A brave Anthony Delpech – best known in Hong Kong for his partnership with champion racehorse Vengeance Of Rain – has opened up about the emotional challenges of being a jockey, acknowledging “I’ve kept it in for 35 years”.
Speaking at the Asian Racing Conference in Cape Town at a session discussing the well-being of racing’s athletes, the former Hong Kong-based rider revealed he is now addressing his mental health after his career ended suddenly when he damaged his spinal cord in a bad fall at Turffontein in April 2018.
The 51-year-old laid himself bare, pointing to a discussion he had with his son, who wanted to follow in his footsteps.
“My son said to me ‘dad, do you think I should become a jockey?’ and the first thing I said was ‘No’. He said, ‘But you were a champion, why can’t I do it?’ and it’s the mental [challenges] – I didn’t want him to go through it,” Delpech said through tears.
“We bottle everything inside and we show on the outside how tough we are – we can’t afford to be weak. I’ve kept it in for 35 years, that’s why it’s all coming out now.
“You don’t want other jockeys or other people to know you have that pressure. It’s part of the game.
“The first time I went to see a sports psychologist, I really thought I was weak. After talking, you were like a little baby crying because you’d been holding it all inside.
“I hope racing is getting to the place where there is someone permanently there to talk to, like a sports psychologist, because I think it would make a huge difference.”
Delpech, who rode in Hong Kong for more than five years in the 2000s, was a three-time champion in South Africa and also won every Group One race in the country, admitted the physical toll of wasting to ride at light weights was incredibly stressful.
“I remember one day I fell in Hong Kong, I was so dehydrated I broke my collarbone. So I was passed out and when I woke up in the ambulance the first thing I said was ‘please give me some water’,” he said.
“You’ve got to be so mentally strong because your body is almost giving up but you know you have to make the weight and if you don’t, someone else is going to ride the horse and the horse might win.
“If an opportunity comes, you have to sacrifice. That horse that you have to lose 3kg (6.6lb) for might be a Melbourne Cup winner. That’s what happened to me.
“I had to ride a horse in Hong Kong at 113 pounds (51kg) and the jockey before me, Glyn Schofield, couldn’t make the weight. I said I would and I pushed myself and he became the best horse I ever rode in my career [Vengeance Of Rain].
“Sometimes you’ll push yourself for those opportunities that you might never get again. When you’re in it, it’s very difficult to not do it. We punish our bodies so much.”
Delpech, who says the support available for riders now has improved immensely, is currently involved in a restaurant but still finds it tough to accept the way his career ended.
“It’s been very difficult, it’s been almost two years,” he said. “I was at the peak of my racing, I was champion jockey the year before, [on top] by 30 winners and all of a sudden it is cut short by one accident, one false step, one wrong judgment in a race. That was the end of my career.
“After my accident, I couldn’t even lift a spoon. I lost total strength in my body. I had to do [occupational therapy] starting to touch my fingers because it was that bad. All I wanted was the hope to be able to get back [to riding]. It was the only thing I knew to do.
“I went back to training and got myself fit, I was riding work. The first day I was OK. The second day I felt I was going to pass out. I had burning pains running down my leg that I’ve still got – nerve pains. I went back to my neurosurgeon and they did tests and he said … I must call it a day.
“It’s been hard and [I’m] still struggling.”