Beating the 'black dog' out of Victorian racing

Racing Victoria's appointed Trainer Wellbeing Liaison Officer Kirra Fitzgerald. Photo: Racing Victoria.

Earlier this year, Racing Victoria made it very clear that its welfare agenda extended beyond just horses when it appointed a full-time trainer wellbeing liaison officer. Trent Masenhelder looks at the leaps and bounds being made in Victorian racing when it comes to the mental health of trainers and their staff.

Horse trainer Lee Freedman has an exceptional CV. He has won the Melbourne trainers’ premiership seven times, the Melbourne Cup five times, and has put the polish on 124 individual G1 winners. His great horses have included Mahogany, Naturalism, Super Impose, Doriemus, and legendary Makybe Diva. You’d think, then, that life would have been pretty perfect for the champion trainer.

It wasn’t. In fact, it was far from it. In 2011 the Hall Of Fame trainer retired (he has since returned to the ranks). The racing game had taken a very heavy toll – severe bouts of depression and heavy drinking.

“The view from those lofty heights is beautiful and intoxicating,” Freedman told the Herald-Sun newspaper in 2013. “But it doesn’t last long, and the descent is arduous. I felt the pain of training poor horses, the early starts, the long days. All the problems, and yet no joy. If affected me more than I thought it would.”

Freedman’s great-grandmother once described racing as a “disease cured only by death.”

Queensland-based Robert Heathcote is another trainer that knows all about the relentlessness of the game.

“It doesn’t stop. It’s 24 hours, seven days, and 52 weeks of the year,” he said. “I’ve put in 16-hour days, seven days a week. To be successful in this industry you pretty much have to do that. You have to be a workaholic.”

Caulfield-based John Sadler and Tony Vasil are trainers too, both successful and astute, and both also admitting to battling depression. Sadler stepped away from training to receive treatment, and has since returned, while Vasil, who ceased training in early 2014 for professional help, is lost to the sport, at least for now.

Mental illness does not discriminate. Known colloquially as the “black dog,” it can be anyone’s unwanted companion, affecting athletes, doctors, lawyers, and those in the racing industry. With this in mind Racing Victoria, with the support of the Australian Trainers’ Association (ATA), developed a Trainer Wellbeing Program, designed to address the challenges that racing participants may be confronted with, and to provide a greater understanding of depression and anxiety, with information on resources that support affected people, their families, and co-workers.

In March this year, Racing Victoria went a step further, appointing Kirra Fitzgerald, a passionate racing person with a master’s degree in clinical psychology, to the role of trainer wellbeing liaison officer. It is a full-time gig for Fitzgerald, offering first-level guidance and support to trainers and their staff. Bernard Saundry, CEO of Racing Victoria, said he understood the grueling, sometimes harmful demands placed on racing people.

“We had a really good trainers’ open day last year that highlighted a range of issues,” Saundry said. “We need to understand that trainers are running their own businesses, and some are better businessmen than others. Some of the feedback we got was that they need some help in how they’re going to recruit the next track rider, or how they’re going to manage their business, as well as the health and wellbeing of themselves, their stable hands and families. So we decided to recruit Kirra. If we can find programs and people to help them [trainers] manage their lives better, I think racing is better for it.”

Since commencing in March, Fitzgerald has developed a range of resources to help participants, such as the potential stresses of the industry, including financial stress, physical injuries, and fatigue, while encouraging affected people to talk to someone, exercising and eating well, and getting enough sleep. A user-friendly, online portal is currently being developed and will allow those in need to access help, which Fitzgerald insists will include information based on feedback from trainers and their staff.

“You can’t treat the cause if you’re not looking at what is getting trainers to the point where problems arise,” she said.

Fitzgerald admits that a lot of trainers enter the game because of their affiliation with and devotion to horses, but many don’t necessarily have any background in business management.

“There is a gap for a lot of trainers in their knowledge and education of business, and how to manage one. Also, what they have to do is huge – the paperwork, accounting, etc.”

Before Fitzgerald’s appointment, and along with the trainers’ open day, Racing Victoria ran a series of workshops with the depression-awareness group beyondblue. They wanted to address the wellbeing needs of Victorian trainers and staff, and share expert information on mental health. Both Freedman and Sadler shared their experiences, and they encouraged their peers to reach out when they might be doing it tough.

“I think [all this] is a great idea, and certainly people like myself who have suffered depression can help other people,” Sadler said. “What I want to try and get across is that [talking about it] is not a weakness, and not something to be embarrassed about.”

Sadler is pensive and realistic about his own experience.

"I don’t want to blame the industry for my depression, but it is a relentless industry,” he said. “It is on all the time, and some guys do put a hell of a lot of pressure on themselves.”

As Racing Victoria and beyondblue traveled the state last year, it seemed like the message was getting through. A snapshot of attendance figures for three consecutive workshops revealed steadily increasing participation. While an initial event at Bendigo Race Course on Sept. 12, 2014 drew only 12 attendees, 40 showed up at Cranborne just one week later.

According to beyondblue, an average of one in six people will experience depression at some stage in their life. The specific figures narrow that down to one in five women, and one in eight men. The organization adds that one in six people (one in three women and one in five men) will experience anxiety. It also gathered data last year indicating that depression rates in the racing industry are on par with the Australian national average. However, Fitzgerald doesn’t read too much into these figures, arguing they are from a small sample size.

“We need to sample the greater population to get a broader perspective,” she said.

For the current 2014/2015 racing season, there are 917 registered trainers in Victoria. Fitzgerald knows that getting out to them all, and building relationships and trust, will be both challenging and vital to the success of her role.

“I’ve been out to racetracks and track work, getting out on the ground to let them know I’m here,” she said. “There’s going to be quite a long period, I think, where it’s just going to be building up relationships.”

In this respect, it will help Fitzgerald that she is no stranger to the racing game. She has worked in a family breeding business in Queensland, and has foaled and reared Thoroughbreds for the sale ring, as well as mapping out the education and careers of young racehorses. In a business that can often be insular, it will help Fitzgerald that she has a pedigree in it.

Victorian racing occurs 363 days of the year, seven days of almost every single week. There are plenty within the industry that believe participants are being asked too much. Along with quantity of racing, there are other problems, such as owners not paying bills, which can lead to stress and financial hardship on trainers.

“We know that having a day off doesn’t solve the problem, because horses still have to be fed and worked every day,” Saundry said. “But what we do want to work with trainers on is helping change their business model. We want to make sure they enjoy their time in racing.”

It is clear that Racing Victoria’s welfare agenda doesn’t just extend to animals, and the appointment of Fitzgerald is a major coup for the overall wellbeing of the human participants in this sport. In the next 12 months, Fitzgerald will continue to meet with Victorian trainers, with plans to roll out further education and information sessions.

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