Lewis Porteous talks to four young jockeys about a modern-day plague
The social media messages quoted in this article are disturbing and offensive. Reader discretion is strongly advised. The Racing Post has chosen to print these messages unedited to make clear the scale of the problem facing jockeys and other sportspeople every day.
Callum Shepherd reads aloud a message he received on social media last month as if it’s the most normal thing in the world.
“A truly dodgy bastard. Karma punish you, wish you break your neck and never ride again. Arsehole. Idiot.”
It is not the only offensive message on his phone, with more examples from after he was beaten aboard 11-8 favourite Jewel In My Crown in a fillies’ handicap at Leicester on July 3 following. As soon as he had failed to make it three wins on the bounce aboard Rae Guest’s filly he could be sure not just one but several messages were incoming. After all, it’s been the same since he started his riding career seven years ago and has become part and parcel of the job.
“If you’re a jockey on social media you will get abuse and it’s virtually daily,” says the 23-year-old. “You can get them for any reason, but let’s say you’re beaten on a horse that is favourite, you’d virtually guarantee, regardless of what happened in the race, you’ll get a message on some platform and some kind of abuse – it’s a given.
“They range from calling you useless and using bad language to threats of violence and aggressive language. You can even receive messages about killing you and things about your family – it’s literally anything you can imagine. There’s nothing off limits to these people – it could be anything.
“There are serial offenders who have never had repercussions for what they are doing. You saw what happened to Saffie Osborne but that was not the least bit surprising because it’s something we get quite literally every single day.”
‘Every single jockey gets it’
The social media abuse received by jockeys was thrust into the spotlight again in June when trainer Jamie Osborne posted a message received by his daughter Saffie after she had been beaten a short head aboard Peerless at Bath.
The message read: “U stupid fucking hore… u need rapping and beating to death u slut… daddy won’t help u… U slut… keep your tits in you whore… die u little bitch.”
Jamie Osborne vowed to campaign to have the people behind such messages banned from all platforms, saying he would not be shying away from pressing charges.
“I was in the car with Dad and said, ‘Jesus Christ, look at this,’ to show him the extent of it,” says Saffie Osborne. “He was seriously taken aback by it and said in his day it [the abuse] was a lot less because nobody would have the balls to scream over the rail and tell you how crap you are. The fact they can sit behind a computer and say it gives them a lot more confidence.
“It annoyed me [that Dad reposted it] because everyone kind of thought ‘poor Saffie’ when it didn’t really affect me, but in hindsight it was a good thing because it shed a light on a bigger issue. Quite quickly it became a story about abuse rather than Saffie Osborne and I’m just happy it shed light on a bigger situation than just one message.
“I thought I’d get loads of slagging for it, but in fact I got the complete opposite and everyone that spoke to me about it said he’d done exactly the right thing.
“Someone said to me that Dad putting the message on social media raised more alarm bells than a social media blackout, because people then realise the extent of stuff that you get sent.”
Asked about the impact such abuse has on her personally, Osborne adds: “For someone like me who is 19, it doesn’t affect me, but imagine a 16-year-old girl who, let’s say, isn’t as confident as me comes into the weighing room and they don’t know anything about this and then all of a sudden they get messages that say they are going to get beaten and raped, that’s not on and can’t happen.
“There will one day be someone who is having a really bad day, when something else has happened, and they get a message like that and it will send them into turmoil. You have to be pretty thick-skinned to laugh off some of those messages. I’m lucky that I can, but in the whole world of sport there must be so many people that it does affect.”
Mark Cranham (racingpost.com/photos)
title=”Saffie Osborne: her father Jamie spoke out after she received abuse on social media”
data-br-xw=”https://www.rp-assets.com/images/news/2021/08/14/96733-large.jpeg” onclick=”return false;”>
Saffie Osborne: her father Jamie spoke out after she received abuse on social media
Mark Cranham (racingpost.com/photos)
If it seems remarkable that such a vile message didn’t affect Osborne, it becomes easier to understand when you speak to more members of the weighing room. As shocking as that message was, it’s hard to find a jockey who was surprised by it as all those I’ve spoken to paint an identical picture to Shepherd.
