SIR ALEX FERGUSON, Jack Berry and an unraced horse called Queensland Star were made for each other.
It brought together Britain’s most successful football manager with an equally prolific trainer who grew up on the back streets of Leeds to share their enduring passion for horse racing.
It helped that Queensland Star made a winning debut at Newmarket in 1998. This, after all, is this horse that helped forge a lifelong friendship and culminate with the now retired Sir Alex being guest of honour for the annual Leger Legends race at Doncaster on September 10 when retired jockeys don their racing silks to raise money for the Injured Jockeys Fund and Northern Racing College.
Sir Alex took up the story in an exclusive interview with The Yorkshire Post. “When I decided to get into the horse racing game, I wanted a horse in the North and Jack was having plenty of winners, over 100 a year,” he said.
“I was getting to the time when I was totally obsessed with Manchester United, on the phone from 6am until 9pm at night. My wife Cathy said ‘you are going to kill yourself’.
“It was easy for us to get up every Sunday morning and get to Cockerham to see the horse on the gallops and enjoy the hospitality of Jack and his wife Jo. They were a great help to me. My first horse was named after the ship my Dad helped to build on the Clyde.”
Berry, one of eight children who used to sell animals on Leeds City Market to supplement his hard-up family’s income before pursuing a modest riding career – the falls outnumbered the wins – with Wetherby training great Charlie Hall, remembers that it took time to persuade Sir Alex to embrace the racing game.
“I was at Manchester Airport – we used to race horses on the continent – and I went up to him and said ‘isn’t it time you got a yearling?’. He said ‘get me one’.
“I never gave it another thought – until I came across him at the airport the following year. He says ‘Bugger-lugs, you never got me that yearling’. I said I didn’t think you were that serious. The look on his face said otherwise.
“We went to Newmarket with Queensland Star and Alex had a bet in the first which won at 2-1. He said ‘what about the next?’ I said ‘keep your powder dry for your horse because I think it will win’. ”
Berry, 76 years young, was right. The horse won by nearly two lengths and then won on its second start at Chester.
Sir Alex was hooked and the Sunday morning trips – the football fixture list permitting – became more frequent as the Sunday morning jaunts to Cockherham near Lancaster became more frequent and friendships made with kindred spirits like Jack Hanson, another racehorse owner.
He jokingly likened Berry’s stables to an outdoor “doctor’s waiting room” because of the queue of owners waiting for a refreshing and reinvigorating spin on the back of the trainer’s quad bike as they watched their prized horses stride with effortless ease up the gallops.
They are cherished memories, says Sir Alex, which are very difficult to recreate. “After a hard game on a Saturday, you are out in the open,” he said as he discussed his method of recuperation during Manchester United’s unrivalled treble-winning season of 1998-99. “No-one can get hold of you, mobiles phones are off, you are out in the fresh air. No-one can bother you. Perfect. More and more, the horse racing compensated me for any time we lost – it got any disappointment out of the system. Having another interest, it probably kept me in the job (at Old Trafford) longer. Definitely.”
Berry laughs when he recalls one particular venture on the gallops. “The day he sold Jaap Stam, there were a posse of press men and cameras outside his house waiting on Alex. We watched this on TV, Alex and I, because we were having a bacon sandwich in my kitchen – they hadn’t a clue.”
One win that Sir Alex did miss came at Yarmouth in July, 1999 when Richard Hughes, the current champion jockey, partnered Ninety Degrees to success.
Berry made the 550-mile round trip from Cockherham to Yarmouth – he was due to retire at the end of the year and he had never visited the Norfolk track – while Sir Alex was receiving his knighthood from the Queen.
Even Sir Alex knew he would not make it from Buckingham Palace to East Anglia in time for the race. “Aye, I had forgotten about that. What should you do? Meet the Queen or go and watch the race?”
Berry was not surprised when his mobile phone went off minutes after Ninety Degrees had crossed the line in triumph. “It was his special day and he wanted to know how his horse had run. That was Alex.”
It was also at this time, says Sir Alex, that he became acutely conscious of his trainer’s tireless fund-raising work for the Injured Jockeys Fund which will culminate in The House That Jack Built – or Jack Berry House – opening in Malton later this year to help stricken riders recover from injuries.
Berry, whose first winner came at Wetherby on Boxing Day in 1957, was lucky to escape with his life when dragged along the Market Rasen turf in 1965 just months after he had instigated the IJF when Yorkshire jockey Paddy Farrell was left paralysed by a fall in the Grand National.
Now vice-president of the IJF, Berry’s tireless work in the charity became even more poignant when his son Sam, then 19, was left paralysed following a heavy fall at Sedgefield.
Berry became even more committed to raising money so injured jockeys could enjoy a winter sunshine holiday in Tenerife. When he retired and moved to North Yorkshire, he built a specially-adapted home for his son.
Sir Alex is in awe of this charitable work – and the risks that jockeys take. He travelled in a car with retired trainer Michael Dickinson along the inside of the Aintree track as horses jumped the Grand National fences in 2007 and was among the spectators at York who watched young Malton jockey Joe Doyle try to cling to his horse when the saddle slipped in the shadow of the winning post last Saturday.
“It’s a tough sport. I wince every time when one goes down. With Joe Doyle, it’s a 20-runner race and he’s in the first four or five. There are 15 coming from behind. Frightening. Over the National fences, it’s one thing jumping the fences, it’s quite another staying on board.
“Jack’s a smashing man and he’s always asking for pictures to be signed. You can’t say no to him because he is so committed.
“People take on charities and commitments and they last two or three years. He’s been going 50 years and The House That Jack Built will be so special... what a man.
“A first-class man. An inspiration.”
Sir Alex Ferguson and racing...
* Sir Alex Ferguson’s first racehorse was Queensland Star, who won on his debut at Newmarket in April 1998.
* The most famous horse to run in his colours was Rock Of Gibraltar whose big race triumphs included the 2001 Gimcrack at York and the 200 Guineas the following May.
* More recently, What A Friend won a Grade One Lexus Chase in Leopardstown in December 2009 under Sam Thomas.
* Sir Alex now has shares with horses owned by the Highclere syndicate, including Telescope who was third in last week’s Juddmonte International and is now bound for the Breeders’ Cup.
* As well as horses locally with David O’Meara, Bryan Smart and Richard Fahey, I’m Fraam Govan – named in honour of the Scot’s roots – finished third at York last Saturday for trainer George Baker. “I’m getting to the stage when I have far too many horses,” said Sir Alex.