Kieren Fallon’s retirement puts spotlight on mental health

Champion jockey had been suffering from ‘profound depression’ for several years

Six-times champion jockey Kieren Fallon: announced his retirement a year after another jockey, Mark Enright, returned to racing following treatment for depression.  Photograph: John Walton/PA Wire

Six-times champion jockey Kieren Fallon: announced his retirement a year after another jockey, Mark Enright, returned to racing following treatment for depression. Photograph: John Walton/PA Wire

 

Kieren Fallon’s retirement from the saddle due to his battle with depression not only brings one of sport’s most successful and simultaneously turbulent careers to an end but also ensures renewed focus on mental health issues within racing generally.

During a meteoric career, Fallon was a six-time champion jockey in Britain, won the Epsom Derby on three occasions, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe twice, and earned international acclaim as one of the world’s great riders.

If there was glory for the 51-year-old originally from Crusheen in Co Clare, there was also some forensic examination of his actions both in and out of the saddle which often served to reinforce very black-and-white verdicts on a man whose everyday reality has clearly been a lot more complex than any headlines may have suggested.

Within racing as a whole, however, Fallon is hardly a singular figure for having to fight depression, even if he is easily the most high-profile.

Last year the National Hunt jockey Mark Enright returned to race-riding after conceding he had been receiving therapy for depression. Fallon is retiring but his fight for health appears to be reflective of a struggle many others within the racing industry also undergo.

It was the Turf Club’s medical officer, Dr Adrian McGoldrick, who helped Fallon in the release of his retirement statement on Monday, and McGoldrick points to indications of an alarming rate of mental health issues among riders in particular.

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“Among the national population, the rate is 24 to 26 per cent. Among elite athletes in other sports it is 26 to 28 per cent.

“There are many reasons for such a high percentage among jockeys. It is a very tough profession generally, with wasting a reality, and there is a lot of insecurity to it for some riders. I wasn’t surprised with the figures. Depression is an illness but unfortunately there remains a stigma to it and people don’t like to talk about it,” he added.

On the back of that survey, contracts have recently been signed with a company which will work with the Turf Club and the Irish Jockeys’ Trust to provide a 24-hour emergency line to help anyone involved in the racing industry, not just jockeys, who are worried about their mental health.

It is expected to be operational by the end of this month and will be funded by Horse Racing Ireland.

“It will be for trainers, stable staff, jockeys, everyone: it is along the lines of what is in place for the GPA [Gaelic Players’ Association] and it is a massive boost in helping anyone who is experiencing any psychological problems,” McGoldrick said.

He also gave an upbeat prognosis on Fallon’s long-term outlook now that he has hung up his riding boots, although conceding that the former champion jockey has been suffering from “quite profound depression” for over three years.

“Kieren’s problems with depression, which has gone undiagnosed in England and America, have been ongoing for at least three years. I first became aware of it when he came to see me for his licence earlier this year. It got worse and I met with him on Sunday and have arranged to have it managed. Depression is very responsive to management, though, and Kieren will do very well in the longer term,” added McGoldrick.

Bounce back

Throughout, what was never in doubt was a supreme talent that led to Fallon being employed by those giants of British racing, Sir Michael Stoute and Sir Henry Cecil, as well as a short but hugely successful period as number one jockey to Aidan O’Brien. The master of Ballydoyle once described Fallon as the finest horseman of all the jockeys that have ridden for him.

There were times in the saddle when Fallon’s ability could seem out of this world. Off a horse he conceded to often feeling unsure of himself. The man known as “King Kieren” to many punters is now facing a fight familiar to so many.

It is his willingness to acknowledge the illness which encourages hope Fallon can once again bounce back from adversity.

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