Wasting, long-distance training in garbage bags, crippling falls, no time off. In the final furlong of this year’s autumn carnivals, we ask:
Who’d be a jockey? 46
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By Jonathan Horn
t first, Ray Silburn figured he was just winded; the bush champion had ridden more than 1000 winners and taken a stack of falls, so he knew the score. More than a week later, though, he woke from an induced coma in the spinal ward of the Prince Of Wales Hospital in Sydney. While he was still in the coma, two jockeys, Adrian Ledger and Gavin Lisk, had died on Australian racetracks. The Fallen Jockeys Memorial, located at Caulfield Racecourse in Melbourne, could not fit their names on any of the six plaques dedicated to jockeys killed. A few months later, shortly after a gala benefit that raised the better part of a quarter of a million dollars, Silburn’s wife shot through, with a good proportion of the money and their kids in toe. Over the next few years he would fight her for access to the money
raised and scrap with the insurance company which was baulking at paying out on modifications to his house. He would take his insurance company to court, where lawyers would squabble for months over the Latin root of the word “apparatus”. Since the age of 15, his life had been about early mornings, speed ratings, weighing in, chasing rides and mucking stables. Now he was 41, on his own and stuck in a wheelchair, with no movement in his limbs, no career, no education, no family and no end in sight. “When you’re told you’ll never walk again, it’s really daunting and you don’t know how to take it or accept it,” Silburn tells Inside Sport six years on from his fall. “It’s [racing] the only thing you know what to do and suddenly you can’t do it any more. It’s not like we’ve been taught anything else, like you can slip into another profession. Even when I was released from hospital after nearly a }
Ray Silburn as the 1000plus-winner bush champion.
“One more fall and that’s me in that bed, unable to hug my son.” year I woke up from one nightmare and straight into another one. I couldn’t get into my own house. My wife had gone. My money was frozen. I couldn’t get into my kids’ rooms to say goodnight to them. It was hell, pure hell and I don’t think people realise just how low the lows can be in this game.” When you’re in a TAB and there’s a fall in one of the races that jump every three minutes or so, they all tend to look the same. Fractious horse shifts out, second horse is squeezed, jockey flips out of the saddle, lies in the fetal position, horses either gallop around or over him. The tote floor barely stirs – the punter either bemoans his own bad luck or smiles ruefully at the poor, ticket-tearing sap next to him. Silburn’s fall was straight from the textbook. Chopped down between two 500kg horses, he was immediately crushed, fracturing three vertebrae. His mount’s name, not that it really matters, was Caza Ladron. What does matter is that he’s C4 – an incomplete quadriplegic, which means his spinal chord wasn’t broken but stretched, the upshot being he will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, with little or no movement in his legs, arms and hands. Many of the country’s leading jockeys were regulars at his bedside but all of them had that unmistakable look in their eye – that look that said, “One more fall and that’s me in that bed, answering my phone with a specially designed pencil, unable to hug my son ... ” Anyone with a passing knowledge of horse racing knows that being a jockey is a precarious pursuit. The statistics, the anecdotes from the wheelchairs, the dirges – they all tell us it’s infinitely more serious than that. A recent Medical Journal Of Australia study found that it was more dangerous than being a professional boxer, skydiver or a motorcyclist. In terms of land-based jobs, you’re more likely to be killed or seriously injured as a jockey than as a pilot, farm worker or truck driver. Of the 850 or so registered jockeys in
the country, an average of two are killed each year and half a dozen will suffer permanently debilitating brain or spinal injuries. Country racing lost another disciple in March when jockey Reece Potter died from injuries received in a fall at the Tottenham picnic races in central-western NSW. Jockeys know what they sign up for and all use the phrase “part and parcel of the job” but they say it with a deep breath and a grimace. Like Danny Brereton, one of Victoria’s premier heavyweight jockeys, who sustained the most horrific head and spinal injuries following a fall last August. He also fractured his neck and punctured his lung. Mark Zahra, who rode the horse that clipped heels and brought Brereton down, told stewards it was “a straightforward racing incident – it’s a shame it happened”. Brereton is 45-years-old and his wife and two kids would agree that it’s a great shame. He remains in hospital, is making tortured progress and is hoping to walk functionally again. Robyn Katsidis knows about risk in sport. Her youngest son Michael is an elite boxer and a couple of times a year will risk permanent brain damage in the ring. Her first-born, Stathi, left school at 14 to pursue another perilous, concussive sport and for Robyn, a regulation barrier trial could elicit more maternal disquiet than a world-title fight. Stathi once told his mum that “nothing beats the thrill of jumping out of the barrier on a horse” and indeed he rode a racehorse the way Adam Gilchrist played cricket – with relish, with ruthlessness and without restraint. “It was always in the back of my mind that he could come off,” Robyn tells Inside Sport. “There are too many variables that can go wrong during a race. Your life relies on other jockeys’ decisions, plus the actions of large, highly-strung horses. With boxing, although it can only take one punch, a lot of the danger is controllable.”
