It is our pleasure to present an interview with Fran Berry. It is no exaggeration to say Fran has been near the top of our list of interviewees for over 2 years but circumstances and time have never been in our favour until now.
In this interview, we talk about the early years, his time as a National Hunt Jockey, switching codes, Sea the Stars and a change of career….
The Early Years…
I started by asking Fran about his father, who was a 10 times Champion National Hunt Jockey….
My dad, Frank was a very successful NH jockey, winning the Irish Leger as an apprentice on Giolla Mear in 1968 before switching codes due to his weight. He won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1972 on Glencarriglady, when at the time there were very few Irish winners at Cheltenham. Most folk will remember him winning on Bobsline, when beating Noodies Ride in the Arkle Chase in 1984 prior to retiring in 1988 due to injury and his record of 10 NH Championships has stood tall until Ruby Walsh beat his record in the final years of his career…..
To be a Jockey or not, that is the question?
I grew up with horses and Dad went training after he retired, we were lucky enough to have a couple of ponies from a very young age.
I was mad in to other sports (Gaelic football, Cross Country running & Soccer) but around 12 or 13 I started going racing with Dad and leading up horses then the other sporting interests fell by the wayside. Back then it was possible to get an apprentices licence at 15 and that became my goal. We were never rushed into racing, it was just there!
Did you ever think about other career paths?
If I had never became a jockey then flying was something that interested me, a bit of a plane urge, you could say. Now myself & my son, Jordan,6, look at You Tube & visit airfields to look at Light aircraft taking off and that was a big interest..
Did you think about getting a Pilots licence?
I have thought about it from time to time but it’s a big commitment, time wise and you have to be really into it. At the time i was adjusting from riding to another career, with finding a new routine but maybe somewhere down the line, that said my accident ratio wasn’t great riding, so I will probably leave the flying to somebody else!
National Hunt, Your first winner & Cheltenham…..
I rode my first winner aged 15, on a May Bank holiday in 1996 at Navan on a horse called Loughmouge, I had 6 or 7 rides prior to that day and had to go back to school on the Tuesday. Almost a year later & over 80 rides, I managed to land a double at Sligo, also with Lougemouge & Mayasta for my father. It was a great experience.
In 1999, I won the Coral Cup at Cheltenham, riding Khayrawi, on St Patrick’s Day (Wednesday), back then it was just a 3 day festival, with Irish winners not being as plentiful as they are now & I remember finishing 2nd in the same race the year before, claiming 5 Lbs was a great thrill, especially winning at Aintree too and I was only 18 at the time!
I also won a Grade 2 Handicap Hurdle, on Total Success for Ted Walsh in 1998 & in 2000 won the Grade 1 Ladbrooke Limited Handicap for Pat Hughes on Mantles Prince….
Why did you switch codes from NH to the Flat?
Not many have switched codes in Ireland, with Graham Lee & Jim Crowley still riding on the flat in England. In Ireland at the time there was no All Weather winter racing & I needed to keep riding to keep my weight steady, so I switched.
I was having a good time on the flat & in 2001 I won the Blanford Stakes (Group 3) from John Oxx on Dearly, so in 2002 John approached me about becoming 2nd jockey to Johnny Murtagh as he had a big team of 150+ horses in the yard, with some of the best owners and his second string, back then, were almost as good as the first string, so it took you to another level, not just with race riding but riding out good horses in the morning, day in, day out….
Seeking advice from the others in the weighing room…..
I was lucky to be around starting out with Mick Kinane, Pat Smullen & Johnny Murtagh, plus Kevin Manning & a few other seasoned Pros in the weighing room. It was a good environment to be in & around.
If you could learn from and compete with them you were doing well as they had been doing it everywhere at the time, with Mick winning the Melbourne Cup, Derbies & Arcs…..
Sea the Stars……
Did you ride him? What was he like work wise? How was he to ride?
I did a lot of his work as Mick was away quite a bit and I would always start his winter prep work, ready for the season as I was at home. We had a really good bunch of horses, 2 year olds especially around that time but Sea the Stars was the stand out but it didn’t matter if it was day one or his final piece of work, he would only quicken in the final furlong & win by a length and that was exactly how he was on the race course too.
He was never fully extended, he just did what he needed to do to beat his rivals and he always felt powerful, like there was always more if needed!
(Rich – Sea the Stars is my favourite horse, I have him above Frankel!)
