Competitive Anger by Donna Barton Brothers

TV commentator and former jockey Donna Barton Brothers is the author of Inside Track: Insider’s Guide to Horse Racing.

 It’s been a tough year for jockeys, some of whom have found their names in the news—and not in a positive way. Those controversies prompted me, a former jockey, to reflect on the challenges that many jockeys face.

I know, I know, we all face challenges. “Get over it!” we’re told, and, to some extent, I agree. But there are challenges unique to jockeys that can make it difficult for them to blend seamlessly into society at the end of the day.

Can we all agree that intense competition brings intense emotions? Well, one of those emotions is anger. To be a top-level professional athlete, it’s not enough to want to win. You have to want it more than the next guy. When two jockeys and horses hook up in a head-to-head battle through the stretch, jaws are clenched, minds are set, and a sheer force of will is exerted. In order to feel that intensity of desire, you have to want the other guy to lose, and in order to feel that emotion, one has to say, “Screw you; this is mine!” You have got to pull up some anger.
So now you have athletes who are able to push the anger button in an instant and, in racing, they might do this several times a day. Add to this volatile cocktail the fact they’re probably working on an empty stomach and it becomes easier to see why it’s hard to take this anger, fold it up neatly, and tuck it away at the end of the day. To be a top-level athlete, you have to store your anger in a place that is easily accessible; there’s no other way.  

Very few professional athletes have mastered the skill of separation: Chris McCarron, Johnny Velazquez, Peyton Manning, Jim Brown (retired NFL player), Roy McIlroy (golfer) come to mind. And, to be honest, I couldn’t think of any others or even one NBA player who fits the bill. It’s just not that easy.

Listen to Donna Barton Brothers on Talkin' Horses with The Blood-Horse.

I am not suggesting that everyone should feel sorry for these athletes. Nor am I suggesting we should raise the scale of weights to lessen their burden. Jockeys choose this profession, and the last time I checked there was no shortage of small people eager to sport little white pants and get paid to ride horses for a living. I’m simply suggesting we judge with a more forgiving eye.

I am happy I was a jockey, and I’m proud of my achievements, but I can honestly say I was not a happy person when I was a jockey. It’s taken me many years to understand why because it’s true that I love horses and competition and, by most standards, I was successful. Upon reflection I see it was the necessary anger I brought to work every day, and, not understanding this at the time, it wasn’t so easy to leave it behind.

Maybe Tyler Baze (recently suspended indefinitely for refusing a breathalyzer test in California after having previously failed a breathalyzer test) is facing some of these challenges right now; I don’t know, but I surely hope he gets the help he needs. One can only hope we will not see more tragic stories such as the death of promising rider Michael Baze from an apparent accidental overdose. Maybe he too had anger issues left unaddressed.

As for Calvin Borel’s much publicized DUI, I’m inclined to believe his faux pas was more a case of having a couple of beers on an empty stomach after the races and before he left the jock’s room. In fact, I rode at Ellis Park for two summers and as soon as I read about Calvin’s DUI I thought, “I wish I had thought of that. Drinking. Maybe that would’ve made my time in Henderson, Ky., more bearable!”

Jockey Mike Smith could not have been more remorseful or contrite in the aftermath of his DUI and I believe he learned a good lesson from this incident.  

I am in no way condoning drinking and driving, but given the emotions jockeys need to bring to the track everyday, it’s no wonder they may need to find a way to settle down before easing back into society each day. In the years after my career as a jockey, I’ve learned to meditate and to enjoy a walk in the woods in a way I never had the time or space to do as a jockey. I wish I had learned these things sooner too.

All the same, let us all try to be a bit more forgiving when athletes don’t meet us with a ready smile and try to understand that, while we all face challenges, their challenges are unique and difficult to leave behind. And we all know that “nice guys finish last.”


Leave a Comment:

Rachel NH

We all choose our career fields. I'm the Mom of a young Marine who just came back from his 3rd deployment...the wife, niece, daughter-in-law and friend of many police officers and fire fighters and what they see and deal with every day and then go home to their families and "normal" world is far harder than playing the grand game of sports.

I respect atheletes, appreciate their challenges, appreciate their desire to win, but it's all a game.

27 Sep 2011 3:22 PM
Salvatore Carcia

I rarely think of an professional athletes as being nice people. Most of the great one are abrasive. As a Boston fan whenever Larry Byrd, Roger Clemens or Bill Russell spoke, I could only hope the interview would end quickly for damage control reasons. In racing, I always thought Jerry Bailey was not so nice either. That is until one day when I saw him in a long interview at Saratoga. Right then, I knew he was about to retire. It happened shortly thereafter. Now, Jerry and the rest above(mostly) are really nice people.

28 Sep 2011 6:41 AM

ummmm.... does that condone Borel's outburst on the track at lasy year's Breeder's Cup?  Or the abuse reports of spouses that have been made public ( I won't name names)?  No one refuses a breath-o-lizer unless they have cause to fear.  Sure, we all slip, but some of these jockeys need anger management training, just like everyone else.  Simply because they are an "athelete" does not excuse this behaviour.  As for "having a few beers on an empty stomach", that simply does not justify the decision to then get behind the wheels of a motor vehicle.  Your article, Donna, simply fails to address the one thing that ALL of us need- both on and off the job- sound judgement.