above Stathi Katsidis was a popular character, but people worried about him. below Ray Silburn can still smile ... just.
Stathi’s inventory of injuries was fairly standard for a big–time jockey, notwithstanding the amount of time he missed through suspension. A broken leg, ankle, jaw, mandible, collarbone and ribs, as well as smashed teeth, concussions, bone grafts, screws in his ankles and legs were reeled off laconically, as is the racing way. “His leg was so severely broken that the bone pierced the back of his thigh,” his mother says. “The blood loss from the incident, along with the medication, caused his eyebrows to fall out and his skin colour to go yellow. After the bone graft required to repair the leg and the insertion of a steel rod, the wounds actually looked like a shark attack injury.” Stathi was one of those short men who walk about a foot and a half taller, the natural owner of all he surveyed. He was universally liked and admired. As his mother says, “Although he was mischievous at times, he was quite often shy as well. He had a wicked sense of humour and boundless energy.” But everyone worried about him. He drank. He wouldn’t eat for days. He’d go clubbing. He had convictions for drink driving and was busted for ecstasy use and possession of clenbuterol, which strips fat and aids weight loss. Katsidis was doing things that are par for the course for young adults throughout the country. But he was a wild young man in a sport of servitude and sacrifice. In a sport where grown men shovelled horse manure and where fathers of young children were called “boy” by monosyllabic trainers, Stathi was popping pills, necking beers and trying to run his own show. Early last year he opened up to a Brisbane newspaper about his trials, in particular his suspension for ecstasy use and the difficulty of enjoying himself in the most adult of sports. “When you take things like that, it was good for your weight because instead of drinking piss you drink water. I was out of control and I needed reeling in.” Katsidis knuckled down and his natural talents flourished. He won the AJC Derby and secured a plumb ride in the weight-for-age classic of Australasia, the Cox Plate. He could steer a tiring, wobbling, million-dollar thoroughbred down a 400m straight, weaving his way through a 20-horse field to Group One success. But the pressure was immense and on the night of October 18 he couldn’t walk in a straight line into his own house. He was on the tailend of a 12-hour bender and he’d drunk himself sideways. After an argument with his partner Melissa and a trip to the doghouse, he passed out and when she woke in the morning, Stathi was dead. More than 1000 people would turn out for his funeral, with another rider quickly and quietly sought for Shoot Out in the Cox Plate. Recollections of Katsidis invariably touch upon his gregarious personality and his epic battles with weight. Weight, for most jockeys, is a constant knaw and a cause for more anxiety than the falls, the suspensions, the sackings and the abuse. In this regard, Silburn was an anomaly. When he first walked into Clarrie Connors’ stables as a 15-year-old, he weighed 27kg. He’d stacked on five kilograms by the time he rode his first race, but he was still the lightest jockey in Australia, including the girls. For the majority of his career he was constantly trying to build himself up. But in a sport where the weight scales have remained more or less stagnant for the last half a century, despite the fact that the average Australian teenager has gained 30 per cent body mass in the same time period, the majority of Australian hoops don’t have that luxury. When you stand next to Simon Marshall, he still looks tiny, like a slightly weathered schoolboy. But in his riding days, a decade past and }
Premier Victorian “heavyweight” jockey Danny Brereton sustained horrific head and spinal injuries from a fall last August.