“I guarantee every single jockey in the weighing room gets it,” jump jockey Jonjo O’Neill Jr says, “and I would get it daily in the winter. It’s not just when you get beat in a tight finish – a horse could pull up and you’d be getting dog’s abuse and it’s nothing to do with you whatsoever.
“I’ve become immune to it because I just don’t care, but some of the stuff that is said is diabolical and makes your stomach turn. I’ve had everything under the sun.”
In response to Jamie Osborne’s call for action, O’Neill highlighted a message he received after finishing a length second on 3-1 shot Pagero at Worcester in June from what appears to be the same account as the user who targeted Saffie Osborne. It read: “Pity u don’t take a bottle of pills end up full of ash… get your cunt dad send me statue of your ashes… then I can play darts with it… useless scum… think u need 2 go back 2 school sort the lisp out… o send Pagaro brains to butchers get a nice bit of beef out of that… cunt.”
He says: “I’m fairly easy-going and don’t have too many cares, so I would never be upset about it, but I know some people would, which is understandable.”
Alan Crowhurst / Getty Images
title=”Jonjo O’Neill Jr: “Some of the stuff that is said is diabolical and makes your stomach turn. I’ve had everything under the sun””
data-br-xw=”https://www.rp-assets.com/images/news/2021/02/20/88610-large.jpeg” onclick=”return false;”>
Jonjo O’Neill Jr: “Some of the stuff that is said is diabolical and makes your stomach turn. I’ve had everything under the sun”
Alan Crowhurst / Getty Images
Shepherd and O’Neill are two affable, young and talented riders who, like Osborne, say most of the messages they receive do not have an impact on them, but there have still been times, especially when they were launching their careers, when they cut deeper.
“It very much depends on what sort of frame of mind you’re in at the time,” says Shepherd. “There’s some days when it really is water off a duck’s back, especially when you know you couldn’t have done anything else.
“But if it catches you at the wrong time when you have had a bad day, then it obviously does affect your frame of mind and have more of an impact.”
O’Neill says: “I think it’s when you do mess up that it would hit you a little bit harder because you are in the wrong, but if I rode a favourite and it pulled up and you get loads of abuse, that wouldn’t bother me at all because there’s not a lot you can do.
“I missed a hurdle out at Wetherby and got the most abuse I’ve ever got. That’s when it would hit you a little bit harder because you know you’ve messed up. They all call you corrupt, when really you’ve made an honest mistake. You know you’ve messed up but they’re outing you to be something you’re not and throwing a lot of abuse at you. Other people see it and then latch on to it as well.
“It’s not something I do, but when some lads get a bit of abuse they’d type their name in on Twitter and see what everyone is saying about them and I think that’s very dangerous. You’ve got to be aware you’re going to see bad things if you do that. A lot of the time, people jump on the bandwagon once a bit of abuse is thrown.”
Under Covid guidelines introduced last June, riders can access their phones without restriction in the weighing room, meaning many are reading incoming messages between rides.
“The scary thing is you see some people in the weighing room, if they think they’ve given something a bad ride, the first thing they’ll do is go on their phone and type their name into Twitter,” says Osborne. “I don’t know why people do it, but if they’re going on the views of people who have had their £5 bets on it, it’s probably a bigger issue than what we think.”
“You could very well come in from a ride and be changing your silks and your phone is pinging with abuse,” says Shepherd. “Since Covid you’re allowed your phone on at all times so we see it during the day. We’re only human so of course it affects your mood to some degree, especially if you’re coming back in from a race and things haven’t gone right and then you’re met with that. It’s not pleasant to say the least.
“I don’t know how it would affect people at home or on the drive home, but for me personally, and I’d imagine it’s the same for other people, it depends on your frame of mind. If you’re doing okay, it’s all right, but if you’ve had a bad run or a bad ride, and you know you have given one a bad ride, that’s when it stings the most.”
John Grossick (racingpost.com/photos)
title=”Callum Shepherd: “You could very well come in from a ride and be changing your silks and your phone is pinging with abuse””
data-br-xw=”https://www.rp-assets.com/images/news/2021/08/14/96734-large.jpeg” onclick=”return false;”>
Callum Shepherd: “You could very well come in from a ride and be changing your silks and your phone is pinging with abuse”
John Grossick (racingpost.com/photos)
Having become so used to the abuse, Shepherd and O’Neill have adapted a block, ignore or delete policy to the rogue messages they receive. They choose not to report these uninvited messages to either the social media companies, police, BHA or PJA as they do not want to spend any longer than necessary dwelling on what has been said.
