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Oisin Murphy, Drug Problems, and What needs to change...

It’s not the first time that I’ve touched on this topic, and sadly, it probably won’t be the last. Champion jockey Oisin Murphy has been banned from riding for 14 months following Covid and alcohol breaches. Murphy admitted to breaching coronavirus protocols last year, alongside two alcohol-related breaches, and misleading the BHA. We all know by now that life as a jockey can be tough and comes with many pressures, but surely more has to be done within the sport to assist jockeys who find that they are struggling. What he did was wrong, but is a lengthy ban the best way to go about solving it? I think we should delve deeper into the effects of addiction before passing judgement. I’d like to re-iterate, first and foremost, that I do not condone any of his actions.

What has he done wrong?

Oisin Murphy faced five charges as he stood before an independent judiciary panel. Two charges related to failed alcohol tests in May and October 2021, two in breach of Covid protocols, including accessing a racecourse, and separate counts of misleading the BHA over his whereabouts from 9-12th September 2020. He admitted all charges to the panel and was banned until February 2023.

This isn’t the first time Murphy has been banned, either. His first instance was at Salisbury racecourse in June 2019, where he provided a positive pre-race alcohol test. He then provided a positive alcohol urine test at Chester on 5th May 2021 and was subsequently banned for 10 days, before providing a further positive breath test at Newmarket on 8th October, leading to a 90-day ban. He also received a three-month ban in November 2020 after testing positive for cocaine. Murphy handed in his license in December to focus on rehabilitation after coming to terms with his drinking problem. He said: “It became obvious to me and to everyone else that I needed to seek serious help. In recognition of this, I have relinquished my licence and will now focus on my rehabilitation. I realised my drinking was out of control. It took until October 8th for me to give in and realise that my issues of coping with pressure had led to me developing a dependence on alcohol.”

Further to his alcohol breaches, Murphy also broke Covid rules and lied to the BHA. It is understood that Murphy visited the Greek island of Mykonos from the 9th-12th September 2020, entering a country that was on the red list. He attempted to convince officials he was visiting Lake Como in Italy instead, to mislead the BHA and avoid punishment. He is also known to have accessed a racecourse when people were prevented from doing so, breaching further Covid protocols. As a result, he has been fined £31,111 and given three 11-month suspensions which are to run simultaneously.

Oisin Murphy aboard Rogue Runner in the 2015 Epsom Derby

How is Jockey testing conducted?

The British Horse Racing Authority randomly conducts drug and alcohol tests on jockeys at meetings. Any riders found to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol pose a risk to themselves and everyone around them and are stood down immediately. Riding with any of these substances in their system is performance impairing and must be actioned to provide a safe environment for competition.

Breath testing takes place on racedays across the country and includes all jockeys. Urine testing is randomised, with jockeys chosen via a random ballot or under specific selection. This testing could take place on any day. Saliva testing has also been piloted recently as an alternative.

Was Murphy’s punishment harsh or deserved?

Love him or hate him, I have to agree with Matt Chapman on this. It's clear to see that Murphy is a top jockey. Crowned champion jockey on three occasions, he has immense talent and is great for the sport. It's also clear that he is struggling with addiction and his actions are not truly representative of him as a person. Not forgiving anything that he has done, but banning him for such a long time can do more harm than good. He needs help, something he has recognised and voiced himself, stating that he had relinquished his license to focus on rehabilitation. Whilst time off the track will allow him to sort himself out, there is no reason for “punishing” him in such a manner. As Chappers said in his article, “A six-to-nine-month ban would have been suitable, then a lengthy suspended sentence. The emphasis would have been on sorting himself out. Have the break, and then come back, but only if you truly feel you’re ready. If the addiction is still haunting you, don’t return even if you’re allowed. The BHA did not help Murphy’s well-being.” Only Murphy will know when he is ready to return, and after getting help, I don’t believe there is any reason that he can't ride. Dependency on any form of drug or substance severely impacts the way one acts. Again, not condoning his actions, he has made some very poor choices, but he did so under the influence of a substance that can change anyone. The manner with which the BHA and judicial panel have dealt with the matter not only paints the sport in a bad light, but has put further stress on Murphy's mental wellbeing.

Sean Boyce from Sky Sports Racing echoed his surprise at the length of the ban, but reinforced that the severity of the Covid breaches was one of the major factors. Racing was lucky to be going ahead even behind closed doors, so visiting a red-listed country and then lying about it probably tipped it over the edge. Boyce said, "I think they've looked at that and thought he was risking not just his health and the health of his colleagues, which is serious enough, but the licence to continue racing was in the balance. I have no view on whether he is a good or bad person, and I don't think you can judge anyone by the worst thing they've done, but he's driven a coach and horses through some rules which could have compromised the entire sport."

Although the severity of his actions should not be overlooked, there needs to be some forgiveness and compassion. Addiction is so much more than simply becoming dependent on something. It changes the way you act, the way you think, and warps your personality. With this in mind, I believe he has been harshly treated.

A small timeline of some of the issues Murphy has faced over the past 3 years

Who else has found themselves caught up with drugs/alcohol in racing?

The pressures of racing come with consequences, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Murphy isn’t the only jockey to be banned for alcohol or substance breaches.

Jumps jockey Tom Bellamy was suspended on New Year’s Day 2018 at Cheltenham, following a failed breath test under similar circumstances. He admitted to having two or three drinks the evening prior, but hadn't eaten. Bellamy was stood down immediately as a result, but continued riding the next day and escaped a ban. Although not showing any signs of an addiction, this shows a similar mistake to that of Murphy.

