Racing against his own demons
RACING: Pride is a big reason why Ben Looker has been as successful in the saddle as he has. But it was also the thing that was tearing him apart.
While he scaled enormous heights in 2018, including winning the $500,000 Country Championships final on Victorem and marrying his long-term partner Priscilla Schmidt, on the inside Looker felt nothing like a winner.
The 28-year-old had been fighting personal demons for a number of years, and earlier this year it all came to a head.
But that was when he decided it was time to get help.
Looker took almost a month out of the saddle, and with the help of his manager Drew Smith, his parents Michael and Debbie and his wife, the leading country jockey got on top of his problems.
"I just wanted to get help for a few things, and I thought I would take a break from racing and get on top of things,” Looker said. "I was getting a bit of help for depression. For a long time I have been bottling things up and I think it just came to a head.
"My manager, my mum and dad and Priscilla have all been really good pillars of support. I just knew I needed to get a bit of medical help and I think it is working great. I am feeling a lot more relaxed and I am coping with things a lot more.”
In an industry like racing, where the pressure is high and the hours long, Looker said people had a tendency to ignore their problems. Jockeys, trainers and officials alike all had the mindset of "suffering in silence”, which Looker believed was not the way to go.
"I think everyone struggles, racing is a very hard game. The highs are so high and the lows are very low. There is a lot of pressure, and I put a lot of that on myself,” he said.
"In racing, not a lot of people come out and talk about their mental struggles. I was always too proud to ask for help, but it all came to a head and I bit the bullet and went and got help, and I think it is the best thing I have ever done.
"If me coming out and talking about getting help can help other people who are suffering in silence, well then I would be very happy.”
The decision to take time off was not easy for the reigning Racing NSW Country Jockey of the Year, and watching his regular rides continue to find the winner's circle made it all the harder. But the former Grafton apprentice stuck true and it has paid off in a big way after his return to the track a fortnight ago.
"There were plenty of horses going around winning that I would have usually been riding, but speaking to the doctor and my family and my manager, we all decided it was best that I make sure I was right before coming back instead of coming back half-hearted.
"(When you do that) is when you get taken off something and you're back at square one. I have had a lot of support coming back and I am still riding winners, so that makes it a lot easier.”
Looker will be back in the saddle at Grafton today, picking up a book of five rides across the eight-race program.
His best opportunity to find the winning post will be on first-up gelding Foxy's Foxinator for Jenny Graham in the Book A Blues Brews & BBQ's Marquee Package CG&E Class 1 Handicap (1410m).
He will also be back on the hunt for further Country Championships glory when he partners the Tas Morton-trained Mister Smartee in the Mid North Coast Racing Association qualifier at Port Macquarie on Sunday.
"I don't think I have lost anything (in my time out),” he said. "I am a firm believer in the saying 'form is temporary but ability is permanent'.
"I am on top of things now and ready to get back out there and ride more winners.”