Jockeys riding with resilience

8 January 2024 Written by Trevor Marshallsea

The world of professional jockeys can involve pressure, physical challenges, and a constant quest for success. Riders use various techniques and broader support systems to strive for strength and excellence on and off the racetrack.

James Winks retired from race riding comparatively early at 36 with a medical issue and pondered what he might have benefitted from in his career in the saddle.

“All other athletes – football players, cricketers, tennis players, whoever – they all have a coach,” he said. “Jockeys are athletes, but they’d never really had coaches.”

The more he thought, the less sense it made. Jockeys apply a trade in which “failure”, or at least not winning, dominates. A good day at the office may comprise riding one winner – plus six or seven other rides that leave them absorbing defeat, often pondered on a lonely drive home with criticism from trainers or punters echoing in their minds.

“What I lacked,” said Melbourne-based Winks, “was someone to debrief with and bounce off. Also, someone to go into your game day with, with a bit of a plan, while helping give a jockey the confidence to back their judgment.”

Hand in hand with performance analysis, Winks saw a need to help address the mental, emotional, and motivational challenges faced by the brave people whose love for their vocation sits alongside having an ambulance follow them at work. There was also the arduous occupational hazard that most jockeys must stay in prime condition for 30 or so years whilst keeping their weight down.

Talking with jockeys, trainers and others before the race is important for riders' mental health. (Racing Photos)

Starting with just one rider, Regan Bayliss, Winks has built JMW Management to the point of having 15 clients, including Melbourne’s premier jockey Jye McNeil, Jordan Childs, Sydney’s Sam Clipperton and Louise Day, and the now Hong Kong-based Brenton Avdulla.

Body management is one fundamental part of his service. Most jockeys are kept fit by trackwork and race riding – conveniently great for core strength – but Winks also targets an area previously neglected: recovery.

We catch him just after a session with McNeil at Brighton Baths, involving a treadmill, a bike, a steam room and the cold ocean. Winks learnt about recovery from a friend, Adam Houlihan, who had had access to sports science most jockeys could only dream of when playing AFL for Geelong and Richmond.

“Jockeys are athletes, and they’ve got to treat themselves like athletes and respect their body. Adam taught me how to recover, and I’ve read into it; things like cold water plunges to release dopamine in the body,” said Winks, who’d also been throwing tennis balls at McNeil to catch while balancing on a gym half-ball, for reflexes.

Physical fitness is one aspect. Winks also ensures his clients do not fight other human battles alone.

“We talk before the races: ‘Are you ready?’ ‘Are you in the zone?’" he says. “But – most importantly – after the races. Was it their best or worst day? It’s more important if they’ve had their worst.

“I had those long drives home after a bad day myself when it’s just you in the car. It’s important to debrief, to realise it’s not the end of the world, and what could be improved next time.”

Winx acknowledges that jockeys need balance, and in a sport with no off-season, he insists his riders institute a “finish line” by scheduling holidays.

Louise Day valued the guidance immensely when she sought Winks’ assistance during the challenging period of pandemic restrictions limiting her to Sydney's metropolitan area – a daunting transition for the Irish expatriate who had recently completed her apprenticeship.

“I wasn’t getting a lot of rides. It was very difficult,” she said. 

“So it was good to have someone to talk to before and after race meetings, who’d been a jockey. James is a jockey coach but also a life mentor too. You can talk to him about anything. Fitness, weight, mental health – he’s the all-round package.”

Childs similarly credits Winks for helping him out of lean times. Partly that involved strategising by targeting relationships with different, more successful stables at trackwork.

“When your confidence is down, you can try too hard, and then things can go wrong,” Childs said. “James has a lot of different quotes he uses to keep your confidence up.”

All Victorian riders can – and many do – access support from the Jockey Assistance Program, an independent collaboration backed by Racing Victoria and the Victorian Jockeys’ Association. You won’t hear much about it due to professional confidentiality, but since 2001 it has worked with hundreds of jockeys – from Group 1 riders to fresh apprentices – in a holistic way, including help with riding performance, plus physical and mental health.

Headed by sports psychologist Lisa Stevens, a former showjumper who is also the team psychologist for the Western Bulldogs, the body’s work encompasses family support, grief and relationship counselling, child therapy, and assistance for apprentices and retired jockeys.

The program draws from 100 psychologists, psychiatrists and other advisors and provides 24/7 assistance – often helpful in an era of toxic social media.

“Even the best jockey is losing around 80% of the time,” Stevens said. “Being able to manage that, and the pressures from punters, social media, owners and trainers … there’s so much pressure on jockeys, and it takes a lot of concentration and focus to put all that aside and perform.

“Just like physical strength and conditioning, your mental skills and your ability to focus on the right thing at the right time takes a lot of practice.

The landscape of riders’ preparation has been changing, with increasing numbers practising yoga and meditation to keep body and mind in the right zone for race day.

Unlike most professions, jockeys also must perform knowing the dangers involved in their calling and the inevitability of physical harm.

“Most have to deal with coming back from injury and batting up again,” Stevens said. “You never know when self-preservation might kick in at the wrong time, so we’ve got to override what is normal to front up again, and safely.”

Stevens said counsellors will often be called on, at the end of a disappointing day, to “help jockeys put it to bed, and get a good night’s sleep”, the better to approach their next book of rides with a clear mind.

“The above-the-shoulders component of all sport is really important,” she said, “and I’m glad we’ve got a program that provides the sort of support needed by elite athletes, and by people like former jockeys and family, who are going through a whole range of different things.”