One of the sheer delights of the 2018 Flat racing season has been the renaissance of the popular grey gelding Roy Rocket.
Trained in Newmarket, by a man familiar to all in town and in racing, Roy Rocket has become a folk hero in the sport and is helping to maintain the profile of John Wathen Berry.
John, racehorse trainer, TV racing expert and local politician, recently, very kindly gave up his time to share insight with Course Specialist, into his career, training methods and time in politics, having served as Mayor of Newmarket.
John please tell me your background, were you from a racing family?
I grew up on a farm in Scotland, and there were always horses and ponies on the farm. My father had ridden as an amateur and trained under a permit, and my mother then owned some horses with Gordon Richards. Both parents owned the odd broodmare, and my father was a steward at Kelso, Carlisle and Hamilton. We always had the Sporting Life on the table and the racing on the TV.
What are your earliest racing memories and what got you hooked on the sport?
My earliest racing memory is of the excitement in our house leading up to (and the disappointment after) the Grand National of 1972, in which my mother’s horse Gyleburn was one of the leading chances, ridden by the champion jockey Ron Barry. He fell at the first fence. I was actually more interested in football than racing until the age of 10, but then I picked up the Sporting Life one day and was captivated by the sport I was reading about. I still am.
Who have been the racehorses and racing personalities to create the most evocative memories for you?
Hundreds of humans and hundreds of horses. That’s what makes racing so special: the horses and the people. Like everyone, I retain special memories of some of the best horses who were racing in the first few years I was following the sport: Red Rum, The Minstrel, Dunfermline, Alleged, Midnight Court, Sea Pigeon, Rubstic, Troy, Shergar and Anaglog’s Daughter spring readily to mind. I treasure memories of being at Ascot when Shergar won the King George and when Anaglog’s Daughter won the Black And White Gold Cup.
How did you first enter racing career-wise? How did your career progress (in terms of jobs) and who did you work for prior to becoming a trainer?
I stayed on at school after I had done my A-levels to do my Oxbridge exam. (I secured a place at St. Peter’s College, Oxford, to read theology, but I dropped out of that). The day after I left school I started work for Andy Turnell. The two trainers in Britain I worked for subsequently were Ian Matthews and Luca Cumani. My last job before starting training in 1995 was as a stud hand at Wood Ditton Stud.
When did you first take out a training licence and how have the financial pressures and regulations changed since then?
I started training in 1995. It was hard then, and is still hard now. I think that there’s more red-tape now than there was then, but one becomes better at not taking it too seriously.
Have you always trained in Newmarket? How much of a challenge was it to learn the idiosyncrasies of the different gallops?
I have always trained here: in Hamilton Road for two years, and then in this stable in Exeter Road for the past 21 years. I moved to Newmarket in 1987 to work for Ian Matthews, so I was very familiar with the Heath by the time I started training eight years later.
How challenging was it/is it, for a new trainer to gain a footing in a sport where there seems to be such an imbalance in terms of quality and financial clout?
It’s hard, but it’s harder for established trainers to retain a footing in the sport. There are always plenty of owners prepared to give a new trainer a go; but when you’ve been training for a while, in most cases you become yesterday’s man. There are a lot more trainers around who have been training for less than, say, 15 years than trainers who have been training for more than that.
What type of horse gives you the most pleasure to train? Two year olds? Stayers? Improving handicappers? Sprinters?
I much prefer stayers (and staying races) to sprinters (and sprints). I never like pushing young horses on quickly, so two-year-old racing certainly isn’t my forte. It is much nicer (and easier) to train sound horses than unsound ones, but that’s out of your hands.
Is there a certain type of horse you look for at the sales? Are there certain sires/bloodlines?
I’m generally looking for inexpensive horses; and the question doesn’t really apply as it’s many years since I bought a horse at a yearling sale. I like to see horses come from solid, high-class families and also from families which consistently produce tough, durable horses. I also like to see stamina in a pedigree.
What are the main training aspects that would improve a horse like Indira?
Nothing. She improved as she got older, as most horses will do if you don’t damage them when they are younger. As long as they are naturally fairly sound, they will improve as they mature. All you have to do is avoid preventing them from doing so, although that can be easier said than done, as you’re often under pressure to put pressure on horses when they are young.
How many staff do you employ and how important is man-management in establishing a successful operation?
There are four people working here: Jana Trnakova, Ivona Slachtova and myself are the riders, Abbie Bunten does the yard-work. And I do what one might call the head lad’s job, and the administration. Man-management is just common sense and normal behaviour (although, again, applying that can be easier said than done).
