Ashley Canchari prefers to remember her brother as he lived. One of the most popular jockeys at Canterbury Park, Alex Canchari brimmed with talent and charisma, a Shakopee kid who achieved his dream at his hometown track.

But that wasn't why Ashley was invited to speak at Saratoga Race Course earlier this month. During a discussion about the mental health concerns faced by jockeys, she told a room full of people how Alex died: by suicide, on a bleak March night, not far from the track where he rode 334 winners.

"I wish every day he would have said something to me," she said in an interview last week. "But he never showed us he needed help, that he was in a dark place.

"And that's the thing. In the horse racing industry, these issues have never been discussed. They've been swept under the rug."

Following two deaths by suicide this year — Avery Whisman on Jan. 11 and Canchari on March 1 — racing is finally beginning to confront a difficult truth. Jockeys at every level face hardships and pressures every day. With few resources to help them cope, and a powerful stigma against seeking assistance, even the toughest and bravest can struggle with their mental health.

Common worries include financial insecurity, cutting weight and the intense competition to get on good horses. Jockeys are only paid when they ride in races, so they often return too soon after concussions or other serious injuries, adding to their stress.

Sally Mixon, an exercise rider at Canterbury Park and a mental health counselor, said the sport's "cowboy mentality" prevents many jockeys from even admitting they need a hand, let alone asking for one.

"People think they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps and handle things on their own," Mixon said. "We're seeing that catch up with us, in suicide, depression, anxiety, addiction, anger. We need to do a better job."

In 2020, Mixon founded Abijah's on the Backside, a potential model for breaking through those barriers. Located at Canterbury Park, it uses retired racehorses to treat mental health conditions through equine-assisted therapy. Jockeys have been among the clients at Abijah's, which Mixon hopes to expand to other tracks.

The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) and the Jockeys' Guild also are studying the issue and brainstorming solutions. They have held two symposiums since Whisman and Canchari died, including the one where Ashley Canchari spoke.

"I wish it hadn't come to this point, where this had to happen to Alex or Avery," said Canchari, of Shakopee. "But I'm glad more people are talking about it now. I just hope we can prevent another family from having to go through this."

Pressures mount

Scott Stevens and Paul Nolan both competed alongside Canchari for years. He is not the only rider they personally know who died by suicide. Nolan counts five or six; Stevens was acquainted with at least three, including Canchari, 29, and Whisman, 23.

After decades in the saddle — and a combined 12,085 starts at Canterbury — Stevens and Nolan are both retired. But they see current riders facing the same stresses they did.

"There were times I wanted to quit," said Nolan, who was paralyzed in a 2017 racing accident. "There were times I was so depressed. You can be up one day and down the next, even if you're not doing anything different. It's a very hard business."

Last April, the Jockeys' Guild and HISA surveyed riders to learn more about those challenges. Of the 230 who responded, 10% described their mental health as poor. A third reported that sadness, depression or anxiety had affected their daily lives in the previous month, while 93% worried about financial stability.

Many jockeys work for free during morning training, trying to build relationships with trainers to get more mounts and higher quality horses on race day. Their payment ranges from a 10% cut of the winner's share of the purse — minus fees for their agent and valet — to $75 for an out-of-the-money finish.

About 20 jockeys are riding at Canterbury Park this summer, and with fewer races and fewer horses than last season, competition is fierce. On top of that, riders can be abruptly sidelined by an injury, a suspension, a slump that causes trainers to lose confidence in them, or even a rumor spread by a competitor.

"There were times I rode when I wasn't healthy, because I just couldn't afford to lose the business," said Stevens, whose 999 victories at Canterbury are second-most in track history. "The reality is, you're only as good as your last race. And that's very stressful."

Other triggers include the constant need to keep their weight around 115 pounds, which can lead to eating disorders and medical problems; separation from family members while riding at different tracks around the country; physical, dangerous work over long hours; and biting criticism from trainers, bettors, horse owners and social media. There is speculation that some jockeys also might suffer from CTE, the brain disease caused by repeated head injuries.

Ashley Canchari said Alex once told her he thought there was something wrong with his brain. He had fallen off horses many times, she said, and had a string of untreated concussions.

He also felt the pressure of providing for two young children and another on the way. Following his father's unexpected death in 2020 and a car accident that seriously injured his brother, Patrick, it all became too much.

"I told him, 'You need to go see a therapist. A doctor. Have your brain scanned,' " Ashley said. "I think there were people in his life that were well aware of these mental health issues, but I don't think they knew what to do or how to help. It was a recipe for disaster."

Slow progress

A 2021 study of Irish jockeys showed 79% met the threshold for at least one mental health disorder, but only a third sought treatment. That didn't surprise Nolan. In a racetrack culture that venerates toughness and self-sufficiency, he said going to a therapist could poison a rider's reputation.

"Word would get out, and it wouldn't matter how many trainers like you," said Nolan, who rode 5,515 races at Canterbury. "It would be seen as a sign of weakness, and no one can ever show weakness."

That taboo is just one of the barriers that has left racing far behind other professional sports in addressing its athletes' mental health. Tracks don't provide access to resources such as sports psychologists, nutritionists and physical therapists. And most jockeys don't have private health insurance, limiting their ability to afford those things on their own.

Mixon hopes Abijah's on the Backside can help. As an exercise rider, she is a trusted member of the racetrack community, and Abijah's equine therapy happens in a familiar and comfortable space that doesn't feel like traditional treatment. Her Canterbury Park facility uses horses that once raced there.

"People have pride. It's hard to not be OK," Mixon said. "But as we grow, there will be jockeys who share their stories of healing. Other people will say, 'I'm not the only one struggling.' That's powerful."

Lindey Wade, Canterbury's champion jockey in 2021, tried a therapy session at Abijah's to see what it was all about. He called it "incredible" and thinks it could provide valuable support for riders.

Wade noted Canterbury is offering other resources, too, which could create a model for easing the pressures jockeys face. The track gives out free breakfasts and groceries in the stable area and assists with medical and dental expenses; next season, it hopes to add a nutritionist and offer healthy meals to help riders maintain their weight safely.

On a national level, the Race Track Chaplaincy of America has begun training track chaplains to recognize and respond to signs of potential suicide. HISA and the Jockeys' Guild just introduced new initiatives to prevent and monitor concussions, and they're considering ideas such as financial and career counseling.

"I've been riding for 16 years, and this is the first time anyone has talked about things like this," said Wade, currently second in Canterbury's jockey standings. "But the riders have to be the ones to take steps to use these resources.

"You have to be a big enough person to say, 'I need help.' Would it hurt your business? Absolutely. But I feel like the racetrack would rally around someone who needed help."

Wade, Stevens and Nolan don't expect significant change to happen soon. While the deaths of Canchari and Whisman generated more awareness of the pressures jockeys face, all three said real progress will take time.

Ashley Canchari is in it for the long run. The daughter of a trainer and sister to two jockeys, she won't give up on a sport that has meant so much to her family.

But she will hold it to account. When Alex was a teenager, he worked at a Canterbury Park concession stand, telling all his customers he would be a great rider someday. After watching him deliver on his promise, Ashley intends to make good on hers.

"I'll do everything I can to raise awareness about this," she said. "These riders need help. They deserve it. This has gone on too long."

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor.