Sport Horse Racing

Friday 22 September 2017

Regrets too few to mention for brave Berry

Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

"The remarkable thing is, we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past, we cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play the one string we have, and that is our attitude."

Charles Swindoll, Christian preacher

Fran Berry might have been champion jockey five years ago. He might have ridden a Group One winner by now. Had Mick Kinane been minded to take leave of John Oxx's stable 12 months sooner, Berry might even have ridden a stack of them and been part of Sea The Stars' glorious legacy.

Alas, it wasn't to be. Instead of a riders' title, in August 2005 he spent 11 days in hospital and eight months off with a fractured sternum and vertebra, as well as a displaced vertebra. He still awaits that first championship. He has never won a Group One, nor is he likely to before the year is out.

Circumstance and opportunity have so far conspired to deny one of the most polished Flat riders of his generation either of the two trimmings that define a top jockey's career. Yet Berry plays the one string that he can with rare humility.

Naturally easy-going and possessing a ready smile, the 29-year-old doesn't betray a morsel of regret. With good cause, he embraces each day.

"The fall I got in 2005 was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me," he maintains, "because it gave me another perspective on life. Any time I go to the doctor for a check-up, they can't believe that I am able to walk after the injuries I had, never mind ride again.

"It has given me an appreciation of what I'm able to do. I was 24 at the time and you're rushing here, there and everywhere and you don't really stop to think -- so it gives you that perspective that there's a life outside racing."

And so every day he chooses to have the right attitude. A positive, upbeat one that acknowledges what he has, not what he might have had.

When Johnny Murtagh vacated the No 1 spot at Oxx's six years ago, Berry, the No 2 since 2002, was overlooked in favour of the seasoned Kinane. Over the next five years, Oxx and Kinane would share a stunning 13

Group One victories, culminating in Sea The Stars' unprecedented sextet last year. Berry can change none of that, and probably wouldn't want to.

When he got that fall from Indian Rite at The Curragh on August 20 2005, he was five clear at the top of the table. He was on a roll, seemingly destined to win the title without being stable jockey to one of the major yards.

It didn't happen. Berry spent a long time in a head brace, drinking through a straw, but he was lucky. He walked out of the Mater spinal unit.

The following March, he was back in action, diligently fulfilling his role at Oxx's as Kinane's understudy

In 2008, he again gave Pat Smullen a run for his money in the title race, finishing second for a third time, five in arrears.

Last December, while riding in Singapore, he finally got the call from Oxx to inform him of his promotion. "I'd been with Mr Oxx for eight years," he says, "so it was basically just a change in rank, but it was still a big thrill to get it.

"I'm really enjoying it. He is very knowledgeable and very fair and, if things don't work out on a given day, he looks to the next day."

This is a year of consolidation for Oxx. The Currabeg maestro has never been privy to an endless production-line of Group One performers, and last year was always going to be hard to follow.

Nonetheless, Berry is still serving it up to Smullen and Johnny Murtagh in the championship.

Smullen and he have swapped the lead on a couple of occasions in recent weeks, Dermot Weld's man currently three to the good on 58 thanks to a spectacular outing at Galway.

In light of their firepower for their respective bosses, Berry's 21-108 to Smullen's 38-214, the pretender's challenge -- as was the case in 2005 -- has massive wider support. Oxx, however, still has muscle.

"Things started off very well for me from the word go," Berry confirms. "Mr Oxx knew we lacked the quality of horse to compete in the best races, but we have a solid bunch and there are plenty more winners there. Most of our two-year-olds, especially the Aga Khan's, will be better later on, so that is something to look forward to."

By normal standards, Berry's big-race haul is more than commendable. He has ridden numerous Group winners on the likes of Osterhase, Jumbajukiba and Duff, and he partnered a Royal Ascot winner for Tony Martin in 2005.

A son of the 10-time champion National Hunt jockey Frank Berry, when he was still in his teens he landed Cheltenham and Aintree Festival successes on Khayrawani for his father's employer JP McManus. He is prodigiously talented, and has always looked made for the big time.

For that, and no other reason, his CV is notable for what it lacks. Berry reasons: "I was second on Ardbrae Lady in a 1,000 Guineas and rode Shalapour to be third in an Irish Derby, so I've had rides that have run well in Group Ones. But, realistically, I haven't got on one with a live chance.

Opportunity

"You never know what's around the corner, though, so you have to be patient and just hope there's one not too far away. Of course you'd like the opportunity to prove yourself at the highest level, but for the moment I'm happy. I'm improving all the time, and hopefully the good rides will come."

Given that many of the most decorated Flat riders -- as Oxx pointed out to him when Murtagh left -- don't peak until their mid-30s, Berry's ability to look to the future is well founded.

He adopts a similarly philosophical stance when asked about his prospects of that elusive first championship: "I try not to think about it too much, but every day I go through the entries with my agent Ciaran O'Toole and try to get the best ride that we can in every race.

"Pat was always going to come out of Galway on top, but it's October, November and December that will be the most important months. You're down to one meeting a week and, if you're in with a chance, a good day at Dundalk on a Friday night will be huge."

To win it at some stage would be great, obviously, but my biggest priority this year is to settle into the job. If the title is there to be won in a few months' time, so be it."

With no Flat racing on the domestic scene today, Berry makes his Shergar Cup debut at Ascot on an Irish team that includes Smullen and Richard Hughes.

The fight for the 2010 riders' crown will continue thereafter, with the outcome far from inevitable. It might be Berry's yet.

Irish Independent

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