In 2016, jockey Graham Gibbons was banned for two and a half years after testing positive for cocaine through a urine sample and then attempting to swap his sample with that of Callum Shepherd. The BHA caught wind of what had happened, banning him initially for six months for the failed drugs test, then a further two years for attempting to swap the samples. Not only was he endangering himself and fellow riders by riding under the influence, but by swapping samples, he was attempting to mislead the BHA. It wasn't Gibbons' first ban either, initially failing a breathalyser test in 2007.

Robert Winston is just one jockey who has opened up about his struggles with addiction following a plethora of injuries. A fall at Haydock in 2003 left Winston with his jaw cut to shreds and requiring metal plates. In 2005, a similar fall at Ayr not only lost him the jockeys' championship but also left him in a bad way. He said: “I was in a lot of pain and a friend told me to put some cocaine in my gums. I said that I would never do that, but I did, and never felt any pain. When I got back riding I never took it, but when the Ayr accident happened the first thing that came to my head was self-medicate. I think I went about a month after the accident when I had to check myself into rehab. I was on drugs and drinking. I suffered mentally, probably to the point I didn’t want to come back riding because it was so bad.” Despite his willingness to get back in the saddle following such horrendous injuries, he didn’t get through it unscathed. Many people don’t realise the immense pressure jockeys are under, both physically and mentally, which is why they often turn to alcohol and other substances to deal with daily life. Winston admitted that on several occasions, he had entered rehab for alcohol/drug-related reasons, but watching a colleague overdose encouraged him to stop. Although he never received a ban for these breaches, like Murphy, it meant he was taking chances on the track, endangering himself and others around him.

Why do so many find themselves in such positions?

It’s no surprise that so many find themselves caught up with drugs and alcohol. A recent study conducted by Liverpool John Moore’s University has found that approximately 86% of jockeys experience stress, anxiety, or depression during their career. Constantly in the public eye, jockeys no doubt expect comments and opinions now and then. But what happens when it goes too far? Criticism is one thing, but hate and abuse is something that no person should ever have to deal with. When sitting behind a keyboard, it is easy to criticise and make your views known, but many fail to consider the potential impact such comments could have on the person in question. A sportsperson's reputation is everything, and any scrutiny could have catastrophic knock-on effects.

Tom Marquand responding to a hate message he received on Twitter

Mental health is a prominent figure in modern society, no more so than in sportspeople. Jockey Harry Teal spoke out about the mental health issues that he suffered just a few years ago. He said: “I felt there was a tremendous amount of pressure put on me. I was going racing and thinking, I’m going to do things wrong, and then I would do them wrong and I’d feel worse. Relationships at home were falling apart, and I was distancing myself from everyone. I would go home and fall into a dark hole.” Being a jockey is a lonely line of work, with a large percentage of time spent travelling from course to course, alone with your thoughts. Not only that, but it is also financially precarious, with no guaranteed income, and the risk of losing rides an ever-present fear.

It’s not as easy as just getting a ride and trying to win, either. Jockeys must also keep trainers and owners happy whilst keeping their weight down. These factors can soon take over, not to mention the ever-mounting pressure when on a bad run of form, or even recovering from an injury. Although support structures have been implemented by the PJA, such as access to counselling, a 24/7 helpline, and training for those who work around jockeys on the correct actions to take, more could and should be done to help jockeys. In the wake of Liam Treadwell’s death, the sport plans to work even harder to support those affected by online abuse and mental health issues, as many jockeys begin to speak out.

What more can be done?

Alcohol and drug abuse have, for many years, had links to horse racing. As we've established, jockeys live very hectic lives, which can spiral out of control. Many jockeys struggle with the pressures of racing, more often than not, suffering in silence, with the ever-present risk of hate and abuse on social media only adding to their daily struggles. Several jockeys have been found breaking racing's rules and returning positive tests in recent times, so I believe more needs to be done to make jockeys aware of the consequences of their actions, and to recognise when they need support.

Ramping up testing, not only the speed at which they are conducted and returned but also introducing hair and saliva tests, would help to combat drug problems within the sport. Doing so more frequently and with a more efficient process will help to catch the signs of an addiction earlier, whilst also making the track a safer place to compete. Delaying this could see jockeys who are already gripped by an addiction falling deeper into a hole, with potentially disastrous consequences. Offering support is one thing, but getting the individual to recognise when they need help is another. By ramping up testing, more jockeys will be flagged up earlier, making it easier for them to get the help and support that they need.

I also believe more needs to be done to support a jockey when they are identified as having a drug problem. It's fine to suspend them from racing, but a more sympathetic approach must be taken by the BHA and relevant judiciary panels. They must ensure that the jockey gets the relevant support throughout their rehabilitation, rather than just banning and punishing them. Jockeys who have an addiction rarely realise it until after everyone else, so it is important to help them understand the consequences of what they are doing. Whilst Racing Welfare offers fully confidential support over the phone alongside counselling, drop-in support groups, and self-help services, it's recognising the issues and encouraging the individual to help themselves, which is the problem.

Racing Welfare's #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek promotional poster

Finally, more must be done to monitor and clamp down on abuse across social media platforms. Sitting behind a computer gives the aggressors much more confidence, and 90% of the time, there are no repercussions from what they are doing. Many jockeys become immune to it, but they shouldn't have to, and not everyone can shut themselves away from it as easily as others. Social media boycotts show solidarity against online hate, but they will not stop it. Something needs to be done, working alongside the social media platforms, to increase the monitoring of posts and messages. Whilst it can't physically be stopped, the increased analysis would help to identify significantly more hateful posts, reducing how many people see online. The police could also get involved with this to monitor and prosecute anyone found to be sending threats or harassment.

Where do you stand on the Oisin Murphy situation? Was his punishment fair, or did they go too far? And what more do you think the racing industry should do to aid jockeys with the pressures of racing and hate online? Let me know!

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