Tony Keenan: A chat with Fran Berry

It is hardly controversial to say that sports coverage relies too much on former participants, that group all too often bringing bias to their analysis and sometimes tending away from criticism of current players, be they jockeys or trainers, even when it is obviously deserved, writes Tony Keenan. Racing is not the worst sport for this – watch ‘Match of the Day’ or ‘The Sunday Game’ and you will struggle to find a panellist that didn’t play the game – but even so I hardly fill with enthusiasm when I hear of another ex-jockey embarking on a career in TV, wondering if they’re going to be one of those ‘how many winners have you ridden?’ types.

It was a pleasant surprise, then, when on one of his first shifts for Racing TV, Group 1-winning former rider Fran Berry questioned, in the most polite way possible (because he tends to do things politely), the attitude of a few of the runners on the card. There is no mileage in calling anyone’s horse a dodge – not least because almost every dog has its day – but, as Berry says, talking about when he was riding horses with temperament in the past, “you might call a horse ungenuine but often there’s an underlying physical problem and a year later you find out it’s a bleeder or has had its wind done or is retired with injury.

“But as a jockey (or a punter or an analyst) you’re dealing with the here and now and when you’re aboard one like that you weigh up everything, but sometimes you’re just riding them for a place and just hope everything falls right. Horses can take heart by passing a few but while ultimately they might lie down in the end, you have to try to make it as easy as possible for them.”

Berry had been out of Ireland for a few years, riding in the UK from 2016 before injuries sustained in a fall at Wolverhampton in January this year called time on his race-riding career. Having ridden extensively in both jurisdictions, he sees some differences between the two.

“Riding in the UK, you could be taking 600 or 700 mounts a year, you do your form (it is apparent Berry is a form nerd!) and replays and things but in most cases, you won’t have sat on them before the race. So, you have to be guided by what people are telling you and get a feel going to the start which is a tight window of time.

“In England, there are massive time constraints on jockeys. I had a driver and not to have one is a false economy. The likes of Oisin Murphy and Harry Bentley have form men which is a good idea and could be cheap at any price when you’re taking ten rides a day for different trainers. You can know too much but I’d rather that than know too little.”

The weighing room in Ireland has changed a lot since Berry moved to the UK three years ago; so much so that a former colleague remarked to him recently that he was over in Ireland for a ride and barely recognised any of those riding against him.

“There’s been monumental change in the ranks lately: Pat Smullen is gone, I left, Joseph O’Brien came and went, Donnacha has come in. That’s left some big holes but also more opportunities for lads, Billy Lee being one who has come to hand. Really there’s been more change in the last three years than in the previous two decades apart from Mick Kinane and Johnny Murtagh retiring.”

Race-riding in Ireland also has some essential differences from the UK.

“The lack of pace in Irish racing relative to English is very noticeable, with races tending to be much truer run in England. A lot of that is down to the tracks, Irish tracks are often sharper tracks and lend themselves to getting out early and taking a position. Riding in Ireland is a lot tighter, it’s a contact sport really with lots of barging and battling for position.”

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This close-packed style of racing is something that is often celebrated by practitioners, Ted Walsh commenting on RTE recently how much he liked to see jockeys riding ‘tight’, the recent Galway Hurdle a good example of this.

About pace and sectionals, Berry sees this as more of a rest of the world thing that is coming into UK racing, but not really an Irish thing yet.

“I learned more about pace riding abroad in Singapore, Macau and especially Japan where every horse is chipped. Analysis of sectionals has become more prevalent with At The Races and particularly Simon Rowlands, and trainers in the UK are into them and will often be using their own form man.”

When riding, Berry says that “subconsciously you try to gauge how strong the gallop is, be it fast, medium or slow, but telling much more than that in-race is difficult.” However, he feels that pace is only one part of race-riding and making a move to counteract a slow pace can be counter-productive.