“The ones about breaking your neck are the ones that action should be taken against,” says Shepherd. “On occasions I’ve sent a smart reply but I just leave it now. There’s a flare of irritation and annoyance when you get them, but I’ve learned to get over them.
“I got my licence when I was 16. I’m only 23 now, but that’s been the culture since I started and you get used to it.”
Asked if he has ever reported a message, Shepherd says: “To be honest I haven’t, but maybe it’s something we should start to do. The problem is that if you report everyone you get a message off you’d be there all day, and it’s much easier to delete it or block it and not give it a second thought.
“You’ve got people who have been doing it for years and surely they’ve lost the right to be on social media across the board. They should be blacklisted – that’s what should happen.”
O’Neill says: “I used to get it when I was claiming and it would hit you a bit more then. Sometimes you’d want to reply and give your side of things, but then all you’re doing is giving them a reaction, and credit for the abuse they are giving you is what they want.
“I never reply to them, but sometimes I used to just like the comment to annoy them more. Now I just can’t be bothered. They’re not opinions of people I respect so I don’t pay any attention.
“I’m lucky that if I get beat on my first ride I’ve got two or three more where I’d be hopeful of resurrecting the day, but there are plenty of people for whom it’s the best chance they’ve had in a couple of weeks and I could see how it could hit someone.”
‘I was ashamed to show my face’
Ciaran Gethings is one jockey who was seriously affected by the abuse.
In 2017 he was unseated from 25-1 shot Deckers Delight in a staying handicap hurdle at Hereford. Such was the torrent of abuse he received, his partner Kate Tracey penned a Racing Post article explaining the mental pressures that jockeys face when their ability and integrity are challenged by online trolls in such an offensive manner.
Mental pressures on jockeys are enough without social media abuse
Jump jockey Gethings has since established himself among the professional ranks in the weighing room, but back then he was a 22-year-old trying to gain a foothold in the sport as a conditional, and the abuse he received had a significant impact.
“It wasn’t straight away,” he remembers. “I think someone put it on a Facebook page and that’s when it blew up. I knew what had happened – I literally fell off the side of the horse and was embarrassed it happened, but it was a laughable matter completely blown out of proportion.
“The time I knew it had gone way out of proportion was when a friend of mine in Australia sent me a video of it on the news over there.”
On how it started to impact on his wellbeing, Gethings says: “I probably took it to heart, but when you’re a 5lb claimer, stuff like that matters. Going to the races I was nearly ashamed to show my face because literally everyone in racing had seen it. It was embarrassing more than anything.
“It was a mixture of messages but mainly saying I had done it on purpose which was definitely not the case. It knocked my confidence more than anything.”
Depressingly, the hate continues to this day, but Gethings has become immune to any poisonous messages aimed in his direction now.
“It’s part and parcel of it now,” he says. “I think 90 per cent of us have had messages from the individual who messaged Saffie Osborne and to the same sort of extent.
“That message was to the extreme, especially to a young girl, and you can see why Jamie Osborne spoke out. You don’t want to see that written about anyone, especially not your daughter, and fair play to him for speaking out.”
He continues: “When you’re younger you go looking for the good comments and find the bad. We shouldn’t have to turn a blind eye to it, but we do now because it happens on a daily basis and it’s a worry for the younger guys.
“I’ve had messages about breaking my legs and neck but it doesn’t affect me at all now. It was a lot different when I was 18 and 19 but, like I said, I don’t go looking for it now.”
John Grossick Racing
title=”Ciaran Gethings: “When you’re younger you go looking for the good comments and find the bad””
data-br-xw=”https://www.rp-assets.com/images/news/2017/12/13/34497-large.jpeg” onclick=”return false;”>
Ciaran Gethings: “When you’re younger you go looking for the good comments and find the bad”
John Grossick Racing
A societal problem, not just a racing problem
YouGov research, commissioned by BT as part of its Draw The Line campaign to tackle online hate and abuse, showed that more than one in ten people in the UK have received online abuse over the last 12 months and more than 1.8 million people have experienced threatening behaviour online in the same period.
