In the first of a short series which considers the impact of mental health issues, Carl Evans talks to Racing Welfare and to a well-known point-to-point rider who is facing up to his own challenges...
Racing Welfare has reminded people working or competing in point-to-point racing that it is there to provide assistance with mental health issues.
High-profile cases of people involved in racing who have opened up about mental health have focussed awareness on the issue, while a study published in May last year and commissioned by Racing Welfare concluded there was ‘a need for dialogue and debate to facilitate greater well-being in the entire British horseracing industry workforce’. Racing Welfare directly supported more than 130 sufferers from January to June this year.
Leading point-to-point rider Byron Moorcroft recently went public on his battle with mental health, while former rider Andrew Sansome has spoken of “coping strategies” he uses to deal with a sense of depression. Both men have acknowledged the hardship caused to people close to them.
There have also been some particularly poignant recent cases of those involved in racing and point-to-pointing who took their lives. Among them was former point-to-point champion rider Richard Woollacott, who had become a successful licensed trainer, and Grand National-winning jockey Liam Treadwell. Michael Keel, a well-known rider on the West Midlands point-to-point circuit, died similarly in mid-summer last year.
Friends of Keel were planning a charity Flat race to raise awareness of mental health issues, but were thwarted by the closure of racing in March due to Covid-19.
Moorcroft’s openness sheds light on subject
A Facebook post earlier this month revealed Byron Moorcroft’s long battle with mental health issues, which he says were triggered at the age of 20 by the loss of his grandfather – he was raised by his grandparents – and then by losing custody of his son, followed soon after by the death of an older friend who had been a mentor.
A champion rider in South Wales, Moorcroft said in his Facebook post: “I wanted to share with you all how I have been feeling. The past 12 years I have been suffering with my mental health, in silence.
“Recently I hit rock bottom, lower than rock bottom and in the process I’ve pushed away friends, family and those who are truly close to me. I’m sorry for my actions and behaviour that has caused pain and upset, it’s taken me so long to admit there was something wrong with me.
“I don’t want forgiveness, I don’t want pity, I want to let you all know that it’s ok not to be ok. I’m very lucky there were a few people who didn’t give up on me, encouraged me to get help and I’m here today because of them.”
Byron Moorcroft, who has opened up publicly about his struggles with mental health
A former conditional jockey, Moorcroft is just five short of a century of winners in point-to-points, yet he is another example of how success is no barrier to mental pressure. He says he has held suicidal thoughts for years, but is now in a better place, feeling “fitter and healthier than I’ve ever been and not afraid to tell my story”.
In his Facebook message, Moorcroft concluded: “I’m not 100 per cent and I’m working on improving every single day with support from the NHS, family, friends and for my sister and Shay on taking me in and helping me through my darkest days. Many Jockeys suffer in silence.
“TALK. That’s the biggest piece of advice I can give you. Don’t let it cost you your life. I hope this inspires others to open up and get the help they need.”
In a recent telephone conversation he gave more detail about the challenges he has faced, saying: “After lockdown I went into a very bad place – I was arguing with the CCTV cameras, I was hallucinating, I thought I was chasing monkeys, I would stay up for three or four nights on the trot because I was convinced people were trying to break in.” He says there have been times when he hoped a fall from a horse would kill him.
The NHS stepped in when in midsummer he was admitted to hospital after taking an overdose. Since then, with the help of specialists and friends, he has gained a new optimism about his future, and says part of that has come through learning to communicate about his issues.
He says: “Until this year I never realised that anyone had noticed there was anything wrong with me. I thought I kept it well hidden, because I was ashamed and embarrassed – I had a problem and didn’t know how to deal with it.”
Cutting back on his work load has helped, he says, adding: “I’ve turned my yard into a DIY livery yard in order to have an income, but have more time for myself. In recent years I’ve been trying to train pointers and ride out for other yards, which meant riding my horses after dark in winter. It all became too much.”
Moorcroft says he has never felt proud of himself and has considered packing up riding, but pressed on after owners and trainers said they needed his skills in the saddle. Now he has set himself a new challenge, one which he hopes will give him a sense of pride.
He says: “I’m planning a walk. I’d like to walk right around the British coastline, but I’ll start with walking the Welsh coast. It will take some planning, but I hope to start next spring, and maybe people will walk stretches of the coast with me.”
Racing Welfare’s door open to point-to-point
Kay Boyden, Racing Welfare’s Wellbeing Workforce Programme Manager, heads up a range of the charity’s services which steer people towards experts in their field.
She says: “Anyone involved in any area of racing can be a beneficiary of our work and access our services. That includes people who work in point-to-pointing.”
Racing Welfare's Kay Boyden
Boyden does not believe racing is a special case with above average cases of mental health sufferers, and says increased general awareness of the subject within society has opened up the topic. However, this prompted Racing Welfare to step up its involvement and led to a study it commissioned by Liverpool John Moore’s University.
“The study’s findings were a starting point for us and helped us to focus in on some of the issues facing people,” says Boyden. “It backed up what our welfare officers, who are spread across Britain, were seeing on the ground. Our website now has lots of information, while the officers provide a holistic service, recognising that poor mental health can be connected to other issues which are affecting a person. Money or housing worries would be examples of issues that can trigger a long-term problem.”
Boyden is keen to stress that maintaining good mental health is just as important as addressing mental ill-health, and that a key part of Racing Welfare’s approach is preventative services. The charity’s website carries information on ways of staying mentally healthy – check out www.support.racingwelfare.co.uk.
Racing’s Support Line 24/7 telephone no: 0800 6300 443 (24hr access to Racing Welfare services, includes listening ear service for times when people just need someone to talk to)
Website: www.racingwelfare.co.uk (includes live chat service to talk to Support Line team)
Online self-help advice and guidance – www.support.racingwelfare.co.uk
Text – 07860 079 043