Jack Berry: the man with a full house of desire and determination
First published on Tuesday, June 30, 2015
In life there are no dress rehearsals. Some people adopt a safety-first option throughout their life, going from start to finish hard on the bridle, never challenging themselves or exploring options, never taking a chance or running a risk, never changing direction, never pushing to the very edge.
For others it's a head-down, whip-up approach, seeking and creating opportunities, seeing solutions not problems, never taking no for an answer, never settling for second best, putting passion before pride, always striving for more. No prizes for guessing the approach taken by Jack Berry.
"My greatest ambition," says the former muck-or-nettles jump jockey, highly successful trainer and recipient of the MBE in 1996 for his tireless fundraising efforts on behalf of the Injured Jockeys Fund, "was to see this project up and running before I was carted off in a box." He is, of course, referring to the £3.5 million dreams-to-reality state-of-the-art fitness and jockeys' rehabilitation centre that now stands in all its glory on the outskirts of Malton. It's some place. Some tribute to the vision and energy, determination and desire of one man, without whom it would never have happened.
Jack Berry House, officially opened earlier this month by the Princess Royal, and gathering pace in usage and reputation on a daily basis, is an impressive monument to one of racing's most respected elder statesmen, whose life-sized statue, complete with trilby hat and obligatory red shirt, stands within the grounds.
"I can't tell you how proud I am of it," he says about the realisation of his project. The smile is permanent, the joy real. "It's brilliant, absolutely brilliant. When I walk round there I get a real buzz, a feeling of contentment. Without any shadow of doubt," he adds, "it's the best thing I've ever done." And he's done plenty. What he has packed into his 77 years amounts to a voyage of discovery and achievement, bound together with energetic ambition, relentless determination and unfailing enthusiasm.
Growing up in wartime Leeds, one of a family of eight, he would trawl through local rubbish dumps, picking up lumps of coal with his elder sister Betty. He'd run errands for neighbours and go to Leeds market on a Saturday and sell rabbits for five shillings apiece. And, as a struggling jump jockey in April 1964, he was one of the riders, dressed in breeches and boots, who emerged from the weighing room at Wetherby and disappeared into the crowd, carrying a bucket and asking for donations to aid an injured comrade.
"People at Wetherby that day were marvellous. They were queuing up to give us money and the bookies were fantastic, too. We got a right few quid."
Little did anyone realise it at the time, but the Injured Jockeys Fund, initially powered by racehorse owner, steward and Lincolnshire landowner Clifford Nicholson, was about to be born. Fittingly, among the original trustees was John Lawrence, later to become Lord Oaksey, a permanent shining light within the charity whose name lives on through the IJF's first rehabilitation and fitness centre, Oaksey House in Lambourn.
Berry recalls: "First of all it was the Paddy Farrell Fund, then the Farrell-Brookshaw Fund because poor Tim Brookshaw had also been paralysed in a fall, again at Aintree a few months earlier. After that it developed into the Injured Jockeys Fund.
"From that day at Wetherby, you couldn't have envisaged what we have today," says Berry, who beats the IJF drum louder than anyone. "There's no association, nothing sports-related, quite like it. And we are so lucky to have the Princess Royal as our patron.
"She's a lovely lady who takes a genuine interest and is so hands-on. The great thing about the Injured Jockeys Fund is that it looks after its own and continues to do that. Once a jockey, always a jockey.
Nobody gets forgotten."
What he certainly hasn't forgotten is the vast amount of people to have contributed to the creation of Jack Berry House. "There are so many it should be called 'Our House'. I'm just the name," he insists. "It's fantastic to have the big hitters and we are grateful to each and every one of them.
"But there are many thousands of people who have helped us in so many different ways from buying inscribed bricks at £50 a time, to making donations or holding functions; murder-mystery weekends, fashion shows, sponsored slims and sponsored swims, golf tournaments, everything you can think of.
"One grand little lad, only nine years old, got his mates at the pony club together and raised £350 from riding in a showjumping competition, and an old girl in my village gave me £2 towards the cause. It's unbelievable. I can't tell you how grateful I am to everyone."
Berry has a special brand of empathy with jockeys. His dozen or so years in the saddle produced the grand total of 47 winners at the expensive cost of 46 broken bones. He is proud of twice winning Wetherby's Montague Hurdle, of riding a treble one day on the Isle of Man, and finishing second in the Isle of Man Derby – "the late Jimmy FitzGerald of all people, beat me," he grins – and yet he jokingly describes himself as 'a kamikaze jockey'.
"In those days, you never got paid to ride out or school – you'd maybe get a bag of spuds or occasionally get your car filled up with petrol. One winter the weather was so bad I got a job in a piggery to get some wages. It was tough.
"If I was offered a ride, I rode it, no matter what it was. And if a spare ride cropped up at the races I'd be after it. I was a quick changer – I could soon get my breeches and boots on – and I was a quick healer. I had to be."
