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Fran Berry

August 20th 2005, a busy Saturday at The Curragh, a seven-race card and Fran Berry has six rides. Things could hardly be going better for the 24-year-old. He has ridden 58 winners already this season, more than any other rider in the country, more than Kieren Fallon, more than Pat Smullen, and people are talking about him as champion jockey elect. He doesn’t think about it too deeply, that’s not his style, he just wants to ride plenty of horses and plenty of winners, but he is well on track to beat his best ever total last season of 66, and that’s progress.

Understudy to Michael Kinane at John Oxx’s, he has also built up good relationships with some of the other top trainers in the country. His six rides today are for five different trainers. No winners from his first four rides, but that’s okay. Racing does that to you sometimes. He goes out to ride Indian Rite for Noel Meade in the fillies’ maiden, a nice Indian Lodge filly who showed a lot of promise on her only previous run, and Berry fancies his chances.

She is a little keen through the early part of the race, she is racing with her head a little low to the ground, but she settles nicely after a couple of furlongs, and is travelling easily at the entrance to the home straight. Then, wham! Fran hears the fillies leg crack and he feels the horse disappear from underneath him, but he doesn’t have time to react, no time to brace himself. It all happens in the blink of an eye. The rider is the stone in the sling-shot that is catapulted to the ground. One moment you are travelling well, a half a tonne of power underneath you, thinking race tactics, the next you are lying sprawled on the ground, struggling for breath.

Fran is thrown clear, but a following filly, Redstone Dancer, ironically trained by John Oxx and with Michael Kinane on board, can’t avoid the stricken rider and gives him a right kicking. He doesn’t lose consciousness, he is aware of everything that is happening and, as he lies there on the ground, he struggles to breathe. He gets to his feet, thinking that if he can get up he will be able to breathe better. He can feel the pain in his chest, but he doesn’t know that his vertebrae should actually be his main concern, that C2 is fractured and C6 has been displaced.

The Order of Malta people who arrive on the scene immediately don’t know it either. How could they? Two jockeys down, one has been able to get to his feet, albeit briefly, the other is still on the ground, whom do you attend first? Which is your priority? If you knew that Kinane broke his wrist and that Berry broke his neck, now which is your priority?

“Things are a lot better now on the medical side since Adrian McGoldrick has come on board,” says Fran now, almost five years later, sitting on his couch, unaided. “But there was a bit of confusion then. It was very nearly a mess up, they told me afterwards that I could have suffered irreversible spinal damage. They made me walk from the ambulance back to the ambulance room, I had to take off my top, over my head, with broken bones in my neck. Things like that. It could have been a disaster.

It was Berry’s first serious injury. Remarkably, he had never before broken a bone in his body. It gave him some perspective on life. Twenty-four hours in traction, flat on your back, in the Mater Spinal Unit with a 25lb weight tied to your head will do that to you. It wasn’t race-riding he was worried about then. Doctors coming in feeling your toes, asking if you can feel this, if you can feel that, if you have pins and needles. Room mates including a soldier who came off a mountain bike and was paralysed from the waist down, another fellow who came off a trampoline. Walking was top of Berry’s to-do list.


Fran doesn’t remember his dad Frank as a jockey, a 10-time champion National Hunt jockey. He has seen the videos, but he wasn’t around for Glencarraig Lady or Bannow Rambler, and he wasn’t old enough to fully appreciate the intricacies of race-riding when his dad was excelling on Antarctic Bay and Drumgora and Bobsline. But it didn’t mean that he wasn’t going to be a jockey.

He started out mixing it between flat and National Hunt. Christy Roche quickly realised the value of Berry’s claim, and he put him up on Khayrawani in the 1998 Coral Cup at Cheltenham, when they finished second to the well-handicapped Top Cees. Berry kept the ride for Aintree, when the pair of them won the Oddbins Hurdle, the big two-and-a-half-mile handicap hurdle, and he was on board again the following year at Cheltenham, minus his 5lb claim, when they went one better in the Coral Cup, Berry coming out on top in a driving finish. And just for good measure, they went back to Aintree the following month to win the Oddbins Hurdle again. Berry also won the 2000 Ladbroke Hurdle on Mantles Prince for Pat Hughes, but shortly afterwards, he decided to concentrate on the flat.

“It was getting to a stage where I was trying to balance two worlds,” he says thoughtfully. I just felt that I had a good chance of making it on the flat, my weight had come good, and I just thought that if I committed to it, I might be able to progress. I’m delighted that I rode over jumps, and it was fantastic to ride a winner at the Cheltenham Festival, but I have no regrets about giving it up when I did to concentrate on the flat.”

He started with John Oxx in 2002 as second jockey to Johnny Murtagh, he continued in 2004 as second jockey to Michael Kinane. As case studies in how to ride racehorses go, they don’t get any better than Johnny Murtagh and Michael Kinane, and Berry benefitted accordingly.

If there was a part of Berry that was disappointed that he didn’t get the first job in 2004, it was only a little part of him. In his guts, he knew that he wasn’t ready to take on such a big job with the depth of responsibility that goes with it. John Oxx says that flat jockeys don’t reach their peak until they are in their mid-30s. Six years later and, in his guts, Berry knows that he is ready.

“It was great to get the phone call to tell me that I had the job,” he says. “Before I went to Singapore there at the end of last season, the boss called me and said that there might be a bit of movement, and he called me when I was over there to offer me the job. That was a great phone call to get. I knew that it was likely, and it wouldn’t be the boss’s style to keep me hanging around if he didn’t think that I was up to it, but it was still brilliant to get it.”

In one sense, not much has changed for Berry. He is still going into John Oxx’s yard in the mornings, he knows the ropes inside out, knows the people, knows the horses, knows their breeding, and he is still riding for plenty of outside yards. Perhaps he won’t be able to ride for outside yards as often as he used to, but loyalty is a hugely important trait on Berry’s radar and he is intent on continuing his association with all of the trainers who have been loyal to him in the past.

In another, however, things have changed utterly. He is now the number one rider at one of the top yards in the country. All things behind equal, he will be riding Keredari in the Irish 2000 Guineas, he will be riding Roses For The Lady if she takes her chance in the Yorkshire Cup, he will be riding Aznavour and Hazarafa and all the promising two-year-olds and, if there is another Sea The Stars lurking among them, he will be riding him as well. On top of that, he is leading the jockeys’ championship at this early stage, champion jockey elect.

No change there then.

© The Sunday Times, 9th May 2010