Donn's Articles » Fran Berry

Fran Berry

Fran Berry was happy with Jack Naylor through the early stages of the Epsom Oaks last month.  They were three horses wide as they turned at the top of the hill, just up on the outside of Diamondsandrubies and Together Forever, but William Buick was having a fairly easy time of it up front on Star Of Seville, they weren’t going a great gallop, so Berry was happy to be a little wide and handy.

His filly came down the hill okay, she handled Tattenham Corner fine, but she just didn’t travel as well as her rider would have liked into the home straight.  He nudged her into the bridle as they straightened up, and she moved forward, but she just wasn’t doing it too easily.  Then they quickened in front and Jack Naylor was caught a little flat-footed.

She did pick up, but her progress towards the leader was gradual rather than instant.  The camber towards the rail wasn’t helping her, but her rider felt that she still should have picked up better than she did.  Then Legatissimo and Lady Of Dubai came up on her outside, she got sandwiched between horses, and her race was run.  Berry just pushed her out towards the line as two fillies came past deep inside the final furlong, one on either side, relegating her to sixth place.

“She just lacked a bit of spark,” recalls Berry.  “It wasn’t the track that beat her and it wasn’t the distance, she just didn’t travel as well as she can.  She was a little flat.  Maybe the race came up too quickly after her run in the Irish Guineas.  But she has had a nice break since then.  She should be spot on for the Irish Oaks on Saturday.”

That run in the Irish Guineas was a monster run.  She was held up out the back in a race that was run to suit the prominent racers, and she finished best of all to take fourth place.  She was the only filly who was able to get close from the rear.

“That was her seasonal debut.  She wasn’t ready for a run beforehand, and Jessica (Harrington) did a great job to get her to the Irish Guineas.  But the Oaks came up only 11 or 12 days afterwards, and that was quick enough after such a big run on her seasonal debut.”

Berry didn’t ride Jack Naylor in the Irish Guineas.  It was a close call between her and Jessica Harrington’s other filly Bocca Baciata, but Bocca Baciata had had a run this season, she had beaten Pleascach in the Listed Salsabil Stakes at Navan in April, and that just tilted the balance.  Bocca Baciata finished fifth, one length and one place behind Jack Naylor.

“I was a bit nervous going out all right!” says the rider.  “I knew that I might be on the wrong one.  But I was delighted that they both ran as well as they did.”

Actually, he didn’t ride Jack Naylor in any of her first three runs as a juvenile.  There was nothing sinister in that.  As a juvenile filly she was allotted 8st 8lb in each of those races.  Berry can ride at 8st 8lb, but in order for him to do so, he has to leave one of his feet behind him in the weigh room and ride naked on a sheet of tracing paper.  Remember, when he rode Khayrawani to win the Oddbins Handicap Hurdle at Aintree in 1999 under 11st 7lb, he had to be able to carry his saddle from the winner’s enclosure to the weigh room.

Shane Foley rode Jack Naylor on her first two runs as a juvenile, and Pat Smullen rode her when she won her maiden at Roscommon just over a year ago.  Berry rode her on a racetrack for the first time in the Group 3 Silver Flash Stakes at Leopardstown two weeks later and, sent off a 14/1 shot, she surprised many in staying on well to win nicely.

“I suppose she was probably Shane’s ride at that stage,” says Berry.  “But Shane had to ride Raydara in the Leopardstown race for Michael Halford.  I was delighted to get to ride Jack Naylor in a race.  She was a big price, she was stepping up a lot in class after winning an auction maiden at Roscommon, but they went a real good gallop in front, and she finished off best of all.”

That race turned out to be a really strong race.  The scrap for the minor places, a length and a half behind Jack Naylor, was fought out by this year’s Oaks winner Qualify, and Agnes Stewart and Raydara, both of whom won Group 2 races on their next runs.  Jack Naylor herself went on to a listed race at The Curragh, when she conceded 5lb to Legatissimo and Together Forever.  Again, it’s rock solid form.

“It was great when she won at The Curragh.  It was only a listed race, the Leopardstown race was a Group 3, but she was giving weight to some high-class juvenile fillies, and she beat them on merit.  There was a bit of a feeling after the Leopardstown race that it had been a bit of a fluke, that they had gone too fast in front and that we had just picked up the pieces, but she proved at The Curragh that there was no fluke about it.  Everybody knew then that she was just a really talented filly.”

