Tokyo’s iconic, neon-lit shopping district Shibuya, and one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in the world, is a long way from Warwick Farm, the no-fuss outer suburb of Sydney where Tommy Berry grew up living and breathing horse racing.
Still, late on a Sunday night, Berry somehow seems right at home in what can seem like a parallel universe to even the most seasoned traveller. He stands in the middle of the madness, wearing a black-and-white striped T-shirt with the type of slim-fitting blazer favoured by the young and hip in the fashion-obsessed district.
A young man approaches Berry and asks nervously, “Are you Berry?”
He is granted his request for a fan photo. And if that isn’t enough of a reminder that racing is big business in Japan, a giant screen taking up prime advertising real estate overhead plays a promotion for Sunday’s Takarazuka Kinen, with footage of the wildly popular former champion Gold Ship clearing out with the 2014 race.
“It’s crazy here,” the 25-year-old says. “It’s refreshing and something new. Japan is very testing, virtually no one speaks English, so we’ve got to try to communicate with people.
“It’s quite fun – I enjoy that part of it. I enjoy meeting new people and seeing the world and how people do things.
“I still lived at home when I was 21 – I was just a kid. I had been to Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to ride, but I had never been on a holiday. It was a massive eye-opener and still is.”
Clearly Berry has come a long way on his own personal journey – from the wide-eyed 22-year-old, who won a Group One at Sha Tin on Military Attack a few hours after stepping foot on foreign soil for the first time, to globetrotting jockey in a period defined as much by dazzling triumphs as it has been by tragedy.
Photo shoot complete, and settled into a corner of a buzzing sports bar nearby, Berry is getting ready to reflect, not only on all he has achieved over the whirlwind of the past two years, but on trainer John Moore’s standing offer to come to Hong Kong full-time.
Right now though, Berry’s mind is nearly 5,000 miles away, in Sydney, with his pregnant wife Sharnee and 18-month old son Kaiden – the boy that has helped him heal in just over two years since Berry’s identical twin brother died.
“To tell you the truth, right now I just want to be at home,” he says. “The last three years I have just travelled.”
It’s impossible to tell Berry’s story without mentioning Nathan and, regardless, Tommy wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s something I have learned to deal with,” he says of his brother’s tragic death, after the 23-year-old fell ill in Singapore in March 2014.
“Nathan was like part of my body, he was there 24-7, so it was very lonely for quite a while. Since Kaiden has come along, he has really helped to fill that spot that is missing.”
After winning the 2013 Audemars Piguet QE II Cup on Military Attack, Berry quickly established himself as Moore’s big race go-to guy during an electrifying three-month stint, winning 22 races.
It was shortly after partnering Designs On Rome in the Horse of the Year’s legendary clashes with stablemate Able Friend that Nathan died, in April 2014, but the surviving twin still fulfilled his commitment for another end of season stretch at Sha Tin.
Berry never stopped riding winners – an emotional QE II Cup win on Designs On Rome was one of 25 wins for the season – but he was riding through grief, as his heavy heart ached to be back with his parents Kevin and Julie at Warwick Farm. It is this that in part caused Berry to politely decline offers from Moore to be stable jockey for the most powerful big-race yard in Hong Kong.
“Those three months were the hardest three months of my life, being away from home. So it left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth,” he said.
“To go back on the odd weekend is fine, but to live there again, it just brings me back to that time in my life that was very tough.
“Sharnee was with me, but she was obviously struggling, too, it was very fresh – it was two weeks after Nathan had died. It was a very tough time for us, seeing how much my mother and father struggled hurt me as well.”
The overseas ambitions are still there for Berry, who doesn’t rule out a full-time stint in Hong Kong one day – but could he be the man to eventually challenge Joao Moreira’s seemingly unshakeable grip on the jockeys’ championship?
“It’s a one-man show at the moment,” Berry says. “When I look at going back to Hong Kong I want to be up with the best of them, and to compete with Joao is very hard to do.”
For now, Berry will have to be content with being the Magic Man’s kryptonite in feature races.
First, there was the 2014 Hong Kong Classic Cup, where Berry spelled out in the Post exactly how he was going to bring Able Friend undone, and executed it to perfection, and again in the subsequent Hong Kong Derby.
There have been others since, most recently in Australia when Berry gave Moore a Group One as an owner with Eagle Way, the Hong Kong-bound three-year-old beating Rodrico with Moreira aboard in the Queensland Derby.
Clearly Berry was an accomplished rider before he went abroad, but – having since spent two stints in Hong Kong, along with the hit-and-run missions that have reaped six Group One wins, as well as two short-term contracts in Japan and winning back-to-back Group Ones on Dan Excel in Singapore – what has he learned?
“From a riding perspective, Hong Kong taught me to be a lot sharper because everything happens a lot faster – runs aren’t there for very long,” he said. “Japan is a place where reputation doesn’t mean much, though – if you go to Hong Kong, they watch Australian racing, they know what you’ve done. When I came here, no one knew what I had achieved.”
Then there are the riders he has bumped elbows with, and two stand out: Ryan Moore and Hugh Bowman, both of whom he has ridden against in Japan.
“I feel very privileged to ride against people like Hugh and Ryan – if I can take that little bit away from riding against them it will make me a better rider,” he says. “I can see what they do in races. No one wants to admit that someone is a lot better than them – but there are things that they can do in races that I can’t do yet, and I want to be able to do them.
“They back their ability, that’s their biggest asset. They make decisions in races that other jockeys would second guess themselves about, or wouldn’t have the confidence to try, and if they don’t pull it off, there are a lot of jockeys that wouldn’t try it again.
“Most wouldn’t trust in themselves, but Hugh and Ryan believe in their ability, they know they are great riders.”
Despite Berry’s relative anonymity when he arrived for his first Japanese stint in 2015, under the guidance of expatriate Australian jockey manager Adam Harrigan, he has won 16 races second time before Sunday and earned the confidence of the meticulous Noriyuki Hori.
Berry missed what would have been a maiden Japanese Group One when Hori’s reigning Horse of the Year Maurice, seemingly underdone and a victim of a lack of pace, was beaten in the Yasuda Kinen as favourite in front of 52,000 stunned fans
On Sunday, Berry gets another chance for that elusive Japanese Group One on Curren Mirotic in the Takarazuka Kinen at Hanshin in Osaka, with the jockey looking towards winning the biggest race in his homeland, the Melbourne Cup.
Once again, Berry is right at home in Asia, but for now all roads lead home with his sights set on achievinggoals in Australia.
“That’s part of the reason I came over here, to find a Melbourne Cup horse, and I think he is the right one,” Berry says. “I want to do a stint in Hong Kong at some stage – I have done well in the Asian countries, and I do feel I have unfinished business there.”
“But even though I would love to do a full season abroad, now is not the time. Hong Kong and Japan are in the future, but for now, I want to win the Sydney premiership.”