Focus Asia

Hong Kong Jockey Club gives response to rider wellbeing concerns

The Hong Kong Jockey Club has responded to Joao Moreira’s call for better mental wellbeing support for jockeys but stopped short of acknowledging any shortcomings on its part or detailing what its current provision includes.

Andrew Harding, the HKJC’s executive director of racing, sent an emailed statement to Asia Bloodstock News in response to a series of questions regarding Moreira’s experience, the make-up of the organisation’s athlete wellbeing support, and what that might look like in the future.

The statement said: “The Club takes very seriously every aspect of the physical and mental wellbeing of jockeys.”

The HKJC’s work in ensuring its cohort of around 25 jockeys receives outstanding support when it comes to their physical health has not been in question but the evidence presented suggests that its mental wellbeing support is some way adrift of what is being offered to jockeys and other industry participants in leading jurisdictions including Britain, Ireland and Australia.

Harding’s statement at least acknowledged that mental wellbeing is a serious concern and therefore raised the prospect that the Club, which prides itself on its world leading status within the sport, may yet improve its approach.

Moreira’s frank interview with this publication received widespread coverage and sparked discussion. He revealed that he was wracked with self-doubt and plunging confidence when he suffered depression brought on by a number of factors, which included, and were exacerbated by, a spiral of long-term injury and waning support from trainers and owners during his failed premiership challenge in the 2019-20 season.

The four-time Hong Kong champion jockey approached the HKJC for help in receiving psychological support but found that the wellbeing structure was weaker than he had anticipated.

It could be reasonably expected that Club officials would have contacted a jockey to discuss such a situation as Moreira speaking out publicly.

While high-profile athletes such as the NBA’s LeBron James, Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and tennis champion Andy Murray are free to express their opinions in the media and even level criticisms at sports bodies and politicians – and face the music of public scrutiny in return – such open talk about topics outside of the business of promoting Hong Kong’s horseracing is uncommon within the HKJC bubble.  

Moreira had hoped that by speaking up – given his high-profile position in the sport as a multiple champion – his experience might be the catalyst for the introduction of measures that could in the future help any jockey struggling to cope with their mental wellbeing, particularly those who might not be in a position to voice out and effect positive change.  

In his brief statement, Harding also distanced the Club from prominent racing personality Alan Aitken, who has a close relationship with the HKJC’s chief executive officer Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges.

“Alan Aitken is not a representative of the Club. His personal opinions expressed on social media platforms do not reflect the views of the Club,” Harding said.

Aitken, the former racing editor at the South China Morning Post, is employed by the HKJC as a tipster and fronts his own HKJC-produced TV show, The Winning Factor, which is available via the Club’s website and social media platforms.  

He took to his personal Twitter account and dismissed Moreira’s concerns with an eye-rolling GIF before expressing his opinion, which appeared to ignore the true complexities of depression and how it can affect individuals irrespective of wealth, position or level of success.

“It’s a world of bleeding hearts now, like life has never been tough before or for anyone else. Hearing this from people whose lives are very successful and secure is galling in a world where billions have nothing. Joao came up harder than most so he knows better,” one of Aitken’s tweets said.

“Bla, bla, bla. Joao grew up poor, has had the skill & mental toughness to reach the top of his game so it’s a false narrative at that point anyway. Just hanging out to hear about Lionel Messi’s mental health struggles next. FFS.

“Life didn’t just get harder. People just got softer & the bleeding heart, every child must get a prize mentality assists in the failure to develop any mental toughness. It’s a western world now where not getting 100% of what you want is cause for depression.”

Aitken also tweeted: “boo hoo. have a teaspoon of cement and harden up” and opined that the rising generation is “utterly stupid.”

Moreira is at the top in a sport which carries the threat of mortal injury. The reality is that he and his peers are at risk of serious physical harm every time they go to work, while the rigours of wasting to make weight, and the fact that even the very best return as a loser 80 percent of the time, are also significant factors in jockey mental wellbeing. Those elements are extra to the usual stresses that today’s elite athletes face.

Although Moreira has never said that he was ever close to suicidal thoughts, some elite athletes do face that stark spectre. In February 2016, one of Japan’s top jockeys Hiroki Goto was found dead in his home as a result of an apparent suicide, after returning to race-riding from a serious spinal injury.

With athlete wellbeing already prominent on the media cycle due to athletes speaking out at the Olympics, on Monday, news broke of the tragic death of New Zealand cyclist Olivia Podmore at age 24.

Podmore competed at the 2016 Rio Olympics but did not make it to the Tokyo games. Shortly before her death, she posted to Instagram, expressing the pressures elite athletes face.

“The feeling when you win is unlike any other,” she wrote, “but the feeling when you lose, when you don’t get selected, even when you qualify, when your (sic) injured, when you don’t meet society’s expectations such a (sic) owning a house. Marriage. Kids all because your (sic) trying to give everything to your sport is also unlike any other.”

The New Zealand Olympic Committee said in a statement – in which it expressed deep sadness – that it was providing wellbeing support for members of Podmore’s team.     

Hong Kong’s society has a worrying suicide rate. Statistics from the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong, which is backed by the HKJC charities arm, showed that Hong Kong had 974 registered suicide deaths in 2019 – the highest figure since 2009 – which equated to 13 suicide deaths per 100,000 population.

Males accounted for 573 of those deaths, while people under 45 represented 33 per cent of suicides in Hong Kong that year, with 12.2 per cent in the 25 to 34 age range and six per cent in the 15 to 24 age bracket.

The rigours, both physical and mental, for most riders within the Hong Kong pressure cooker includes taking on jockeys of the towering calibre of Moreira and Purton. That, of course, is the nature of the sport and the competition to prove oneself.

Apprentice riders in particular represent a huge investment by the HKJC and in the past they have been helped when pressures have become too intense due to lack of opportunities and long losing stretches, but usually with a change in circumstances such as a move to a different stable rather than with a holistic suite of wellbeing support.

But young apprentices, however well-schooled in the HKJC’s renowned training programme, still face a big step-up on anything they might have experienced during their provisional race-riding in Australia and New Zealand. And those experienced jockeys arriving from overseas on temporary contracts find that their record elsewhere counts for little to nothing when faced with the irresistible forces of ‘the big two’.  

The line heard all too often behind the scenes in Hong Kong that if a jockey can’t handle it there, they can leave, is all well and good in the context of a straight-up sporting challenge. But it is a wholly inadequate and crass response if the underlying reason for a particular period of struggle is a mental health challenge.

Nowadays, with mental wellbeing and sports psychology being such key elements in elite athletic programmes across all sports, the Club’s official comment via Harding at least raises some hope that attitudes and provisions might be about to change for the better at the HKJC too.