Speaking of talented, Berry’s association with Jessica Harrington can be traced back to Jumbajukiba.  The Barathea gelding was owned by Joe O’Flaherty, a friend of the Berry family, who used to have horses in training with Fran’s dad Frank when he was training.  The owner requested that Fran ride Jumbajukiba, so he did.  In 2007 they won the Group 3 Solonaway Stakes, and the following year they won three more Group 3 contests.

The relationship between rider and trainer flourished.  In 2010 Berry rode Laughing Lashes for Harrington to win the Group 2 Debutante Stakes and to finish second in the Group 1 Moyglare Stud Stakes.  The same year, the pair of them teamed up with Pathfork to win the Group 2 Futurity Stakes.  Then, in September 2010, Berry drove Pathfork home to beat Casamento by a head in the Group 1 National Stakes, thereby providing both trainer and jockey with their first Group 1 wins.

That was a big year for Berry.  As well as winning at the highest level for the first time, he also rode that year as first jockey to John Oxx after Michael Kinane’s retirement.  As well as that, he rode 88 winners in Ireland that season, more winners than he had ever ridden in a season before, finishing second behind Pat Smullen in the jockeys’ championship.

Things changed though.  Johnny Murtagh left Ballydoyle that season, and was appointed as HH the Aga Khan’s rider, which effectively meant that Berry was out of a job at Oxx’s.  It was a hammer blow, or it should have been, but Berry kept things in perspective.  Five years earlier he could have been killed or paralysed in a fall at The Curragh.  The displaced C6 vertebrae just missed his spinal cord.  After that, losing a job, even one of the best jobs in the country, is a mere blip from which you can recover.

And he has.  His relationship with Jessica Harrington has grown, as has the strength of the trainer’s team of horses for the flat.  As well as that, Berry has forged relationships with some of the top trainers in Ireland, Charles O’Brien and Tony Martin and Christy Roche and David Wachman among them.

“My schedule varies from week to week,” he says.  “I was riding out for Tony Martin this morning, for example.  I ride out for David Wachman regularly, and for Charles O’Brien, and obviously for Jessica.  I could ride work for six or seven trainers on the Curragh any morning.  It’s great to be in demand, and it is important to ride as much work as you can in order that you can ride these horses when they race.”

He is riding well, he is riding good horses, he is riding for good trainers, and last month, he rode his 1000th winner in Ireland on Shabra Emperor at Fairyhouse.  Life is good. He and wife Laura share their house now with new baby Jordan, although not so new any more as his first birthday looms.

“Where did that year go?”

Every winter, Berry goes to Japan to ride.  In 2013, he had to travel alone, leaving his pregnant wife behind, her doctor advising her that she shouldn’t travel.  That wasn’t easy.  Last year, however, the three of them made the trip together, a family adventure, although Jordan wouldn’t try the sushi.

In Japan, Berry is based with one of Miho’s top trainers Noriyuki Hori, who won the Japanese Guineas and the Japanese Derby this year with Duramente, but he has also ridden Group winners out there for Yasutoshi Ikee and Yoshitada Munakata.

“Japan has become a big part of it all for me.   It’s great racing there, the quality of their horses is top class, and they have a big Group 2 or Group 3 race every weekend.  I won a Group 3 race there in January on Lovely Day, and they are talking about maybe bringing him to Europe now, so hopefully I will get to ride him here if he does make the trip.”

Berry is also the go-to man for other raiders from overseas.  He rode Kool Kompany for Richard Hannon to win the Group 2 Railway Stakes at The Curragh on Derby weekend last year, and he rode the Godolphin horse Cat O’Mountain for Charlie Appleby to land the Group 3 Diamond Stakes at Dundalk in October.  And he rides the JP McManus horses in the flat.

“Over the last two or three years the McManus family have had more flat horses, they have bought more yearlings than before, and I am lucky enough to get to ride them.  They have some very nice horses, which is great.”

This week at Killarney, Berry’s talents were once again in evidence: four winners and two seconds from nine rides in three days.  As was his work ethic: every evening he came home so that he could ride work in the mornings before travelling down to Killarney again that day.  And this weekend, Darley Irish Oaks weekend, is another important one.

“Jack Naylor seems to be very well.  Jessica gave her a nice break after Epsom and she seems to be in great form.  She never does too much at home, but you know by her.  And Bocca Baciata goes for the Group 2 Kilboy Estate Stakes on Sunday.  She seems to be in great form too.

Looks like the spark is back.

© The Irish Field, 18th July 2015