Jockeys' Mental Health and Wellness Symposium Held in Saratoga

Jonathon Kinchen, Eurico Da Silva, Dr. Yuval Neria, Trevor McCarthy and Richard Migliorie participate in jockey mental health panel | Katie Petrunyak

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY – The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) and the Jockeys' Guild hosted a symposium on the mental health and wellness of jockeys on Aug. 1 at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga.

The event was organized after a similar discussion conducted in May at Keeneland shared the results of a survey of 230 jockeys that revealed that, among other findings, a third of jockeys had faced challenges in their daily lives over the past month due to feelings of sadness, anxiety and depression. The survey also reported that the jockeys' biggest pressures included making weight, the pressure to win and not making a livable wage.

The meeting at Keeneland was a wake-up call for many of its attendees, so much so for Dan Waits, the Executive Director of the Race Track Chaplaincy, that he initiated an immediate plan for all of his chaplains across the country to go through a suicide prevention training called QPR.

Waits was one of several speakers at this week's symposium in Saratoga hoping to spread awareness and make a difference in the lives of jockeys. Emceed by Donna Brothers, the event hosted nearly 100 attendees including riders like Johnny Velazquez, Javier Castellano, Junior Alvarado, Jose Ortiz, Kendrick Carmouche and Luis Saez, plus retired jockeys Angel Cordero Jr. and Ramon Dominguez.

Randy Grimes, a former NFL player and an addiction recovery advocate, was the keynote speaker while a panel featured former jockeys Richard Migliore and Eurico Da Silva and current jockey Trevor McCarthy, as well as racing analyst and podcast host Jonathon Kinchen and Dr. Yuval Neria, the co-director of the Man O'War Project–which explores the use of equine-assisted therapy to help individuals suffering from mental health problems.

Throughout the afternoon, the conversation was open and at times deeply personal as participants discussed the lives of jockeys, leading Dr. Neria to remark that he was amazed at the presenters' willingness to share and believed it to be “a moment of paradigm shift” for the sport.

Several topics regarding the difficulties athletes experience were brought up by both Grimes and the panel. Chief among those issues was the struggle to share what they were going through with others.

Grimes described how he played his last two years of professional football in a complete blackout and referenced how at the time, he believed self-medication was “a necessary evil” every athlete participated in, but that he was “suffering in silence” because his teammates never discussed exactly how they were able to push past injuries in order to remain on the playing field.

Migliore echoed a similar experience during his time riding.

“There is kind of an unspoken thing in the jocks' room–don't show weakness,” he said. “You play hurt. If you're in a slump, you don't talk about the slump because that will perpetuate the slump.”

Fellow jockey Da Silva shared how he had been ashamed to seek help when he was dealing with depression and anxiety. He began going to therapy early in his career, but when he moved his tack to Canada, he did not go to therapy for over a year because he was afraid others at the racetrack would find out about his struggles.

In his In The Money podcast, Jonathon Kinchen dedicated an episode earlier this year to discussing these challenges jockeys experience and bringing mental health problems to the limelight (find the podcast here).

“If you hear the conversation, that's when you'll start asking for help,” he said. “If someone that [a jockey] looks up to says that they struggle, then when [the jockey] struggles, they won't feel isolated and maybe they'll find the help they're looking for.”

Kinchen also addressed the negative impacts that criticism, particularly negative feedback on social media, can have on jockeys.

“The number one thing is that you're not alone,” Migliore said when prompted to give advice to the jockeys in the room. “I think all riders battle through those type of things throughout their career, but the more you isolate, in your mind the harder it is to overcome the things you're dealing with because now you're alone. The more you seal off and keep people at arm's length, the harder it's going to be to pull out of it. It doesn't make you weak for getting help or asking for help or bringing it out into the light. You're even stronger for that.”

Near the conclusion of the program, the families of two young jockeys that died earlier this year from suicide gave heartfelt messages to the program's participants. Ashley Canchari, sister of Alex Canchari who passed away in March, and Lyman and Dr. Salli Whisman, the parents of Avery Whisman who died two months earlier, both shared how it had been meaningful to listen to the panel open up about some of the struggles that their loved one had also dealt with.

Dr. Whisman talked about how, following the passing of her son, the Whisman family had posed the question of how the racing industry may have contributed to Avery's mental health issues. Months later, she received a call from Dr. Peter Hester, HISA's medical director, about how HISA was working on plans to improve upon the resources available to jockeys.

“It surprised me,” she said. “I didn't expect to hear that HISA had been working on this. Avery had been in their minds and their hearts and their eyesight and that one simple curated comment that we thought the industry needed to look at this had taken some root. There had been work done. It wasn't going to be dropped or left alone and it wasn't up to us to make sure that something was done.”

During the 'Q and A' portion of the event, attendees expressed how easy access to resources like mental health professionals and nutritionists would benefit jockeys, especially because many cannot afford these resources themselves.

HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus reported that HISA is working with the Jockeys' Guild to address these ideas.

“We have some of the initial components in place,” she said. “We want to make the commitment that there will be outcomes and there are a number of things that we are looking at around nutrition, therapy, and financial education.”

Lazarus also announced two new initiatives by HISA that are set to launch in conjunction with the Jockeys' Guild.

The first, HeadCheck Health, will provide a concussion management platform for jockeys.

“The platform is designed to improve the management and care of riders with a concussion or suspected concussion,” Lazarus explained. “HeadCheck will also provide a secure HIPAA-compliant system for jockeys to store medical records and make them easily available to physicians should an emergency arise.”

The second new initiative is a partnership with the healthcare company Novacare. Lazarus explained that HISA has been working with Novacare for the last six months to identify trained medical staff at locations closest to each racetrack to provide HISA-required healthcare services to jockeys.

“Jockeys can now go to any one of these locations, get an athlete physical and complete a concussion baseline during one appointment at a discounted price,” she reported. “Novacare has also set up a phone number for jockeys to call, in English and Spanish, that will help schedule appointments at the closest racetrack. “

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