“It is easy to say when analysing a race afterwards that the jockey had to know they were going slow and should have moved up but that can be difficult depending on where you’re positioned. Let’s say you’re sixth on the rail. Mid-race moves are generally inefficient ones, on occasion I’ve tried to wheel forward and get in, but the other riders see you doing that and quicken up. You’re also dealing with an animal, and mentally setting them alight at that point comes at a cost, they may do too much and have nothing left for the finish.”

Even planned changes of tactics from the outset can be present difficulties.

“Wind issues are a massive thing with horses now and that plays a part in tactics, it seems every second horse over jumps wears a tongue-tie while in the UK loads of horses have wind operations. Those horses have to be ridden accordingly, some like to get out and into a rhythm whereas some choke and if you ask them too soon, they flip their palette and don’t finish out their races and might need exaggerated tactics.”

Much of Berry’s thinking on how horses should be ridden and educated comes from his time spent with John Oxx where “it was massive to have a good experience first time out, to drop them in and have them running through horses, teach them something that will stand to them so you can ride them wherever you want next time.”

Berry believes sectional times can be “great for teaching lads the ideal scenario but in the race itself those riders have got to use their own judgement along with knowledge of the horse they’re riding.”

When asked about whether the jockey feels the pace themselves or the horse gives you the signals, he says “if you know the horse, and it’s usually pretty good to travel, unless there’s something up with it and it’s not travelling well then you know the pace is too fast.”

In general, he says “you can’t beat riding a track a few times to know what it’s about. If I’m somewhere for the first time, I’ll walk it and look for landmarks as in reality it’s difficult to see the furlong poles. A sponsor’s board will be bigger and is a better visual marker and that’s something useful especially at tracks with long straights like York where the temptation is to get racing too soon; you see the stands and think you’re already there.”

Race-riding and form is something that still fascinates Berry and we certainly drew a few strange looks from other customers while watching random replays and looking at sectional time spreadsheets in the coffee shop where we met. The Irish Derby won by Sovereign came under discussion and Berry pointed out that “the Curragh Derby track is much shaper than the Plate (outer) track so if you’re too far back, they’re always getting away from you.”

He also ventured an interesting point-of-view regarding what Ryan Moore on Anthony Van Dyck and Chris Hayes on Madhmoon may have been thinking when the leaders got away from them. “They are probably thinking that if I go now, I am only going to bottom my own horse so whatever chance I have of winning [if the front-runners come back], I’m not going to set it up for another one. If you do that, you’re getting the same result or worse anyway and trying to roll five out at the Curragh when the downhill part starts means you won’t get home.”

The Irish Oaks also came under discussion as did the much-vaunted but latterly disappointing Visinari. Iridessa was well-fancied for the Oaks but disappointed and for Berry “she’s doing something out of character in the straight. She’s usually a strong traveller and should be tanking in a slowly-run mile-and-a-half race but she’s ill-at-ease and you can tell from Wayne Lordan’s body language that he’s not happy. Her head is coming up and the hind legs are fluent, the jockey is getting no push behind the saddle and her action is falling apart as her stride shortens.”

On Visinari (who he describes as “James Willougby’s horse”’!), Berry is more interested in watching him after the line in the July Stakes than the race itself.

“Look at how narrow he is compared to the Aidan O’Brien horse [Royal Lytham], that one is a real stocky, forward-looking horse. Visinari is big long rake, narrow at the neck, unfurnished and was galloping on his head, going up and down. I suspect if you see him in the ring, it’s likely he hasn’t levelled off, the front and back section don’t match up. That lack of physical strength might be what beat him; he could be a horse for next year though you would need to see him in the flesh as he may always look like that.”

I could have gone on all day watching back various replays and asking for more of Berry’s views, but politeness made me draw the line at pulling up random low-grade Irish races to see what he thought about how a horse had handled the trip or ground or track. As something of a fellow form nerd, I suspect he might have had a view though!

Fran Berry is an analyst on Racing TV and writes a weekly column on the Sporting Life.


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