Sports stars have been badly affected by the rising online abuse. A third of respondents to the biggest women’s sport study ever carried out by BBC Sport last year revealed they had been trolled – a figure that had doubled since the last survey in 2015.
And if there was a tipping point in attitudes against online abuse, one would hope the racial abuse some England players received after their defeat to Italy in the final of the European Championships was it. Within 24 hours of the match, Twitter said it had removed more than 1,000 messages containing racist abuse from its platform aimed at Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka.
“For too long incidents of race hate, abuse and harassment have been treated less seriously when they take place online and that needs to change,” says Matthew McGregor, campaigns director at anti-racist organisation Hope Not Hate. “Most of the abuse aimed at England players wasn’t just vile, they were crimes.
“Social media firms are now, finally, getting better at removing content after the fact, but the damage has been done – they must be more proactive, better resourced, and much, much smarter at dealing with the problems that their own platforms have enabled.
“Political leaders must step up, too. We need unambiguous backing for the players from government ministers, action on online harms and investment for the police to take action against perpetrators.”
A new Online Safety Bill has already been set out by the UK government and is currently being examined by MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, who have until December 10 to set out a report. After that it can be formally presented to parliament as a bill, which would undergo the full parliamentary scrutiny process. The best-case scenario is that it could gain Royal Assent by the middle of 2022, but in reality it could be a longer wait.
title=”A new Online Safety Bill is currently being examined by MPs at Westminster”
data-br-xw=”https://www.rp-assets.com/images/news/2017/06/06/23305-large.jpeg” onclick=”return false;”>
A new Online Safety Bill is currently being examined by MPs at Westminster
Under major changes to the powers it has at its disposal to regulate, Ofcom is expected to be handed the ability to take action against social media companies for any inaction when it comes to online abuse as part of reforms included in the bill.
Responding to the online abuse suffered by England players after Euro 2020, Ofcom chief executive Melanie Dawes vowed that, when the UK’s communications regulator has the power to regulate online safety, it will “hold the social media platforms to account on abuse like this”, that companies will have to be much more “transparent about the rules they have in place to deal with it” and that Ofcom will act to make sure those rules are properly enforced.
The BHA is among those bodies to support the bill, with Tim Naylor, director of integrity and regulation, saying: “The BHA supports the principles underpinning the government’s proposed Online Safety Bill and we want to see effective legislation enacted in law as soon as possible. We are working with colleagues in other sports on representations around this important legislation.
“Holding social media companies accountable for their content is a crucial incentive for them to prevent, detect and remove hateful content from their platforms. This will help to protect all members of the racing community from online abuse.”
‘We tell them social media is not a necessity’
In the meantime, jockeys like Shepherd, O’Neill and Gethings can at least look to bodies like the Professional Jockeys Association, the Injured Jockeys Fund and Racing Welfare for help if required.
The PJA offers guidance to its members around social media, including steps they can take on certain platforms to minimise the risk of seeing the abuse, and free access to counsellors.
“You can use filters to block out certain terms, you can obviously block people and report them and we advise jockeys along those lines,” says PJA chief executive Paul Struthers.
“We do tell them that social media is not a necessity. There are lots of positives about social media, but I think the problem is it can become so consuming and there is so much negativity on there. It’s become so poisonous that you struggle to see a way back from it because people are so used to getting away with speaking to people and messaging people in a way that 99.9 per cent of people would never dream of doing to someone’s face and they do it with impunity.”
For anyone struggling to deal with the abuse they are receiving, support does exist and riders are urged to speak out and seek advice.
“We work incredibly closely with Sporting Chance and provide free access to their nationwide network of sports specialists and counsellors,” says Struthers.
“The Injured Jockeys Fund works with Changing Minds and therefore has free access to clinical psychologists in each of their three rehabilitation centres, so there’s support there as well for those on the receiving end of the abuse.”
title=”Paul Struthers: “There’s support there as well for those on the receiving end of the abuse””
data-br-xw=”https://www.rp-assets.com/images/news/2016/07/06/7136-large.jpeg” onclick=”return false;”>
Paul Struthers: “There’s support there as well for those on the receiving end of the abuse”
Naylor also reiterates the support available for anyone within racing.
