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Tommy Berry’s feet finally hit the ground on Sunday, but it seems they’ve been firmly planted on terra firma and grounded in reality anyway, despite the whirlwind ride of success the youngster has enjoyed in the past few years – which was capped by an astonishing 48 hours.
Confidence will take you places, but character enables you to handle it once you get there. Berry seems to have both qualities in abundance and will need them when his riding is placed under the microscope in Hong Kong.
The 22-year-old’s personality is a unique mix. Impeccable politeness and obvious values of hard work and discipline shine through when he speaks – all qualities instilled in part by his old-school horse-trainer father. But Berry is still blessed with the modern athlete’s ability to deliver a succinct and unfiltered self-appraisal on demand. Thankfully though, he doesn’t speak in the third person.
The morning after a day when he went from being a kid who hadn’t been overseas to an international Group One jockey, Berry held court with an already enchanted local media and when asked the difference in riding style between himself and his twin brother Nathan, he delivered a refreshingly honest response.
“Maybe I'm a bit prettier on a horse” and “ride a bit more positive” than Nathan, who prefers to ride from the tail of the field, were part of the assessment, but there was also the admission he had been blessed with some lucky breaks that perhaps his brother had not been granted.
When Berry says he “wants to show people his skills” and what he is capable of in Hong Kong, it is not being arrogant, it is being self-assured. And “it” is what seems to separate many good jockeys from being among the very best. God-given talent only takes you so far.
To go with Berry’s belief in his ability, he has been drilled through a hard school. His father Kevin made sure the Berry twins worked every day. “We pretty much started working in the stables when we were 10 and we were there every day and weren’t allowed to hang out with our friends," he said. "Once we started riding, Nathan and I rode with broken feet and noses at times. Dad set us up with a great work ethic.”
When Berry moved to the Randwick stables of Gai Waterhouse, he found another hard-marking mentor. "Gai is a lovely person who puts a lot of confidence into you, but she makes you work hard for it,” he said. “There were a lot of rough times there, where I could have left Gai’s 20 times because it was getting a bit hard, but having that grounding with my father helped me. It’s people like that who set you up for life."
Even though Berry has started with a bang and only has three months until the end of the season, there will come a time when the claustrophobic nature and pressure of Hong Kong begins to tell. And just like he relied on the life lessons his father taught him at Warwick Farm when faced with challenges with Waterhouse, Berry can now draw on the experience of 15 character-building months at Tulloch Lodge.
Waterhouse works as hard as her staff, but trains them as hard as her horses, using a variety of methods to get the best from them. One method is selecting books for her jockeys to read, although we’re yet to meet one who has followed through on that request, Berry included. But also throwing out psychological tests for her riders.
“Early on I went there as No 2 rider but I felt like No 10,” he said. “She was putting a lot of other riders in front of me and I was working harder than anyone who was working for the stable. Corey Brown was working one day a week and I was coming in six mornings a week and he was getting six times the amount of rides to me.
"That was a challenge, but I didn’t say anything and pressed forward. Even now, you’ll be riding plenty of winners and she’ll ease off you a bit or work you harder or make you do canters once you finish your gallops. It’s stuff like that where she tries to push you and press your buttons. It’s just the way you handle it with Gai.”
Plenty of young jockeys have come to Sha Tin expecting to dominate, just like they always have, but have returned home humbled. How Berry handled Sunday's early success was telling, it seemed to come naturally, but as always the test is how one responds when things don't go your way.