KILCULLEN jockey Fran Berry rode his first winner aged 15 and retired aged 38 with over 1,000 visits to the winner’s enclosure. He sat down with Kildare Nationalist to look back at a life spent in the saddle.
NAME: Fran Berry
What was your childhood ambition?
To be a pilot or jockey. I was lucky to get the chance to achieve one of them.
Growing up, who was your sporting hero?
I had pictures of jockey Alan Munro winning the English and Irish Derby in 1991 on “Generous” on my wall, He rode with a new “American” style and it was just different to other Jockeys of that time and has become the normal way of race riding nowadays.
Do you have a mentor?
My Dad, Frank, he was a jockey and trainer himself and always has good advice when needed.
What or where is your happy place?
Reading a book. The places reading can bring you, no matter where you are, is a great escape. I love books by Ian Rankin, John Connolly, Don Winslow.
What sparked your love of racing?
My family were into racing through my Dad riding and training and I just loved the whole thing. Especially the big races on RTE and BBC, the gallops on a NICE morning.
What horse put you on the map?
Khayrawani. Even though I ended up being a Flat jockey, riding him to win at Cheltenham Festival in the 1999 Coral Hurdle was a big step up for my career at 18 years of age.
Who is your favourite horse?
Osterhase, trained by the late John Mulhern on the Curragh. I had some great days on him, he was champion sprinter in Ireland for several years and had a huge personality of his own, I was only a passenger.
What was it like to ride in your first race?
The Curragh, March 1996 – I was only 15, still in school and studying for my Junior Cert. I was watching my weight all week to take the ride and It was over before I knew it…! There was a stall malfunction that meant it was a flag start for a six-furlong race. I got left well behind and came home in my own time but at least I had a feel for the whole thing from the weigh room, race prelims and we were away…
How long does it take to learn race-riding tactics?
I found that you are always learning. Initially it takes a season to get the basics, then it develops, and things begin to slow down, and you can react and adapt quicker, when you travel abroad you pick up different methods as well.
Describe the feeling of riding your first winner?
Loughmouge was my first ride on the track and she provided me with my first winner at Navan in May bank holiday Monday 1996, it was some thrill and took a while to sink in, especially as it took me another 11 months to ride my second winner. I was held up near the rear of the field early on and she quickened up to lead in the last 100m. Trained by my Dad and owned by my Mum it was a really good day, I was back in school in Kilcullen the next day though.
What is your most memorable racing moment?
Winning the American Jockey Club Stakes on Danon Ballade at Nakayama Racecourse in Japan in January 2014. Riding in Japan was a big part of my career and this success was my biggest win over there and came on the back of a tough year with injuries.
What is your favourite racecourse in Ireland?
The Curragh which is my home track – the finest track there is. The major re-vamp has huge potential make it truly great. The new management have a more everyday customer friendly outlook in place it will hopefully take off when we do get back racing.
If you weren’t a jockey/trainer what would you be?
Pilot. Top Gun being the inspiration.
If you could ride one horse, what would it be?
Sea The Stars – the best Irish Flat horse I have seen.
How did you cope with pressure?
It changed over time and as I got older, I probably learnt to handle it better by relying on my past experiences and trying to cover all the angles.
What mental preparation did you do for the big days?
Preparation for me was everything in getting it right, having your form done, making a game plan, control as much as you can.
How did you stay motivated?
Chasing the dream was always the motivation, when you are pounding the treadmill in a sweat suit trying to lose weight in the morning there was nothing like the thought of a big win or a nice horse coming through to help.
How did you deal with dips in form?
It was never easy, but I suppose with experience you do get some perspective on it and try and get through it.
Outside of racing, what is your favourite sporting moment?
Not a fine moment by any means but extremely memorable. I was at the infamous Ireland V England game at Lansdowne road in 1995 which was called off due to a riot and we were sitting about 20 metres away from the action when it kicked off, it was on Reeling In The Years recently and it’s hard to believe that it happened in Dublin.
Can you give us a Netflix/film recommendation?
Better Call Saul, A Breaking Bad spin-off. I’m five seasons in now, it just gets better and better.
What is your guilty pleasure?
Desert island discs – name your favourite three songs?
Red Eyes – The War on Drugs.
I Need my Girl – The National.
Slide Away – Oasis.
What person do you admire the most and why?
Politics wise Albert Reynolds. I was lucky enough to meet him on several occasions and he told the story one day of some of his trips to Belfast to meet the various factions ahead of reaching the Good Friday agreement and it was eye opener.
Pepperoni Pizza and ice-cold beer on warm evening.
Where is your favourite place to go on holidays?
Khoa Lak in Thailand. Beautiful, very natural and not as commercial as Phuket,
Now that you’ve retired from race riding, what ambitions do you still have?
Personally, to stay healthy and well. Professionally to keep improving my new role broadcasting with Racing TV and The Sporting Life and to pick the winners of all eight races at Dundalk some night!!
What is the hidden gem of your home county?
For me, it is Kilcullen. I’m biased as it’s my hometown, but it punches well above its weight for a small place with fantastic community spirit, great restaurants, pubs, food outlets and sports clubs.
How are you occupying your time during the Covid-19 restrictions?
A mixture of enjoying the time with our two young kids and catching up on all the jobs I have around the house along with some prep work for when racing does restart, plenty of reading and TV in the evenings.
If you had one piece of advice for everyone during these worrying times of Covid-19, what would it be?
Follow the government advice to get through it as quickly as possible, exercise if possible, daily, my 30-minute brisk walk in the mornings has been great on setting me up for the day.
If you were to go back to when you were 20 years old and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
I would have more confidence in myself.
“Health is Wealth”
Man Plans, God laughs. (From a Harlen Coben Book.)