He says: “The BHA has worked with industry bodies to share information to our participants about what to do if they are on the receiving end of abuse. This guidance is also available on the BHA website and sets out the steps that can be taken and the support that is available.
“As is the case with many sporting regulators, the BHA’s own regulatory powers are limited in this area if the abuse is being sent by anonymous accounts from non-licensed persons. However, we can provide support and advice to anyone who is on the receiving end, and always want to hear from anyone in our sport if they are feeling affected by anything that is said to them on social media.
“Racing has excellent support structures in place for its participants, either through the BHA, Racing Welfare or representative bodies – we would advise anyone who is struggling mentally off the back of online abuse to reach out to any of those organisations.
“The BHA has also reached out in the past to individuals who have been on the receiving end to offer support and guidance.”
If a rider felt strongly enough to pursue legal action, the PJA also says it would not be averse to offering financial support, although there are clearly a lot of factors at play.
“The challenge is you can receive abusive messages that clearly fall foul of the communications act and you can report them to the police, as for example Saffie has done, but you are still ultimately reliant on the police having the expertise, the resources and the will to investigate it and take it further,” says Struthers.
“There’s always the possibility of civil action, but like all civil actions the cost is not insignificant, will involve going to court and, like all these things, there is a personal burden in doing that.
“I’m certainly of the view that the PJA wouldn’t be averse to supporting a jockey financially to do so and to set that example. But it’s very costly and time-consuming, so I think the appetite for pursuing that is going to be limited. Ultimately if the police can take it seriously it will have a deterrent effect.
“We encourage our members to report it, but equally we understand that for many of them as individuals the best thing is to simply ignore it. Because it’s so prevalent, there’s almost no point in collating figures, but we certainly encourage members to send us the abuse which we then collate in a separate document but it’s up to the individual and understand if their way of dealing with it is something different.”
Struthers says the PJA is also working with the Professional Players Federation on initiatives. One is to pull together far more detailed guidance for all professional sportspeople.
“We’re working on that at the moment and we’ve got people looking at the Online Harms Bill and advocating for certain elements to be put in there,” he says. “From what we’ve seen of it thus far, I think it will help, but I don’t think it will solve the problem. The bottom line is that until you start sanctioning these companies for not taking enough action, and until there’s more action against individuals who are perpetrating the abuse, ultimately not much is going to happen.”
Making a stand
The PJA was among many organisations, including the BHA and the Racing Post, to take part in a four-day sportswide boycott of social media at the start of May and Struthers believes it could be the first of many protests unless social media platforms take more action or are at least compelled to do so.
“On the morning of the first day of the boycott, one of our members received a message with an implied threat against his children from an individual who messaged him before, who he had reported before and lo and behold the social media company had taken no action against,” he says.
“While I get the responsibility for the comments and abuse sits with the individual, there is a significant responsibility on the platforms to do an awful lot more and, frankly, for all their words that suggest they take it seriously and suggest they are doing lots, they just aren’t.
“I strongly suspect that the way their platforms work, and ultimately they’re data-mining companies, anytime there is something that gets a lot of engagement and traction on social media, it’s good for them regardless of how abusive or divisive that interaction is.
“I can see more boycotts happening until they willingly start doing more or are compelled by the government to do more.”
As well as taking part in the social media blackout, the BHA says it has spoken privately to government on the matter, with the unequivocal message from the regulator that more has to be done.
Naylor says: “Social media abuse is a scourge of modern society and the BHA shares the view that more must be done to combat it by government, law enforcement and social media platforms. The vile comments aimed at England’s young footballers recently were just another illustration of this, but it is pervasive across all aspects of society, including in racing where our competitors and officials are subjected to frequent abuse.
“It is for this reason that the BHA took part in the recent social media blackout alongside other industry bodies and other major sports. The message was clear to government and social media operators that change must follow – a message which was also explained privately to government officials as part of this action.”
