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.
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.”