28 Sep 2011 7:11 AM

Nice work, Donna; much of it applicable to all walks of life. Believe we are all understating weight. In many countries the boys carry 125/130 with no appreciable negative consequences. These people lead a difficult life as age and weight conspire against them. Relaxed standards would be a positive for all aspects of the business.

28 Sep 2011 7:35 AM

We live in a rough society.  People sometimes expect more of us than we can give. All people in professional sports have a GREAT deal of stress. At times there is so much money involved and the need to be the best is bottled up until it is no longer bearable. Anger is one way to relieve some of the pressure but it is not the cure all, then you have hunger and the anger and the stress.  Jockeys do the best they can everyday no matter what, its' their job and we need to realize that they are human, like doctors, and make mistakes, and fail. We all fail even in times of extreme pressure. It is my hope that owners and trainers and jockeys will realize that to fail is not the end, that you will ride to glory another day, just not that day.  I can understand the drinking, the drugs and the abuse, where else can the pressure to be the best go? I salute the jockeys for all the pressure they carry and still continue to be the best they can be. They are amazing people.

28 Sep 2011 10:09 AM
Bill Two

Considering the training regimen that most jockeys have to adhere to it amazes me they don't exhibit more dysfuntional behavior. I certainly feel that before someone criticizes jockeys who misbehave think about what it is like to chronically starve yourself and/or engage in bulimia on a daily basis. Then climb into a hot box to sweat off some extra pounds or jog for several miles every day on an empty stomach. Then try to stay balanced on a thoroughbred travelling between 35 and 40 mph while being bumped, jostled, stopped and generally getting beat up through all kinds of weather.  I agree that bad behavior cannot be excused, but I can understand how it happens.  Thanks for the article.

28 Sep 2011 10:23 AM
Slew Dee-va

Thank you for an interesting article, Donna.  One thing I wanted to mention is adrenaline. I will start by saying that I am not a jockey, have never competed on horseback other than barrel racing on a entry level. I work for a police dept. as a non-sworn police personnel and have to go to driving school every couple of years. One thing they showed us was a study on adrenaline. The study showed that driving "lights and sirens" dumps large amounts of adrenaline into the body in seconds. That same adrenaline takes a long time to get out of a person's system. So if the officer has to do multiple "lights & sirens" calls in a day, the adrenaline has an accumulant effect on the body.  This is one reason officers are can be very aggressive and forceful after a long chase or intense stand off situation. Before everyone gets riled...I do NOT condone these types of actions, but having driven "lights & sirens" and feeling the jittery nerves/anger that the adrenaline gives me, I can see how it could happen. I have been taught to stop and take several deep breaths before leaving my vehicle, but officers often do not have that option as they are trying to help someone or apprehend someone. My point in all this is simply...jockeys are surely be having the same adrenaline dumps into their bodies during races and with such a short time between races, the acculmulative effect would be in place as well.  Does this okay DUIs, aggression, or other bad behavior, absolutely not. It does, however, show that there is a likely biological reason for it happening. Perhaps a solution would be to give the jockeys some way of working that adrenaline down to a manageable level before they leave the jockey room for the day.  Again, I do not condone bad behavior by anyone--jockeys, officers, or Joe Blow down the street--just giving my opinion.

28 Sep 2011 1:00 PM

Anger can be useful , like when a person slanders another,and makes them mad. This has an effect of the injured party working even harder (to prove them wrong ) and can be a good tool.."Fueled by anger'' can be a good thing IF the anger is controlled & put into prospective.

Stress can lead to some bad habits in order to relieve oneself OF stress level.

Finding that balance helps a lot.

Knowing WHY your angry is important. Does the anger surface due to a past situation , or is the anger "In the moment" and charged by adreniline , such as during a race. Just like a horse, you can't learn or do your best if your SO angry that it over-rides judgement.

AT B.C. when Borel & others nearly suffered a death-defying accident. I was 100% on Borels side & I can understand his anger. I did not judge or hold his actions against him, not for one second.

In the future , He & others may have to think before they act as the race is a public forum...but that is easier said then done when you were the one in the positon of Borel and the other jockeys IN that race.

I think that there is a healthy competitive spirit in racing, and not always a need to feel anger, it would be hard to race a horse AND be angry at the sme time, so I think the anger is not really during a race but may come later...a built up anger. We all have such feelings, it is how we handle those feelings that makes the ''Cream rise to the top "

I admire ANY rider who will mount up on a bolt of lightening and race hell bent for leather. This is an extreme sport & all emotions come into play, it is part of the game and you have to be


However ,don't let anger control you, keep your focus of intent & let it prevail !

30 Sep 2011 10:54 AM

Slew Dee-va and others, thanks so much for all of your comments.  I read all of them and appreciate your feedback--even from those who do not agree with me.  

