Can Racing Do Anything About Its Suicides?

‘Found dead at his home.’

‘Found dead at her home’

Press doublespeak for suicide; it helps stigmatise it, for surely suicide should be stigmatised? There’s been a recent trend toward de-stigmatising depression, yet its deadly partner is rarely discussed. And that approach doesn’t seem to be working, does it?

Liam Treadwell, god rest his poor soul, is the latest victim who was a direct participant in racing. I mention the participant factor as it might well add an increased element of risk in attracting those who are or could be vulnerable to depression. Many with underlying depression seek – often unknowingly – something that will make them feel better, even temporarily.

The brain chemicals Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin, and Endorphins (DOSE) when stimulated make us feel good. When we do something that makes us feel good, we want to do it again. That’s why so many depressives are addicts. Winning races makes you feel you’re king or queen of the world, even for a minute. Once experienced, how do you wean yourself off that?

And what do you get from being locked in a tiny stall sitting on the back of half a ton of primitive muscle, with tons more of it either side of you waiting to beat you to the punch in a race that can make or break your career?  Or heading to the downhill fence at Cheltenham in the Queen Mother Champion Chase immersed in hoofbeats, horse sweat, clinking irons, barging rivals and a big bloody black fence barring your way as you feel the air being sucked into the massive ribcage beneath you in preparation for this final battle?


Were you ever more alive?

Does the memory of it ever fade?

Many retired jockeys mention two things: missing the adrenaline rush and missing the atmosphere in the jockey’s changing room, a place where, no matter the state of the million other aspects in your life, everyone in there understands you.  How many of us can say the same about our work colleagues?

Surely racing can do something to help with the latter? Set aside an exclusive jockeys’ room at every track and give every damn one of the men and women who’ve pursued race riding as a living free access for life. At best they can then relive past glories and remake old friendships. At worst they can once again be with those who understand them.

As to racing’s youth at the riding academies. We owe it to them to warn them of what lies far ahead. They deserve to know that one of the invisible attractions that have pulled them there to learn might be some chemical imbalance that could lead to full blown depression.

And finally, racing will not be alone in attracting potential depressives; almost all sports will qualify in this (as do acting and other public-eye careers). Maybe racing could work with other sports to carry out more research into the causes and cures for this vile disease, one that’s almost impossible to explain to non sufferers. My wife Margy has been disabled by depression and anxiety for the past 14 years (I am her carer). We used to live on a road used by funeral corteges. Margy, after successful treatment, sat watching a cortege one day through the window and said to me, ‘You’ve no idea how many of those I watched wishing I was the one in the back of the hearse.’

Of her anxiety I once asked her to try to explain it to me. She said, ‘It’s like I know the worst thing in the world is going to happen to me, and it’s going to happen very, very soon.’

Happily Margy is mostly stable these days, and if you are reading this as a sufferer, Margy’s third stay in a psychiatric unit was ten months long; but it set her up for a life worth living even though it took a further eighteen months to get her medication right.  I can’t emphasise strongly enough that last part: much of depression medication is hit and miss, especially when handled by an overworked GP. Margy had the good fortune of having a panel of psychiatric and pharmaceutical professionals to turn to (the pharmacist told me there were 64 different anti-depressants to perm from, and that was excluding anti-psychotics).

Again, I tell you this in the hope you will persevere or that someone will on your behalf. There is a clinical solution to the vast majority of mental illnesses. If you can somehow find the fortitude to persevere, and if you have a supportive GP, you are a hundred to one on to get better.

Racing Twitter does well in its pleas to ‘just talk’. No disrespect to those advocating this, but someone in deep depression often finds talking as hard as flying. It is when they are well enough to be receptive we must do our work to help. Some, at least, of that help should be in lobbying on their behalf for treatment by a professional panel like the one Margy was so fortunate to find.

Joe McNally



  1. Hi Joe

    I am moved to write in response to your excellent article which is filled with insight and compassion. I totally agree that racing, in common with so many sports, needs to do more to help former participants, stars and journeyman and your idea of providing a space for former jockeys to congregate to remain part of the community is a great one. Why not go a step former and offer anyone who has ridden in say 50 races under rules free access to a track on race day throughout the year. The PR could be enormous.

    Best wishes to you and your wife and thanks for this and all the other articles over the years.



  2. Excellent article Joe . this part struck me …” Many retired jockeys mention two things: missing the adrenaline rush and missing the atmosphere in the jockey’s changing room, a place where, no matter the state of the million other aspects in your life, everyone in there understands you. How many of us can say the same about our work colleagues?”

    You can replace retired jockeys with many professions , in fact anything really . As an Ex – Serviceman your Training and Strict Structure while in that Profession , can quickly lead to a feeling of Alienation as i like to put it , when you return to Civilian Life . Alienation is a form of Depression i believe , not quite fitting in , the feeling of pointlessness and this leads to addictions as you point out . The Brain needs rewards but it is lazy so it kids us into thinking those addictions are the quickest way to satisfy ourselves.


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