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My most challenging ride

9 min read

Written by Blake Shinn

My mental health journey has shaped my life.

It has almost ruined my life on several occasions - from gambling to depression. But it has also made me a stronger person, a more aware person, with the capacity to handle stress and challenges.

This week is the spotlight is on mental health, with World Health Awareness week. I have written this in the hope that this might help others become more comfortable talking about their mental health challenges.

I tend to be an over thinker. I’ve always been a bit like this since I was young with things going round and round in my head, so I struggle to switch off. Sitting on the sidelines the last six weeks hasn’t helped too much.

Typically I’m thinking about race form, how to improve my riding, reviewing beaten and winning rides, how to keep feeling fit and healthy, and everything else that comes with striving to be the best. But right now, with not many of those a primary focus, it’s a lot harder to channel my mental energy into positivity.

I know I’m not alone in this mental health struggle. A lot of jockeys have battles. Actually, it affects a lot of people in the racing industry, and is not often publicly spoken about or admitted to, especially by men.

"I tend to be an over thinker. I’ve always been a bit like this since I was young with things going round and round in my head, so I struggle to switch off. Sitting on the sidelines the last six weeks hasn’t helped too much."

If my story helps even one person who is struggling and gives them a little pick-me-up or the confidence to seek help, then I’ve achieved something by sharing this.

I love being a jockey.

Riding has always been very natural for me. I feel at home on top of a horse galloping at 70kmph. My rise to being a top jockey was a very quick one. I burst on the scene as an apprentice in my second riding season and found immediate success in Melbourne, winning the Scobie Breasley medal and almost taking out the main jockey premiership.

After being apprentice to my step dad Lee Hope and riding for my first four years in Melbourne, I moved to Sydney to ride for Gai Waterhouse. This was an important two years as I arrived a very naive kid (somewhat arrogant I can admit!), and was quickly knocked into shape by Gai.

"Riding has always been very natural for me. I feel at home on top of a horse galloping at 70kmph."

I had wonderful opportunities riding some incredible horses in those first six or so years of my career. I won my first Group 1 as an apprentice, then in the following few years took out the Melbourne Cup, TJ Smith, Sires’ Produce Stakes, Epsom, etc.

Finding quick success had obvious financial benefits and I also had an abundance of spare time. I’d ride track work in the mornings and racedays on three or so afternoons a week, then fill in the rest of my days watching races or catching up with friends.

I was 23 years old, with a love of horse racing, a lot of disposable income and a lot of time on my hands.

So, I turned to gambling.

But of course I couldn’t gamble in my own name, it’s illegal being a jockey, so I would use my family and friends to place bets for me. I found after I crossed the integrity boundary once, it got easier and easier as time went on.

This very quickly spiralled out of control, until I had a real problem. I lost a lot of money, which made things worse. Then I got caught.

And my whole world came crashing down, bringing everyone else down too.

I was a total idiot, risking everything I had to gamble.

But the hardest reality when everything was exposed wasn’t that my career could be gone - it was the impact my actions had on those closest to me. I had used their names to place bets, so they were hauled into the stewards room too, copping penalties and time. They were publicly named, which was humiliating for them and devastating for me.

Reflecting back on this now, it still deeply pains me to think back on how much I hurt those closest to me.

I copped a 15 month disqualification from the stewards for breaking the rules of racing many many times.

"I was a total idiot, risking everything I had to gamble."

During my DQ, I sought help for gambling and worked through some underlying issues. I saw counsellors and worked out solutions. I learned to channel my time and energy into constructive projects, like helping out at a homeless shelter each Thursday.

Many of my great friends stuck by me during this period, I’ll never forget their friendship and generosity. People were prepared to forgive me for the massive, dumb mistake I made and I’m very thankful for that.

I returned to race riding on the 21st of December in 2011, riding a winner in mum’s silks. That opened the doors again for a few more winners and I rode a double my first meeting back in Sydney for Cummings & O’Shea.

However, it was never going to be that easy...

Because then the black dog crept in and took up residence.

I was going through a difficult personal situation that really knocked me around both mentally and emotionally, I didn’t cope.

I’d always had challenges with depression. But this time it was different - I was struggling to get moving. I was abusing my body by feeding it the wrong food then punishing myself for it. I couldn’t complete proper preparation work for my rides and I was in a dark place.

The depression felt like physical exhaustion. It took every ounce of motivation just to get up each day.

Eventually, it caught up with my riding and my form totally lapsed. The worst day for me was on the 24th of March 2012, three months after returning to riding. I butchered two rides for John Thompson on Trusting in the Ranvet and Hussousa in the Reisling.

"The depression felt like physical exhaustion. It took every ounce of motivation just to get up each day."

John was a total gentleman and handled the poor performance with grace - I can’t imagine how hard it must’ve been for him to contain his disappointment. He had done his job, had two top horses fit and ready for the occasion, then I gave them little chance to win. Yet he copped it on the chin.

My mind was foggy and I was struggling. I then copped a suspension at Randwick, and at that point literally couldn’t get out of bed.

But the light did come back.

One of the turning points was when Gai realised how much I was struggling. She sent a masseuse around to the house and a book to help me change my frame of mind. She forced me get out of bed and back down to track work.

I went on anti-depressants. Seeking chemical help was a mental barrier that I’d struggled with in the past, but once I realised I wasn’t going to win this battle alone, anti-depressants helped me turn the corner.

Then I started heading out to Warwick Farm most mornings, riding track work for Guy Walter. It’s difficult to overstate the impact this wonderful man and his wife Wendy had on turning my life around again. A kind and generous man, Guy taught me so much about what really matters in life and helped me put things in perspective. I still miss him every day.

I started riding in places that I never had before, like Nowra and Mudgee. I worked my butt off riding a lot for Guy and David Van Dyke, covering an enormous number of kilometres around country NSW.

That period of travelling and riding every single day, from Randwick to Wagga Wagga, changed my mindset and helped me become a better, more resilient version of myself. I won my first Group 1 post-DQ for Guy Walter on Appearance in the Coolmore.

I haven’t had a bout of depression that bad since.

But I’m very aware that it can happen. As a jockey, unless you’re winning, most people don't want a bar of you and it’s a lonely place. For me, the black dog will always be lingering.

Now I’m armed with tools to help me through those times. I’m using education and knowledge to help me in all areas of my career, especially around eating and reaching peak physical fitness.

I’ve never had a particularly healthy relationship with food, which is probably something that most jockeys can relate to. When you’re battling to hit a target weight for a ride, food becomes the enemy. The old adage ‘what you think about most will manifest in reality’ rings true. I’d fight against the urges and obsess over food, then emotionally overeat after a race meeting. I’d punish my body to get it back.

I’m filling in my time on the sidelines by learning more about diet and nutrition so I can utilise this knowledge effectively when I get back riding. My mental frame of mind has changed to considering it as a nourishing source of fuel; not something to battle against.

Since being out of action with a broken neck I am aware I am more susceptible to depression during this time. So I have been channelling my energy into other areas and being careful to consciously consider how I’m feeling each day.

I’m doing media training, and have started with SKY Racing as a guest contributor. I’m going travelling, will visit friends around the world and attend some of the best race meetings that I’d love to ride at one day. USA, Europe and Hong Kong are all on the bucket list.

I’m 31 years old and feel like I’ve learned some very valuable lessons already in my life. I now cope better with the stress of being a jockey.

There’s still a few months to go before I return to the saddle, but the support I’ve had since my accident has been incredible. The racing industry is a wonderful family and there is a huge amount of support. If you’re struggling, please seek help and remember; it will get better.