Wasting is a crude but fitting term. 13kg lighter, he was regarded as a heavyweight. He rode and won on some of the best Australian horses of his generation but had to starve himself, shame himself and completely stuff up his body in order to get there. His career effectively ended the day he collapsed in the jockeys’ room at Caulfield, following an insane sauna session and a fraught attempt to make an impossible weight. He’d notched up 15 Group One wins but paid the price with serious long-term bone deficiency, degenerating disks, narrowed vertabrae as well as holes in both bones and femurs. During spring carnival time, Marshall’s neighbours would be greeted by a quite extraordinary sight. “To make the weight for a big race, I would wear a skivvy, a garbage bag, a T-shirt, then another garbage bag,” Marshall tells Inside Sport. “On top of that, I’d wear a waterproof jacket, followed by a ski jacket. For the legs I wore tracksuit pants and a pair of ski pants. I would then push the lawn mower in 35-degree heat for about 45 minutes and then go for a five-kilometre run. That way, I could lose about four kilograms in a session.” Wasting is a crude but fitting term. The next time there’s a marquee race meeting, check out the tiny little man who’s just shed four or five kilograms in order to make the minimum weight; “flipping” they call it. Look at his uncertain gait, his pale skin, his eyes sunken into the back of his head. He may be suffering from goose bumps, vertigo and irritability. He’s probably snapped at his wife and kids who by now know all the warning signs and the exit strategies. Chances are he’s spent the better part of the week in the sauna, popping diuretics on the hour. Maybe he’s wrapped himself in garbage bags, turned up the heater and knocked out a two-hour cardio session in his living room. Perhaps he’s enrolled in a Bikram Yoga course and laid in a puddle of his own sweat for 90 minutes. Driving to the track, he probably cranked up the heater full bore and took half a dozen detours so as to maximize sweat time. Sustenance may have come from a black coffee, half a grapefruit and a pack of Marlboro Lights. Hydration comes from sucking on ice cubes. “Stathi would spend many hours in saunas to lose weight, as well as days of starvation and extreme exercise,” Robyn Katsidis says. “Quite often you would see him licking his lips because he was so
dehydrated. At times he would just chew his food and then spit it out. On the days that he could actually eat, he sometimes tended to binge eat. He once told me that most people don’t realise how much of life revolves around eating and drinking.” Sebastian Murphy stands at 175cm and is at the higher end of the weight scale but manages it well with a strict diet and a punishing boxing and running regime. Several years ago he was the leading apprentice in the country and looked poised for a long and lucrative career in the saddle. He was riding more than 50 winners a season, landed rides in both the Melbourne and Caulfield Cups and brilliantly piloted outsider Mr Baritone to victory in the Group One Stradbroke Handicap in Brisbane. He had soft hands, perfect timing and a killer instinct that belied his baby face. But several months later, in a nondescript meeting at Geelong, a scrubber called Grease Monkey threw a wobbly after the winning post, wouldn’t stop galloping, executed a sharp U-turn and dragged Murphy along the ground as he clung to the reins. The resultant bulging disk in his back caused him to stack on nearly 13kg in weight and ensured he’s pretty much been unsighted since 2008. While he has every right to play his violin, in racing there’s always someone worse off than yourself. “It really is a bit of a bastard of an injury, but I’m certainly better off than Danny Brereton is,” he says. “Initially the specialist said it could take six weeks or it could take 18 months. It’s super-frustrating because it’s such a slow-healing injury. A broken arm or something comes good pretty quick but this takes a long time to come good. “I was about 68kg and in my head I said, ‘Well, if I start training I could get to 59 or 60kg. Realistically I probably have to kill myself to get any lighter – in which case I’d have to give it away and take up a different career path, take up a trade or something like that.’ But I found that if I trained smart and had a good diet, I could still make the weight and be pretty healthy.” To get back, he’ll have to not only come to terms with life as a heavyweight jockey, but also commit himself to the most relentless schedule in Australian sport. Every sport has an off and a preseason. But racing in Australia is a 363-day-a-year pursuit. The Powers That Be are currently conniving so as to allow racing and }
Gavin Lisk and Adrian Ledger’s peers pay them respect at Flemington in 2005.
