By Ray Hickson
Jockey Ben Looker says he was too embarrassed to ask for help as his silent battle with anxiety and depression weighed down on him.
Less than a year ago victory in the Country Championships Final at Royal Randwick on local hero Victorem provided the Port Macquarie based 28-year-old with his biggest moment in racing.
But Looker admits things got out of control as he struggled to find his best form following a fall during the Grafton carnival.
If you noticed Looker was missing in action for about a month from early January it was because he was taking the time he needed to fight back.
“I’ve probably known from a young age that I had anxiety but I tried to block it out and not to worry about it,’’ Looker said.
“I think the depression came from the anxiety. From a young age, before I became a jockey, I was a person that always thinks the worst-case scenario about everything.
“When it all came to a head I ended up with a binge drinking problem. It got to a point that I knew I just needed help.
“I was never drinking for the right reasons, I was trying to escape racing.
“It was a combination of things, I had that bad fall over the July carnival and I came back and wasn’t happy with how I was riding.
“I was replaced on Victorem. Riding a lot didn’t help the situation, especially when you’re riding five or six days a week and going to the races and getting good rides and you know you’re not riding as well as you could be but you don’t know how to fix it.
“It’s very disheartening, it does your head in a bit.’’
Looker, who rides Mister Smartee in Sunday’s $150,000 Country Championships Qualifier (1200m) at Port Macquarie, is taking plenty of positive steps to manage his mental health and he knows it won’t happen overnight.
He’s not drinking any more, he takes medication, he’s been speaking with Racing NSW sport psychologist Oliver Brecht and also sees a local psychologist in Port Macquarie.
If he can get one message out to people who suffer in silence as he did it’s to simply talk about it and get the support you need.
In Ben’s case it was confiding in wife Priscilla – the couple were only married late last year – his manager Drew Smith and his parents.
“It’s true what they say, when you are getting help the best thing you need is support around you and the four of them have been enormous,’’ he said.
“It’s not going to be an easy fix, it’s going to take time and a lot of work to get on top of it.
“I was embarrassed to ask for help. I knew if I didn’t address it I was probably going to lose my marriage, my career.
“I’ve been very lucky, I’ve had a lot of success in racing and got to marry the love of my life. But I could have lost it all.’’
On this weekend last year Looker won the Port Macquarie Country Champoionships Qualifier on Victorem and on Tuesday morning he was reunited with the gelding as he returned to work at Jenny Graham’s stable.
He’s committed to riding trackwork, not travelling as much and to keeping things simple as he goes about enjoying the sport he loves again.
“I was pretty stale on racing towards the end,’’ he said.
“People who know me well say the medication and the help I’m getting is working. I had a good chat with Jenny about things and she’s asked me to ride Victorem in trackwork.
“It was less than 12 months ago he gave me my biggest thrill in racing and hopefully I can get back riding well again and give them a reason to put me back on.’’
Looker heads into Sunday’s Qualifier in-form wining five races in the first 11 days of February, including the Walcha Cup, and is quietly confident Mister Smartee can cause an upset after coming up with the inside alley.
Trained locally by Tas Morton, Mister Smartee has won four of his 17 starts and showed he is ready to give the Qualifier a big shake running fourth at Port Macquarie on February 1.
“His run was really good in the prelude race, he usually races up on the speed but he blew the start and found the line to run a good fourth,’’ Looker said.
“Barrier one is important to him and if he can jump cleanly he’s going to get the right run and he will look the winner at some stage.’’