It’s a great debate and it’s good to see but for me, he (Sea the Stars) had done things in 3 different countries in 1 season, all over different trips and it’s a discussion nobody can win as everybody has their preferences.
As I said, for me, he did everything from a mile in May to the Arc (1m 4f) in October….
Do you ever look at his offspring and think there is a big chunk of him in this one?
Oh yes definitely, especially with what I do now & when I was still riding I was lucky enough to ride a few of them. It’s hard to believe that it’s 11 years ago now & he is a well established, very good sire now. I get a lot of pleasure from it.
It was a golden time, he was trained by the Master, John Oxx, who also trained Sindaar to win the Arc in 2000. His handling of both horses was flawless and to be a part of that journey, with a horse that spanned the generations and to have a small insight is quite special when I look back now…
Running through the list of all your Group winners, of there are a fair few….
What was the experience like when you won the Japanese Group 1 American Jockey Stakes on Danon Ballade in 2013?
I had done 6 or 7 winters in Japan and Probably outside of Ireland & England, it was definitely the most enjoyable of my career. Horseracing in Japan is like the Premier League over here, it has that status and the public follow both the horses & Jockeys, they are very much fans of the game.
All the kids want their favourite horse teddy bears for Christmas….
(Rich – I think UK & Ireland have missed a trick with Teddy horses!)
It’s hard to transcend a sport, you have the likes of Frankie & The Grand National to capture the nation’s mood. To think outside the box & get the kids interested from a young age, it may expand the sport and I started by going to local meetings….
Moving to England & The Future….
You moved across to England in 2016, why the move?
I just ridden my 1,000 winner in Ireland in late 2015 and at the end of the year I felt I had done as much as I could in Ireland & I had been riding there for the best part of 20 years, 19 seasons and at that stage of my career, being 37 if I didn’t make the move to do something different, I may never do it.
The job came up with Ralph and my kids were still young, so we had no school issues to worry about and I fancied a new challenge. A good experience.
After the accident, how did the media work come about?
Irish racing had sold the right to RTV in January 2019 & their first show from Dundalk was the following Friday, I was invited to take part in the ‘Friday Club’ as I had Dundalk experience and an Irish connection.
I received some incredibly positive feedback through my sponsors (Skybet & Sporting Life) from RTV about my appearance & 3 weeks later I had the fall at Wolverhampton!
We knew around March time that the rehab progress wasn’t what it should be and my surgeon advised me that i should retire, so that’s how it came about from doing that show and them having a look at me.
So I approached them to see if they had any space as I was moving back to Ireland, they gave me a go & I am very lucky to have this opportunity.
Did you consider training, race planning OR even walking away?
I hadn’t given it much thought at all really as I was only 38 and with all the nutrients & Diets around today, you could race on until you are 50, like Mick Kinane & Pat Eddery had. I guess I just fell in to the TV work but as for training wise…. I have great admiration for anyone who trains as it is a very tough & unforgiving game, having seen it first hand with my Dad for 10 years. It’s a real vocation and trying to start training at 40 is a very tough ask!
Has anyone approached you about becoming a jockey coach, as you have a lot of experience to pass on?
I still have friends in the weighing room, a few of the younger jockeys & I do talk to them over the phone & give them advice. I was very lucky to make a career from race riding and if I can help out, give a bit back it’s nice. To have people respect you enough to ring and ask for your advice or opinion is fantastic….
Could you give our readers a horse to follow for the winter at Dundalk?
Your readers should look at the 2yo maiden races at Dundalk in the coming weeks, last season had some subsequent high class winners.
They included Group winners – CrossFire Hurricane for Joseph O’Brien & Know It All trained by Johnny Murtagh.
A few of Fran’s Notable Flat Winners –
Irish Group 3 – Blanford Stakes – Dearly
Japan Group 1 – American Jockey Club – Danon Ballade
France – Prix Scaramouche (Listed) She’s No Lady
Sweden Group 3 – Stockholm International Cup – Thundering Blue
UK – Group 2 – Skybet York Stakes – Thundering Blue
Group 3 -Henry II Stakes – Magic Circle
Chester Cup (Handicap) – Magic Circle
Listed – Hever Sprint Stakes – Gracious John
We would like to thank Fran for his time & Wish him all the best for the future. It was a pleasure to talk to him, as I said to him, I could have sat for hours talking!
Interview – Rich Williams
Pictures – File