while those statistics may be skewed by sample size issues, the number is striking if not surprising.

And yet, the only reference I can remember to this illness, beyond the vagaries of comments about ‘dark days’ here and there, was young Irish jockey Mark Enright earlier this year. Frankly, it is inconceivable that Enright is the only jockey that suffers from depression but no one else has been able to speak publicly about it and the reason is obvious: it would be perceived as a sign of weakness in the hardest of sports. I doubt any rider wants to be known as mentally fragile, especially when the rides are being doled out.

The constant threat of injury, particularly for national hunt jockeys, is another frightening aspect of jockeys’ lives. Injuries are never pleasant but broken bones heal, no matter how crookedly. Paralysis is the scary one as not only does it take away your livelihood but also so much more. That harrowing details of Robbie McNamara’s injury have been covered but perhaps not in enough detail; it’s not that I want to know about the day-to-day hardships faced by someone in a wheelchair but that I might need to. And there are things here that we don’t want to read about, from bed sores to incontinence, but these are the realities of a paralysis sufferer and it would be unusual not to feel frail and weak and scared in such situations.

There are those that would argue that the only way to deal with all this is machismo. The wider McNamara family have been visited with more than their share of racing tragedy, Robbie’s injuries coming not far behind those of his cousin John Thomas. Reading their interviews, both McNamaras have taken a similar stoical approach to their situations. It has been notable that neither wanted their families crying around them while Robbie commented in a recent RTE broadcast that he wanted to have the same ‘manly’ attitude that John Thomas had to his difficulties. Maybe we need our sporting heroes to be like this because they are so different to the rest of us – it is only mere mortals who cry – and racing breeds this sort of attitude into its participants with the daily hardships it brings.

But so much of this seems like conforming to an expected norm and there is no more conformist sport than racing. Can you imagine an openly gay jockey? Not for a long time in Ireland [Jack Duern recently ‘came out’ in UK, Ed.]. We haven’t even got a jockey with facial hair. Inside this world, expecting people to display weakness openly is a pipe dream and that can’t be helpful for those who live in the bubble or indeed wider society; what is so wrong with admitting you might be scared? Why pretend everything is alright when it isn’t?

Social media has added another layer to all this. There is argument that people suffering from terminal illness benefit from making others aware of their predicaments through the likes of Twitter and Facebook; studies suggest that it’s a help psychologically. But no one can argue that our lives in social media are filtered. We project an ideal self, the idea that we are all successful and happy, but this sort of posturing cannot be healthy, especially for someone facing a tough time. You dare not be the one on social media that tweets out negativity, for fear that you would drag others down or, more pointedly, spoil the charade that we’re all successful and happy.

In truth, this becomes a vicious rather than a virtuous circle where many people are pretending all the time, social media being anything but the site for your true self. And isn’t that sort of pretence an act that creates a gap between reality and public persona, just the sort of thing that promotes mental illness?

There needs to be a space for weakness. As with any person, sportspeople are free to deal with their problems in any which way they choose but they shouldn’t feel any responsibility to put forward an image that they are flawless and nor should the media feel they have to cover it in a certain way. There is more than one way to deal with adversity, and just because you are broken for a time does not mean it will always be so.

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19 replies
  1. Legzdymond says:

    An excellent, thought-provoking piece Tony. A positive mental attitude is undoubtedly an advantage in sport, as it is in life, but there is no weakness in acknowledging that things can be a bit shit at times.

    Graham

  2. colin b says:

    Simples !
    Not only is NH brutal to horses – to the normal person without pecuniary interest in the “sport” that is – but it is clearly brutal to the riders too
    Where normal health and safety rules applied ( and I am talking about sensible H & S criteria) jockeys would be prohibited from the activity.

    There is no reasonable case for beating a tired horse at the end of a 3 mile chase in boggy conditions when it is then more likely to fail hurting itself and its rider.

    Ban it now

  3. buckieboy says:

    A thoughtful piece.
    What has happened to Jack Duern as he hasn’t been riding for months?
    What about femininity? With many women riders in both disciplines now and acknowledgement that masculine characters have both male and female traits, it makes one think that a lot of ‘weaker’ parts of the personality are being suppressed.
    Is the macho atmosphere of the male jockeys room a cause of a culture that adversely affects some riders?
    In a high pressure environment, like the racing world, with its constant expectations of instantaneous, error free performance there is scope for stress, self doubt, low self esteem and other factors that lead a sense of failure and worse. Despite all of the self promotion, for the majority of jockeys, the job is about riding losers not winners. The best riders rarely achieve a 20% SR, after all.
    Does the PJA offer counsellors or offer training about mental health matters?