Technology to identify abusive messages and support organisations in safeguarding professional athletes from social media abuse has been developed and is another potential avenue for organisations like the BHA to explore.
The intelligence and investigation services team of Sportradar, a leading global provider of sports betting and sports entertainment products and services, was among the first to launch such technology in a bid to keep professional athletes free from harm online and discourage future trolling and abuse through investigation, intervention and disruption.
Its service aims to identify the individuals behind anonymous ‘troll’ or ‘burner’ accounts and aims to build a picture of how that individual conducts online abuse. The findings are then shared with its partners and further support is provided in pursuing an appropriate course of action, including the removal of abusive accounts from social media platforms and working with law enforcement to bring possible legal proceedings.
Sportradar’s technology was successfully trialled last summer at the Exo-Tennis Series across Germany and the United Stakes and is available to all sports federations, leagues and governing bodies.
Asked about the possibility of exploring similar technology in racing, Naylor said: “We have had some initial, exploratory conversations with technology providers who can potentially scan social media to pick up on abuse being directed to selected individuals such as trainers and jockeys, identify posts which could be indicative of potential threats to individuals and provide guidance with dealing with social media platforms and police in these instances.
“However, while there is potential for technology such as this to be a helpful tool, more fundamental action is required through government legislation and social media platforms to create meaningful change.”
Edward Whitaker (racingpost.com/photos)
title=”Jockeys would welcome greater accountability from social media platforms”
data-br-xw=”https://www.rp-assets.com/images/news/2020/02/26/75872-large.jpeg” onclick=”return false;”>
Jockeys would welcome greater accountability from social media platforms
Edward Whitaker (racingpost.com/photos)
‘I’m not going to let them take that from me’
That change can’t come soon enough for O’Neill, who thinks it is primarily down to the social media operators themselves to take accountability for what’s being written on their platforms.
“It’s got to the stage now where, if even the best footballers are getting it, there has to be some way they can combat it,” he says.
“Something needs to be done. Surely there could be a verification process when you create an account and put an address to that account. If you have that then the police can go to that address and someone is held accountable.”
Osborne sees a similar solution, saying: “Having to use an ID to have a social media account could be massive because then people could actually be held accountable. At the moment if you block someone, they’ll just create another account and send you another message. It’s not hard.”
However, for all the abuse being received, coming off either a specific platform or social media altogether is not something either rider is contemplating.
Osborne says: “I probably wouldn’t ever come off it. It’s so important now – I have 11,000 followers on Instagram.”
O’Neill also refuses to allow the trolls take the positive side of social media away from him.
“For me, I wouldn’t want to give in to something like that, although I can see why some people would want to,” he says. “I use Instagram, Twitter and Facebook for social purposes and to keep in touch with my friends, and I’m not going to let them take that from me.
“It’s on all platforms and comes from all different angles. I block people sometimes but I don’t want it to get in the way of my life. I see it and forget about it, but it’s wrong and something needs to be done about it.”
Racing Welfare is here to support all of Racing’s workforce. If you work in racing and have been affected by online abuse, you can get help 24/7 by calling Racing’s Support Line on 0800 6300 443.
This article is available free as a sample. Members can read exclusive interviews, news analysis and comment daily on racingpost.com. Click here to sign up
Members can read more exclusive articles here:
Ryan Moore: ‘I try not to offend anyone but for me it’s always about the horses’
William Jarvis: ‘I’m told I should be richer by now – but I’m not bitter at all’
Richard Hannon snr: ‘Why do you want to talk to me? I’m nearly dead!’
‘Life moves on’ – Sir Michael Stoute looks forward after his most painful year
Steve Cauthen: ‘I was bulimic at times – and at some point you crack’
‘Now is the time to bet like men’ – how Shergar made a lot of people very rich
Sir Mark Prescott: ‘I was completely stitched up – it was a bitter experience’
Darryll Holland and Kieren Fallon: ‘We’re going to give it a bloody good go’
‘We can’t rely on these huge benefactors’ – British racing’s ticking time bomb
Watch live races through the Racing Post. Log in to your bookmaker account and look on the racecards for eligible races. Click the red ‘Watch live now’ icon and they’re off! Find out how here
You can even receive messages about killing you and things about your family – it’s literally anything you can imagine