Racing must tackle this latest suicide head on
12 December 2014
Pamela Winterburn’s well-documented suicide must be met head on by racing.
The 44-year-old, who once looked after dual Oaks winner Ramruma, has become the most high-profile in a long line of stable grooms to take their own life.
In the past decade Newmarket alone has a suicide rate around 30 times that of the national average.
It is time the sport stood up and made a tangible difference to how it views groom suicide to prevent this tragic, and consistent loss of life.
Leading the calls for urgent action is Jan Wade of Racing Welfare.
“Racing needs to pull together on these issues,” she said on Friday. “We have a responsibility to help these people who work very hard and without whom we simply would not have a sport.”
Winterburn’s case is a standout because she is one of the few women to have committed suicide in racing in the past few years.
Nationally suicide is the biggest single killer of men aged between 30 and 44, more than road accidents, murder and HIV/Aids combined. This group of men kill themselves three times as often as women, whereas in the armed forces, for instance, male suicide accounts for nearly 95% of all suicides.
In 2005 Newmarket made the constructive move to set up the Newmarket Racing Partnership on the back of a spate of groom suicides. A 24-hour helpline deals with around 1,000 calls a year, and the organization acts as a conduit for those in need.
Four years after the NRP was set up, however, five more Newmarket grooms killed themselves in a 12-month period. Compare this figure with the seven serving British soldiers who killed themselves in 2012 and it is easy to see that racing's lot is comparable to that of the armed services.
For how long can we sit back and allow this to happen?
According to Jane Powell from the Campaign Against Living Miserably, the reasons for suicide are almost always complex and individual, which is what makes it a problem so difficult to tackle.
Powell added that economic and social factors such as insecurities around work and housing, social isolation and substance abuse are felt particularly strongly in most suicidal people.
Looking after thoroughbred horses in professional racing stables is a unique environment and one that is a hot bed of all of those factors Powell mentions.
Stable staff work the confined space of a yard and stables. Their job involves getting up early in the morning, constantly competing for rides with their peers, in some cases not eating very much, drinking a lot, substance abuse and gambling. Furthermore, a lot of stable staff are young and poorly paid and therefore vulnerable.
Following the inquest and coroners report into Winterburn’s death the British Horseracing Authority stated that reports of bullying are very rare. Of course they are. Racing is a sport in which people are desperate to work. Opportunities are scarce, and a small proportion of trainers treat their stables like a personal fiefdom.
Winterburn lamented that she had been belittled, sworn at and had been made to feel small. They are allegations that her former boss, Hugo Palmer, refutes strongly and Aidan Coleman reveals in his Racing UK column that he believes bullying is not widespread in racing.
Bullying in racing is clearly an employment issue. From the relatively minor problems of contractual difficulties right through to assisting trainers to better identify bullying or "harmless banter" and understand that it can have a serious effect on staff, the sport must tackle all of these complications now. It is to the mutual benefit of all parties.
“If I could wave my magic wand and make things perfect what the sport needs to do is ensure that there is the right support in place, and in more than just the training centres such as Newmarket, Lambourn and Middleham,” Wade added.
“Communication of our messages and help is getting better with the advent of social media but we are kidding ourselves if everybody is sat there glued to Facebook in our industry. We all must take a portion of the blame.”
The deadline to the Godolphin Stud and Stable Staff Awards passed at midnight. The awards were set up in 2005 with a view to giving grooms more recognition.
It is a worthy cause, and one which Dinah Nicholson, a judge on the panel, believes is just a small step in the right direction.
“A lot of people do not even know these people exist,” the wife of late and great trainer David Nicholson said at Cheltenham on Friday. “They maybe see them lead a horse around on the television, but they don’t know what goes on at the bottom rung.
“To be nominated for an award is tremendous kudos, and Godolphin pay for every nominated stable lad to receive an overnight stay at a lovely London hotel, dinner - the whole caboodle.
“A stable person is an extremely dedicated person – they do not do it for money, they do it for love. This is just one way to recognize their achievements but we can so much more.”
Geoffrey Riddle's weekend tips:
2pm Cheltenham Saturday: Darna at 12-1 generally
8.30am Sunday Sha Tin: Blazing Speed at 13-2 with Bet365
6.00am Sunday Sha Tin: Snow Sky at 15-2 with Skybet