Berry still has best interests of jockeys at heart

FROM the moment he was born into a family of eight children growing up in Leeds in 1937, Jack Berry has always been single-minded.

“As a kid I was small and thin, but hyperactive. I was running around within months of being born, which was far too early and consequently I damaged my knees. I had to wear leg irons on both legs,” he recalls.

This formative experience was a sign of things to come. As a jockey, Berry’s 47 winners came at a cost of 46 fractures, with Sir Peter O’Sullevan, the doyen of racing commentators, speaking of “Kamikaze Jack’s reckless eagerness to break more bones than records”.

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As a trainer, Berry proved that successful Flat trainers can prosper in the North. And, as a founding father of the Injured Jockeys Fund, and the inspiration behind today’s Clipper Logistics Leger Legends Stakes at Doncaster, the 73-year-old’s energy is tireless.

All proceeds from today’s 16-runner feature, now established as the curtain-raiser to the four-day festival which culminates with the 225th St Leger on Saturday, will go towards ‘The House That Jack Built’ – a rehabilitation centre for injured riders from the North.

Based on Oaksey House, a respite centre for the riding fraternity that is based in Lambourn and built thanks to the tireless charitable endeavours of Berry and the IJF, there is no question of the retired trainer’s Yorkshire dream being realised – it is just a matter of time.

“By the time I’m carted off in a box, I will have raised the money,” Berry told the Yorkshire Post with characteristic certainty.

“Seriously, we have put in an offer for some land at Malton and we have a further meeting next Tuesday. We are hopeful of the outcome and will take it from there. If we didn’t get this site, we will choose another one in or around Malton – we have options.

“I think it will ultimately cost upwards of £3.5m, but once we can be seen to be moving forward with the plans, then I think our fundraising will be even more successful.”

Again this optimism is testament to Berry’s unquenchable spirit – this is an individual who ran away from school at the age of 15 to pursue a career in racing and, as the aforementioned O’Sullevan went on to observe, “visits of varying duration to just about every hospital within range of a National Hunt circuit”.

Last year’s inaugural Legends race raised £94,000. Sales from Berry’s autobiography Better Late Than Never, self-published to maximise profits, stand at £70,000. And a ‘buy a brick’ appeal continues to see donations pour in.

And, while the safety of horse racing today is unrecognisable compared to Berry’s era, medical advances – and the professionalism expected of jockeys – demands that a dedicated centre is built to serve the northern racing community.Three recent Grand National-winning jockeys – Ruby Walsh, Graham Lee and Jason Maguire – are currently sidelined while today’s Legends race will see Yorkshire’s Classic-winning jockey George Duffield don the riding boots of Richmond’s Keith Mercer who is, finally, on the comeback trail after being sidelined with a broken leg for 14 months.

“The IJF all came about when my good friend Paddy Farrell, riding for Charlie Hall, broke his back at The Chair in the 1964 Grand National,” said Berry whose supporters include the legendary Derby-winning jockey Lester Piggott.

“We started raising money for Paddy and his family, he eventually had a bungalow built at Strensall near York, and that is how the IJF came about. We must have raised millions over the years but I truly believe that horse racing is the envy of all sports because of the way it sticks by its riders, stable staff and so on.

“Just look at the people supporting the Legends day. It is overwhelming. And it’s not just horse racing – I want The House That Jack Built to benefit show jumpers, eventers, point-to-point riders; anyone who comes from a riding background.

“While they receive great care in hospital, what riders need is dedicated care and attention – the right physiotherapy, fitness and nutrition advice. The number of jockeys who have benefited from stints at Oaksey House is wonderful. What the wider public probably do not realise is the risks jockeys take. Watch any race and all it takes is one horse to come down, even on the Flat.”

Berry should know. Towards the end of his eventful riding career, he broke his leg when falling from Big Star at Wetherby. As he lay near the hurdle, the St John Ambulance attendant asked him: “Are you all right?”

Berry’s response? “I’ve broken my leg, mate. There’s nothing you can do about it, just give me a fag. I’ll hold on to my boot, you put your arms under my shoulders and pull me under the rail on the inside of the track, out of the way of the horses next time round.”

It is this indomitable spirit that makes the building of the Jack Berry House a racing certainty in the most unpredictable of sports.