Racing: Berry gives his all on the low road to Ayr

For Jack Berry, success in today's Ayr Gold Cup would be better than winning the Derby. It would be well deserved too as Berry has never forgotten his injury-strewn career as a jockey and contributes more to the welfare of injured and retired riders than anyone in the sport
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The Independent Online
If you were to ask the racehorse trainers of Britain to form a line according to the ease with which they had reached their position, you would find at one end a few for whom it had all come very easily indeed. The head waiter walked up to their well-appointed table in the five-star restaurant of Life, removed the lid from a silver platter and said: "Here you are, Sir. Success on a plate."

Right down at the other end of the queue would be Jack Berry: trainer, jump jockey (retired hurt), author, fund-raiser, above all, as he puts it, "a doer". Now approaching his 60th birthday, Berry is one of the most familiar figures on our race-tracks, and also one of the most popular, not least as a result of his prodigious ability to turn out winners, of which there have been more than a thousand in the last decade alone. Punters know that every single horse with Berry's initials on its saddlecloth might as well have "tryer" branded on its haunches.

Every race matters to Berry, but much as he cherishes each success, he would probably sacrifice a couple of dozen or so if it would guarantee victory for one of his four runners in the Ayr Gold Cup this afternoon.

Many trainers set out with the ambition of saddling a Derby winner, but Berry was far too much the realist for that. As a teenage stable-hand from a nine-strong household in Leeds where money was always scarce, he set his heart on the Ayr Gold Cup, and when So Careful finally realised his ambition in 1988, the crowd greeted the 33-1 shot like a favourite.

"Everybody in racing knew what it meant to me," he says. "When I was an apprentice with Charlie Hall in Yorkshire, Towser Gosden, John's father, used to stop off at our place for a few days with the horses he was sending up to Ayr. Being fairly light, I'd ride them out, and compared to the jumpers, they were like machines, beautiful horses and so fast. They had a habit of winning the Ayr Gold Cup, and I told myself, if I'm ever lucky enough to train, that's the race I'd love to win."

It took him 35 years, but it could have been worse. He might, for instance, have been forced to wait a year for each of the 46 bones he broke during a 13-year career as a jump jockey, or another 12 months after that, to match the number of winners he partnered. Berry's autobiography, It's Tougher At The Bottom, was, typically, largely written in the space of 10 days in Tenerife, when he found that there was precious little else to do - "there's no fields, it's all volcanic, no birds or animals" - and that the local shop stocked notepads. The chapters dealing with his riding career are fascinating, but could be summarised thus: got knackered, had a month off, came back, got to the fifth, fell, got knackered again. Repeat ad nauseam.

"I was the first freelance jump jockey," he says. "If a trainer had a horse that was a bit of a bonecruncher, he didn't want his own jockey on it, so being a freelance, I'd ride it. It was a bit like being a kamikaze pilot."

It was during one of his frequent spells in hospital, in May 1965, that Berry began to sketch out his plans for a training yard. He had broken five bones in a "very messy" fall at Market Rasen - his foot was caught in the irons and he bumped the ground several times beneath the horse's belly before finally coming free. Forced to lie flat on his back in a plaster cast, he could not even write with a biro, so he asked for a pencil instead and doodled upside-down for hours on end.

The drawings were forgotten for the first few months of his training career, but when a suitable farm became available near Cockerham in Lancashire, Berry needed little invitation to raze the wooden buildings before building his perfect stable, almost with his bare hands. His first winner from the new yard was in a selling hurdle, but soon, the ex-jump jockey turned his attention to the Flat, and in particular, two-year-olds.

"I love the babies," he says. "They're as good as you make them. They're raw, innocent and nice. You're not a trainer, you're a teacher, and you teach them a bit of common sense, you keep them warm and look after them well, and then they'll go out of their way to pay you back."

Paying back is something Berry knows a good deal about. In 1985, his youngest son, Sam, was seriously injured and permanently disabled in a fall from one of his chasers at Sedgefield, but it not only that personal tragedy which has turned him into the Injured Jockeys' Fund's most dedicated fund-raiser (only a week ago he presented the IJF with a cheque for pounds 45,000).

"It's not just me, it's a team effort and I take the credit," he says, "but I know that they could easily be doing it for me. I broke all those bones as a jump jockey but I'm still comparatively sound, and it means that I can put a little back."

My Melody Parkes, Albert The Bear, Persian Fayre and Selhurstpark Flyer, who won the Wokingham Handicap at Royal Ascot, will represent Berry in the big race today, and the first-named in particular will go to post with every chance. Defeat, though, will be met philosophically. "Lots of painters are never famous until they're in a box," Berry says. "I'm not saying I'm famous, but I've achieved my ambition and anything else is a bonus. There's plenty of people in their graves who'd love to be around at 60. If you wake up every morning and you can get dressed, eat, keep warm and have shelter over your head, you've cracked it, really."

When Berry won his first Ayr Gold Cup nine years ago, well-wishers crammed the winner's enclosure to breaking point. Should he win again today, though, he will not be difficult to spot in the maul, having recently had his head shaved to raise money for Shane Broderick, the Irish jump jockey paralysed in a fall earlier this year. Simply look for the skinhead with the big grin.