All except once. A fall at Wetherby left him with a knee shattered into five pieces. "It took a year and a fortnight to get my leg right."
Berry's riding career sandwiched two years of National Service. "I had it deferred twice because I was an apprentice and joined when I was 20. I was in the King's Troop, the Royal Horse Artillery, based at St John's Wood and was there with Jimmy Uttley and Barry Hills," he remembers.
He also remembers a change of attitude. "When I went in, I thought I was God's gift to racing. I was getting a few rides, riding an odd winner, had a nice lass I was courting and thought National Service was a waste of time.
"But it wasn't. I was an officer's groom and went to Badminton, Wembley, Earl's Court, places like that. There was plenty of bull****.
Everything had to be spic and span. But it taught you manners and respect. It was the making of people. It's a shame conscription ever finished. Some of the youngsters these days would have benefited."
While Berry's riding career failed to hit the high spots, the same could not be said of his 30-year reign as a trainer, which produced more than 1,600 winners, saw him top the ton in seven out of his last ten seasons, saddle at least one two-year-old winner on every racecourse in Britain and send out three Royal Ascot winners in 1998, courtesy of Rosselli (Norfolk), Selhurstpark Flyer (Wokingham) and Bolshoi (King's Stand).
Think of sprinters and precocious two-year-olds of yesteryear and you think of a veritable legion of Berry's high achievers; Mind Games, Paris House, Distinctly North, Laurel Queen, Almost Blue, Bri-Eden, Lucky Parkes, Palacegate Episode, Another Episode, Fylde Flyer, Our Little Secret and So Careful, who won the trainer's beloved Ayr Gold Cup in 1988.
"O I Oyston – 'Olly' – was my favourite," he says without hesitation. "I just adored that horse. I rode him out every day and would even go out looking at cattle on him. I only had to whistle and he'd come.
"He won 24 races, the last when he was aged 12, and when I retired I took him with me and had him turned out at home with Palacegate Touch – 'Archie' – who won 33, and Ansellman, who won 11. Can you imagine three prolific winners like them turned out together? Olly died when he was 31, but I've still got Archie and Ansellman."
"It was absolute crap when we went there, but what it did have was 47 acres of solid peat moss grassland which was that good it was a pleasure to fall off on to it!" Berry's enterprise has never deserted him through life. "They were knocking down houses in Lancaster nearby," he recalls, "so I offered them a free tip to put all their hard core; there were wagons queued up coming to us with it.
"I raised the place six feet, built a lovely yard on top on it, and every other night I went through the rubble, picked out all the stone and clad the fronts of the boxes with it. We had no machinery; I put the stone on and Jo mixed all the cement by hand."
The mention of his wife of nearly 53 years brings a smile to Jack's face. "We met when I was riding for Harry Moore and Jo was working for Pat Taylor. From day one, we've been a partnership. She's a star, she really is. We've always done everything together."
The pair are firmly bonded through highs and lows, triumphs and the tragedy of seeing their youngest son Sam, then only 19, suffer life-changing injuries in a fall at Sedgefield in 1985.
"That was devastating, the worst day of my life," says Jack quietly. "We knew it was bad straight away, the head injuries he had; it took him forever to come out of a coma. He was a super little rider. What happened was awful. Terrible."
It was when Sam was on a sunshine holiday in Tenerife a couple of years later, at a hotel that catered for disabled people, that his father visited him one Christmas and came up with one of his many ideas. "It was a wheelchair-friendly place and when I saw Sam in the swimming pool and everyone there interacting and having such a lovely time I thought of all the other injured jockeys who could benefit from something like that.
"So we set about organising the Injured Jockeys Fund holiday and every year we were training from then on we set our stall out to finance it with stable open days and functions before Robert Hitchins kindly stepped in and gave us a £1 million donation, which was ringfenced for the holiday.
"I think the first year we did it we took about 28," says Berry, who last week was in the company of 97 beneficiaries and carers at the Paradise Bay resort in Malta for the latest renewal of this hugely popular event.
"It's just brilliant to get all these ex-jockeys together to hear them reminiscing and telling stories, having a bit of craic. And they are all so grateful, it's very humbling."
If anybody thinks the completion of Jack Berry House means that Jack Berry's work is done, then they don't know the man or what makes him tick, the burning passion within that drives him to help others and make a difference. The treatment he underwent last year for prostate cancer is behind him and has been replaced with six-monthly checks. "I never felt ill. I'm fine," he says, adding: "I've too much to think about to worry about it." His quest now is to see Jack Berry House thrive and prosper.
"It'll cost in the region of £250,000 a year to run and, thankfully, kind and caring people are continuing to support it," he explains. "I get letters every week, some with donations in, and I reply to them all personally.
"We need to keep chipping away. I'll be there as often as I can. When you see what it does, the difference it makes to people, you can't beat it. It's so satisfying, so rewarding. It's better than backing, riding, or training winners I can tell you."
His life hasn't been a rehearsal. Head down, whip up, he's lived it for real. He's some man, Jack Berry.
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