How many horses do you now train? What number would you be most comfortable with?
We have 15 horses in training at present. Anything up to 20 is fine, although I would need to employ another person if we did get that big.
How much have the exploits of Roy Rocket helped to raise the profile of the yard recently?
I think that they have raised the yard’s profile a lot; or, one might say, they have helped to maintain the yard’s profile. Whether it will have done so to any significant degree remains to be seen.
Have you any news updates on the supremely talented Kryptos? When might we see him on a racecourse again?
He is currently out of training, having a long break to let a minor tendon injury heal. We tried to bring him back this year but that didn’t work. I hope that he will resume racing in the spring of 2020.
What has been your best moment to date in racing?
Kadouchski’s win in the Newmarket Town Plate, when I was his owner, trainer and rider, was very special. Largesse’s win in the Doonside Cup at Ayr in 1998, my first (and, so far, only!) black-type win as a trainer was very good, as was Diamond Joshua’s third place in the Triumph Hurdle on the day that Best Mate won his first Gold Cup. More recently, Roy’s wins this year have been very happy days.
What motivated you to become Mayor of Newmarket?
I stood for election as a Newmarket Town Councillor in 2011 as I felt that it would be a good thing for some people professionally involved in racing to get involved in council work (and have been on the Council ever since). NTC had always been very good to the racing community, and it seemed a good thing if one or more of us was prepared to put the time in to give a little back, rather than just take the Council’s help for granted. There’s an element of ‘Buggins’ turn’ in who is the Chairman of the Council, ie the Mayor, for the year. One year I was Buggins.
How much of a challenge was your work-life balance with civic roles and training responsibilities?
I was busy that year, but then that’s normal.
What were the main things you learnt from your experience of politics?
That it is not just national politics which brings out the worst in people: there is back-biting and petty jealousy in low-level, local politics too.
Did you find this role fulfilling or frustrating? Did you have to compromise more or less ideology than you had anticipated?
I didn’t enjoy having to be caught up in the in-fighting. As one of the other councillors, one can get involved in the in-fighting or ignore it as one chooses; as the Chairman of the Council, it is impossible not to be drawn into it.
Have you been able to deploy any lessons learned from politics, in racing?
Over the years have you adapted your training methods at all?
In one sense, no: you do the same thing every day of your training career, ie what seems right at the time, what seems a good idea. However, the longer you have been doing it, the more you understand horses and how their minds and bodies will react under certain circumstances. So in that sense you’re changing your methods all the time: what seemed a good idea 10 or 20 years ago might not seem such a good idea now that one is a bit less ignorant, and what seems a good idea now might not seem so smart in another 10 years’ time when one has learnt a bit more.
What for you are the main aspects of racing and training, that you would like to see change?
I would like training not to be so all-engrossing and so tiring, but that can’t be changed. The only way to take time off is by taking your eye of the ball.
What are your main hopes and aims for the future and what is the one race you would most like to win?
When I started training, I thought that it would be an achievement if I was still training in five years’ time. And then another five. And then another five … At the end of this year I’ll be four fifths of the way through my fifth five-year period, so obviously keeping going for another year is currently the aim. And then the target would be another five years. And then …
When Kadouchski won the Newmarket Town Plate, a friend remarked that it must have been very satisfying to win a race as owner, trainer and rider, but that winning one as owner, trainer, rider and breeder would be even better. I would love to do that, but realistically I think that that is unlikely. The Town Plate is probably the only option as I wear glasses (and don’t want to go back to the contact lenses which I wore for race-riding in my youth) so that rules me out of any normal race; and the Town Plate is so gruelling that finding a horse tough enough, dour enough and sound enough to run in it (never mind win it) is easier said than done, particularly if you are restricting the search to horses which you have bred yourself.
I would love to train a Melbourne Cup winner, but that’s even less likely to happen than my all-role Town Plate dream. Failing that, training a Classic or an Ascot Gold Cup would be lovely. That’s less unlikely than the other aspirations, but still very, very unlikely. I would love to train a Group winner, or a winner at Royal Ascot. Or at Ascot. That could happen, I suppose. In fact, I would love to train a runner at Royal Ascot. I haven’t managed to do that so far, but it might happen. I suppose it’s not impossible that Kryptos might run there in 2020 …
For more information on John Berry’s racing yard, please visit: https://www.johnberryracing.com/