I have some catching up to do after an ordinary day in the wet last Saturday.
Jockeys are the backbone of racing. Every time they jump on a horse they place their life at risk, and their sacrifices should never be forgotten.
On Thursday, racing lost one of its brightest prospects, when 23-year-old Australian jockey Nathan Berry died of NORSE Syndrome, an acute form of epilepsy.
It was a very short battle with the illness. Berry was fit and well until he collapsed at trackwork on March 18 in Singapore, where he had begun a four-month riding contract. He was placed in an induced coma and was transported to Sydney on the morning of his death.
Berry had only just married Whitney Schofield – daughter of Sydney-based South African jockey Glyn Schofield – on February 2 and he is the twin brother of multiple Group 1-winning jockey Tommy Berry. Tommy is arguably the best young rider in the world.
I suppose that’s why Nathan’s death hurts so much as a racing fan – it’s a tragedy further compounded by his huge potential.
Most jockeys ride for decades and because of their longevity it is hard to follow their journey closely, but I know Nathan Berry’s relatively well.
For a couple of seasons he and Tommy toiled in Sydney as apprentices, trying to make a name for themselves. I remember watching them ply their trade at midweek meetings. They were good young riders, but I didn’t think they’d develop as quickly and as well as they did.
Tommy graduated to top-line status faster than Nathan. In the autumn of 2012, at the age of 21, Tommy broke out by riding six winners across that season’s Sydney Carnival. The following season, in 2013, he won the Golden Slipper – one of four Australian Grand Slams – aboard Overreach.
There are so many great photos that show Nathan embracing Tommy immediately after witnessing the biggest success in his brother’s career. They love and respect each other and it has never been a secret.
At that point, Nathan hadn’t shown what a good jockey he’d become. 2014 was going to be his year to break out and begin to win Group 1 races.
In the spring of 2013, Nathan started to have serious success. On August 31, he won the Group 3 Run To The Rose on Va Pensiero at Rosehill. It was a masterful ride – maybe the best of Nathan’s career – as he slowed the speed so his mount could find enough in the straight to hold off eventual Group 1 winners Dissident and Zoustar.
I’ve always believed a good jockey will get an undeserving horse into first place, and while I don’t want to offend Va Pensiero or his owners, the horse has done little before or since to indicate he is Group 1 class. Yet with Nathan Berry on his back, he beat Group 1 horses in the Run To The Rose.
A couple of months later, Nathan would unite with the horse that gave him his greatest success. Aboard two-year-old Unencumbered, who will be lining up in Saturday’s Golden Slipper, Nathan won the Group 3 McLaughlan in Brisbane and then the $2m Magic Millions Classic on the Gold Coast.
Unencumbered was the favourite in the Magic Millions and deservingly so. Nathan rode a brilliant race under immense pressure and in doing so showed he’d have no trouble handling the atmosphere of Group 1 racing.
Nathan was a year or two behind Tommy in development but their careers were heading in a massive upward direction. You only have to watch the rides of Tommy Berry on Designs On Rome in Hong Kong this season to understand the tactical nous at his disposal. His ride in the Hong Kong Classic Cup is undoubtedly the best I’ve seen by any jockey in the world this year.
He rode to the strengths of his horse – stamina and the ability to sustain a long run – to ensure victory over a great rival, Able Friend and jockey Joao Moreira. Brazilian Moreira is one of the top five jockeys in the world.
Nathan hadn’t quite shown us this quality but there’s little doubt we would’ve seen it at some point. In the last six months, he was improving on a weekly basis. It was the same improvement we saw from Tommy in the autumn of 2012.
In time, Nathan would’ve caught Tommy at the top of Australia’s riding ranks. We won’t get to see it but if you ever wonder how good Nathan Berry would’ve been, just watch his brother ride.
There’s no good ending to this story, but at least the legacy of Nathan Berry will be well carried by his twin brother Tommy, who is well on the way to becoming one of the best jockeys in the world.