  4. Mal Boyle
    Mal Boyle says:

    Excellent article though somewhat strangely, my mind immediately targets John Francome’s autobiography Born Lucky which suggests that jockeys have to be tough to survive and few are tougher than Francome, certainly not from the mental viewpoint.

    John’s attitude towards the “cabbage patch dolls” always stood him in good stead to survive the sport. John spoke his mind pure and simple, not caring whether is offended BHA officials (as they are known now) or a far more vicious adversary, namely Jenny Pitman!

    John kindly offered his services many years ago when I asked for him to offer some PR and when I asked him what I owed him he said don’t worry mate, there are enough people in the sport that can fund what I am doing for you. Keep your money for when you next need it.

    Francome totally and utterly ‘beat the system’ and he did it with style, decency and charisma.

    All power to his career and to him in terms of his role at looking after injured jockeys. He was never going to look after injured egos.

    Mal.

  5. Ray Thompson says:

    From my years in the NHS as a manager, counsellor and tutor, it always amazed me the way people – including many professionals in Caring/Nursing positions – would differentiate between physical and mental problems. If someone declared or were medically diagnosed that they were depressed, they would often find little or no sympathy, commonly in expressions like “Man up, for God’s sake” or the equally appalling “Oh, get over yourself”. I’d ask my students if they’d ever said anything like that to anyone who’d fallen down a flight of stairs or been in a vehicle accident and broken their legs or hips or skulls. That would get me a few sheepish looks and an embarrassed silence. But it got the point across and many thanked me eventually.

    Tony’s piece was like a breath of fresh air in the claustrophobic circles endemic in our favourite sport. I hope it wakes up at least some of the racing establishment whilst enlightening those of us who try to make our incomes from it. Thank you, Tony.

  6. MONTHEHOOPS54 says:

    Powerful stuff. a great, if uncomfortable read. Why is Colin b even on here if he hates the sport so much?

  7. IanMac says:

    buckieboy,
    Jack Duern’s employer Andrew Hollinshead quit England for France and Jack went with him. Hence now based in Chantilly and not riding over here.

    • Colzoss says:

      I believe that Jack returned from France and although takes part in Hunts he is not racing.
      A big shame in my opinion as he was a promising jockey with a very good win/place average.

  8. Peter says:

    An uncomfortable read, but an excellent one. Robbie McNamara gave a good interview to J Mullin of the racing post recently where he gave a more realistic account since the injury. While it was brilliant to read him remaining positive and getting on, he and the public benefited from his honest account of days he’s had, good and bad.
    To borrow a slogan from a recent campaign. It’s ok not to be ok.

  9. William says:

    Another great, thought provoking article from Tony. I had always thought that jockeys were quite well paid, but, except for the ones at the top, I suppose, it appears not to be the case.

  10. Bill Alexander says:

    If they change the handicapping system from using weight then this will address some of the issues. Putting the safety of the jockey and the horse first, and the “industry” second in terms of importance. Racing has to evolve, it might mean that the format changes, but if it is for the greater good then so what.

  11. cra2cor says:

    I have read every word many many times. I understand totally what this person feels. Being wheelchair bound is horrible, there are many tears, we do put on a brave face yet inside we are broken. An excellent piece of writing. Covers so much of the thoughts of people with let’s say whole bodies but when suffering what this poor but brave jockey faces, it is hell Mr. McNamara has my very best wishes.

  12. alex o'connor says:

    Lets raise minimum wights for starters. Nobody can be expected to carry out a demanding physical activity while starving themselves and at the same time to maintain a good mental outlook.

  13. Terry Warrington says:

    I have always believed that NH jockeys are vastly underrated/under paid in compariso with there flat racing counterparts.after reading this illuminating article it has reinforced this belief,Iremember way back when the jockey hierarchy included such names as Scobie Breasly Doug Smith Duncan Keith Joe & Manny Mercer a certain Lester Piggot and Sir Gordon Richards maybe distance has enhanced my enchancement but I fondly remember all these jockeys as being the personification of the “golden age” My point,in this rambling diatribe is that some authority should try some how try to legislate much better rewards for the lower paid jockeys or try to obtain greater rewards to be added to the injured jockeys fund. Maybe these scribblings are no more than “pie in the sky” but until someone does something lads like Robbie will just have to soldier on being as positive as he is, earning earning my undying admiration.

  14. John says:

    An honest thought provoking essay on the dangers inherent for every jump jockey as they saddle up be it for
    morning gallops or on the Racecourse. Tony has done a great service to Racing by reminding everyone from
    Administrators to participants to punters of the ‘ dark side ‘ of the sport and the more often we are reminded of
    this the better for the jockeys like Robbie McNamara whose predicament is life changing. And should not be
    allowed to be forgotten by minimising its effect.

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