Hope from darkness as riders share powerful accounts of addiction recovery to help others

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  • Two jockeys have given a powerful account of their recovery from addiction to give hope to those in dark places.

    Flat jockeys Kieran Shoemark and Ray Dawson spoke openly about their own experiences and journeys in the new “Jockey Matters” film, urging others not to wait until things get worse, but to speak to someone sooner rather than later if they are struggling.

    The film, supported by the Tom Maynard Trust, was launched on 8 September to mark the announcement by the Professional Jockeys Association (PJA) of a formal partnership with Sporting Chance as the official provider of mental and emotional wellbeing support service to jockeys.

    “I was drinking because I felt bad and I didn’t want to feel any more, so I did and took anything I could not to feel,” said Ray. “And if that meant I was going to sacrifice my career at that moment in time, that’s what I did. The next day I would wake up and think ‘who was that person? That wasn’t me’. But it was me. It was me when I drank.

    “Within racing, you get a lot of days that are disappointing — a lot more lows than there are highs — and I think I dealt with them the wrong way. If I didn’t win on a favourite, or I gave something a bad ride, or my boss gave out to me — anything — I just ran straight to the drink. I think from a very young age I just built up a really bad relationship with drink and why I was drinking.”

    He added that he was in a dark place, felt very lonely and as if he had “let everyone down”, and it reached the stage he knew he needed help.

    “I was a bit afraid to reach out and tell someone about all my demons, because I was afraid I was going to lose my career,” he said. “As soon as I started talking about it to the right people, straight away I felt a big weight off my shoulders and I had a little bit of hope.”

    Kieran said he was in a “vicious circle”, which got worse following an injury at Lingfield.

    “I used to wake up and promise myself I wasn’t going to have a drink, but by the time I’d lost all my weight [I needed to for the day], gone racing, got back in the car, I was thirsty and it felt good, but it was a vicious circle that was just going round and round,” he said.

    “I was drinking every single night, I was taking cocaine a lot in the week and was in a state of fear worrying if the drug testers were going to be at the races — that’s no way to live.”

    Kieran added that speaking about it with people is a massive help.

    “When I go to a meeting and share, I come out feeling 100 times better,” he said. “I was just bottling things up, in the years I was drinking, and I felt like I had no one.”

    The film also features PJA chief executive Paul Struthers, and Alex Mills, head of education at Sporting Chance, who explain what support is available for those with addictions.

    “It can destroy a career if left completely unchecked,” said Mr Struthers. “But the great thing now is at the PJA — and for a few years — we’ve been able to support jockeys and help them to get out the other side. One of the benefits of racing is that it is a very forgiving sport and many people in racing are open to second chances, but it’s always up to the individual to want to take the second chance.

    “Anyone who is in trouble, we are here to help. You can condemn the behaviour, but you don’t have to condemn the individual. As Ray and Kieran found, we were there to help them, not to pass judgement on them.

    “Waiting to reach rock bottom makes everything harder. It makes it harder on the people around you, harder to come back in your career, and harder on you personally. It’s never too late and the sooner you do it, the quicker the chance of a speedy recovery.

    “You can come and speak to us before you’ve tested positive — don’t wait for that moment.”

    Both jockeys are now doing well and want others to see that help is out there.

    “Kieran and Ray are role models in how they’ve turned their lives around and are both a credit to themselves and to Sporting Chance,” said Mr Struthers.

    “There is no shame in experiencing any form of struggle or asking for help and we are not here to judge anyone, simply to help them reach a better place.

    “We have been working successfully with Sporting Chance for some time now and have been hugely impressed by them as, more importantly, have our members that they have worked with.

    “There is a strong link between poor mental wellbeing and substance abuse so we are delighted that we can now offer via Sporting Chance a holistic support package to jockeys who are experiencing any form of issue in relation to their mental wellbeing, whether or not that is linked to substance abuse or misuse.”

    Sporting Chance founder, former Arsenal footballer, Tony Adams said the support the PJA offers its members is “excellent and we are pleased to be part of their package of care”.

    “Horseracing is one of the most physically and emotionally demanding sports we have worked with and jockeys are amazing athletes facing a unique set of challenges,” he said. “Sporting Chance will provide a confidential, professional and safe place for jockeys to get support and find solutions for any emotional or mental health concerns they might have.”

    Funding for the PJA’s mental wellbeing support, including Sporting Chance, is provided by Great British Racing as part of the jockeys’ championships, Racing Foundation and the PJA’s reserves.

    “We are proud to continue to make this annual contribution to the PJA’s mental wellbeing support as part of our work on the jockeys’ championships. Mental health issues have never been more pressing and we hope that the services provided through this partnership allows anyone in the weighing room that may need it, to get the help and support that they need,” added Great British Racing chief executive Rod Street.

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