Like boxing, you don’t play at being a jockey. betting on Good Friday and you suspect that the Christmas Day leave pass afforded to jockeys is a source of consternation. “Back in the day, we only raced three or four times a week,” says Silburn. “Now, racing’s a seven-days-a-week job. Back then, you had a life and you could do things. It was more family orientated. There was no such thing as Sunday racing. When they brought that in, they killed a lot of the family life. You could ask any jockey in Australia and they’d say the same thing – get rid of Sunday racing. “Even public holidays are denied to jockeys; they’re always racing somewhere on public holidays. On Christmas Day, when everyone’s having their big Christmas dinner, you’ve gotta feel for the jockeys who can’t eat because they’ve gotta ride on Boxing Day. New Year’s Eve is exactly the same because you’ve got racing the next day.” It would be easy for Silburn to be bitter, to be nothing but a wheelchair-bound cripple living on a shoestring. But he has made a good fist of things.” I look at my fall as a photo finish of my life and I’m conscious of how lucky I was to be so fit and survive,” he says. “I really shouldn’t be here.” He mentors the families of jockeys who have suffered serious falls and was the driving force behind an initiative whereby incapacitated former jockeys are granted free admission to every racetrack in Australia. He is also the co-patron of the Pegasus Foundation, which provides people with a disability with the opportunity to ride horses. As Silburn says, “The way racing has improved for jockeys in these last two decades, you just wouldn’t believe. When I first started in the stables, I knew a few jockeys who couldn’t read or write. I was one of the lucky ones, really, despite my fall and everything that happened to me.” Indeed, jockeys can earn a very good living. And recent developments, like mandatory helmets, body protectors, career transition programs, professional development courses and counselling services, are all positive. At great cost, Racing Victoria recently introduced plastic running rails, which paid for themselves last year when James Winks crashed into them at high speed and severely burnt his foot, rather than losing it altogether. As Murphy says, “With the amount of racing we do in Australia, you wouldn’t be able to function properly if these initiatives hadn’t been put in place.” But horse racing takes a lot and jockeys aren’t always the benefactors. “A jockey’s life is very dangerous, with very long hours. The chances of cracking the big time are very slim,” says
Marshall.” You’re a public figure who cops a lot of criticism and the pressure to perform year in, year out is enormous.” The Australian Jockeys’ Association recently called for a major injection of funds into the National Jockeys’ Trust – which provides financial support for jockeys who sustain career-ending injuries – and support of families of those who die. “Jockey welfare programs are patchy at best,” says AJA CEO Paul Innes. “We are seeing a rise in jockey suicide. Also of enormous concern is the plight of families left bereaved or caring for jockeys with severe, career-ending injuries requiring around-the-clock care.” Racing generates more than $5 billion dollars nationally. For state governments it’s a godsend. The major and minor players – from the faceless fatcats at the TAB, to the marketing co-ordinators, to the guy who erected the million-dollar gates at Flemington racecourse – racing is kind to them. But it isn’t always kind to the jockeys. Save for a few montage moments in autumn and spring, they are all too often cast in supporting roles. They look like diminutive, slightly dishevelled family butlers, but they come armed with agility, cardiovascular fitness, courage and timing that would put most athletes to shame. Racing wasn’t kind to Danny Brereton, lying prostrate in the mud while the ambulance went the wrong way. It wasn’t kind to Rod Griffiths, who filed for bankruptcy after racking up gambling debts of more than $200,000. It wasn’t kind to Chris Munce, Melbourne Cup-winning jockey one minute, sharing a filthy Hong Kong cell with 30 undesirables the next. It wasn’t kind to Neil Williams and Aaron Kennedy, who committed suicide when life in the saddle became too much. Several years ago, a Western Australian horse called Crying Game ran in the Melbourne Cup. Someone asked the owner why it was thus named and she explained, “I named it after racing in general.” For tiny, horse-loving young men and women who leave school in year nine, get up at 3am every morning, are bitten, tossed off and spat on by recalcitrant animals, abused by ignorant punters and dressed down by stewards like naughty schoolchildren, the rewards are nonetheless tantalising. As Murphy says, “this is in my blood and it’s hard to walk away from something that’s part of you.” But it’s no game. Like boxing, you don’t play at being a jockey. You strap on your garbage bag, suck on your ice cube, try and walk tall, cross your fingers and hang on for dear life. n
Australia's most dangerous sport