Slew Dee-va, thanks so much for the information above about adrenaline.  This was all news to me but, yes, certainly would apply to jockeys as well.  I can't tell you how many times I came back to the jock's room after a race to find that I had cut my hand or bruised my arm or leg and had, literally, NO idea how or when it happened, only that it had happened during the race.  That's adrenaline.  The best pain killer in the world.  

Thanks to everyone!  Donna Brothers~

01 Oct 2011 7:35 AM

A fine and interesting article, Ms. Brothers, but Jim Brown?  He has a well documented, almost half-century history of, let's call it, behaving rather poorly off the field.

04 Oct 2011 8:21 AM


Great article.  My husband was a top elite runner in this country, excelled at the 5K and 10K, won a few marathons, ROY in NY and NJ, and never to this day has had an alcholic drink.  He never displayed a public burst of anger in competition.  I don't recall Walt Frazier EVER losing his cool, or Senator Bill Bradley ever cursing on the basketball court.  I grew up an athlete myself and I can fully understand the competitive pressures and the jockeys have unique pressures, as they are dealing with securing mounts, competition against each other, health insurance issues, weight and eating disorder issues, etc.  Hunger and anger seems to be a volatile combination, resulting in too many domestic issues and substance abuse issues.  To me it seems the jockeys need counseling to mentally become stronger and handle these issues BEFORE the issues become bigger than life itself and disrupts their lives to an irretrievable point.  I have tremendous respect for the jockeys, they have to have strength to stay aboard 1000 lb. animals and risk great bodily injury in doing so.  It must be awful having to constantly weigh yourself and not being able to go out to dinner with family and friends normally, that in itself must be hard on their kids and wives and families. I think the industry needs to provide counseling on a healthy eating and vitamin regimen lifestyle for them as well as providing them with the ability to be better equipped mentally to deal with the pressures.  If our great thoroughbreds can be well taken care of then those that ride atop them need nutritionists, therapists, etc. and be taken care of just as well.

04 Oct 2011 8:38 PM

A person who wants to be a jockey knows how tough it is. Most people cannot imagine a seven day a week job where you might get a ride you might not. You might be able to eat today, but maybe you better wait for that phone call first. You might get paid for that ride. You might not. This horse might kill you but if it does'nt you might get rich. This is alot different than going to work and typing the report on time, walking to the coffee machine and finding out someone ate all the doughnuts today.

09 Oct 2011 10:02 AM

I just stumbled on this article so I am late in making a comment. I really enjoyed the article, Donna, and found the comment on the accumulation of adrenaline very informative. That certainly explains a lot.

The drive to win and the inherent anger of being competitive is something that just cannot be shut off in an instant & has to be recognized as part of this sport as well as the ones the public usually thinks of like football ("Go out there and rip their heads off and s___ down their necks!")hockey and boxing.

I think anger management is a great idea. Most people really don't know what it is and it sounds like a joke or telling yourself not to be mad. But there are real techniques that work. If you do breathing exercises your body will relax and your brain will follow.

I have more admiration for the difficulty of being a jockey than any other professional sport. I did not always feel this way but now understanding the physical deprivation, total commitment of your life, the strength required and the sheer danger involved, I cant think of any sport more demanding or underpaid or "lonely." Maybe that is the wrong word but the jockey is a hired hand, an independent contractor. There are no team doctors, dietitians, sports psychologists, financial counseling, and negotiated benefits packages like other professional sports. Not that I am aware of anyway.

Jockeys do not get paid if they lose. When you only get paid $50-$100 to put your life on the line each time you ride, which they do several times a day and all your insurance life & medical, work costs, etc. come out of your own pocket: and the only real pay is if you hit the board/ I just can't think of any other sport that would hit that anger button the same way. Each ride is a fight for survival in every way. Possibly professional boxing compares. It involves many of the same issues but the winnings are not even in the same universe. Is the love of riding or the horse part of it?

So I do have compassion for human problems that surface in this sport. They are in all our families or maybe in ourselves. Jockeys should not be held to a higher standard than the rest of us. It would behoove us to offer support, preventative measures for jockeys. It would also add more respect for the sport to the general public. The sport needs to take care of its own, people and horses.

Thanks for letting me have my say!

29 Nov 2011 1:31 PM

Chris McCarron is such a nice guy as well as a number of other Jockeys I had the pleasure of running into. Even Robby Albarado was nothing but kind to me and that's all I can go by, I can't read all this about them and judge I judge on personal exp. As for the DUI's betcha I know more non-athletes to get 1 and some 2 (yeah real bright). Anyway just because they're in a the spotlight sorta say in the industry because let's face it unless you know racing people don't know who Pat Day is or these other great athletes! Point is they're people too and make mistakes, they get angry, they get drunk, they make mistakes life goes on. Jockey Mike Smith is an absolute gym rat who does things the right way to keep weight and others can too of they choose. Again humans all make mistakes and all either do what's right or don't. It's not athletes it's called being a human being.

21 Aug 2012 4:30 AM

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