Some jockeys can measure their careers and their achievement, perhaps even their greatness, in terms of Derbies, awards and Breeders’ Cup victories. Others, like Cliff Berry, measure their success in the accumulation of promises kept and lives touched and early mornings at the barn. Yes, Berry has won derbies and awards, and he has piled high the victories and the titles over the years, but his 34-year career has been, most of all, a self-defining journey dedicated to his personal priorities: family, friends and home. That’s what always made him special.
The journey concludes Sunday at Remington Park in Oklahoma City, where Berry will ride Better Than Magic in a race he insists will be his finale, the Springboard Mile. It’s altogether fitting: He’ll ride his final race at home, with family and friends on hand, on the final day of a season honoring his long career, in a race that’s intended to be a springboard for promising young horses but will also become a retiring jockey’s springboard to a next chapter.
Many, perhaps most, racing fans won’t recognize the name. Berry has ridden his entire career in the South and Southwest. He never has wanted to ride anywhere else, never wanted to work so far from home that he couldn’t get back there by jumping in his car and just driving. He never entertained a fantasy about trying to take a bite out of the Big Apple. For him, California Dreamin was just a song.
And so Berry’s career has been a tribute to all those jockeys who have performed with dignity and perseverance, if somewhat inconspicuously. Some of them might even be more capable and talented than the better known riders widely regarded as elite, but, for whatever reason, they never attracted the sport’s spotlight or only skirted around it. Sometimes it can seem grossly unfair. L. J. Sterling, Jr., won the Illinois Derby on War Emblem and then watched on television as Victor Espinoza rode the colt to victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Donna Barton and Boston Harbor were unbeaten together, and their three victories included two stakes, by an average winning margin of six lengths, but Jerry Bailey won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on him. Jose Caraballo rode Barbaro flawlessly to easy victories in the colt’s first two races and would have traveled to Timbukto to ride him a third time, but Edgar Prado got the mount in Florida. And so it goes.
Perhaps it was because his goals and expectations were originally so modest that Berry always seemed to appreciate so genuinely the horses he rode and the races he won. He grew up around horses. They were the companions of his youth. His father owned piebald paints and Appaloosas and a few quarter horses; riding was second nature to the youngster. And so during the summer before his senior year of high school, Berry got a job galloping racehorses at little Midway Downs in Stroud, Okla., for $75 a week. That was all he wanted, a summer job so he could earn a few bucks to put into a car or a good time. Back then he thought he might become an auto mechanic. Even after high school, when he started riding races, it seemed more like an extension of that summer job than a career. And here he is 34 years later, his summer finally ending.
Berry has ridden 4,456 winners in his career, including 212 in stakes, and his mounts have earned $67,344,325, according to Equibase. Among the sport’s all-time leaders in victories, he ranks 44th, ahead of many much better known jockeys, such as Patrick Valenzuela, Javier Castellano, Garrett Gomez, Eddie Maple and Shane Sellers.
“He’s an excellent rider,” said trainer Donnie Von Hemel about Berry, “and an even better person.” Berry and Von Hemel have teamed up for many wins over the years, including Going Ballistic in the 2007 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs and Euphony in the Matron Handicap at Arlington Park. “He rides every horse, whether it’s a nickel claimer or a graded stakes winner, to get the best performance possible.”
By Berry’s own reckoning, however, his riding career had an unassuming start. He won, he recalled, about 70 races as an apprentice, and then business slowed down. But something happened in the mid 1990s that changed him. After winning four stakes on a horse, he was replaced, and although Raja’s Omega was no Barbaro, the slight stung.
“That got to me,” Berry said about losing the mount. “It changed me. I always worked hard, but that was the day I decided that if I was going to do this I had to give it everything I had.”
Since then, for nearly 20 years, Berry has been one of the top riders in the region, as reliable as a sunrise and as consistent as a river. He has topped the standings at Remington Park an amazing 15 times and frequently has sat atop the standings at Lone Star Park and Oaklawn Park. In fact, at both Remington and Lone Star, he’s the all-time leading jockey.
“He’s been our go-to guy in the Southwest for many years,” said trainer Bret Calhoun, who’ll give Berry a leg up on his final mount Sunday. “He’s a great rider and a great person. I can’t say enough good things about him. He just gives you so much confidence when he’s riding your horse. You can always count on him.”
And isn’t that how every person would want to be known? When Remington or Lone Star puts up a plaque in his honor, or perhaps when the racetracks induct Berry into their Halls of Fame, let that be the inscription: You could always count on him.
As Berry’s career gathered momentum in the late 1990s, he never contemplated a move. By then, he and his wife, Kim, had two young sons, Cale and Baylin, and the jockey never thought of dragging his family across the country, especially when this summer job was just starting to pay so handsomely. And so he stayed home and built a monument of a career.
Perhaps, he said, he was lucky that he didn’t have immediate success as a young rider. It would seem unlikely, even bizarre, to anybody that knows him, but, Berry said, he might have taken money and success for granted if they had come to him early, easily and plentifully. He might not appreciate where he is if he hadn’t traveled so patiently. He might not have learned what’s really important. And so he appreciates the Oaklawn Handicap win on Win Willy and the three Oklahoma Derby victories, especially the most recent one, on Shotgun Kowboy.
He has won more races and enjoyed more success, he said, than he ever expected or even could have imagined back there at Midway Downs, when $75 seemed like a lot of money. He loves the sport, but he has no intention of riding another race after Sunday. He won’t come out of retirement. With his sons grown into young men, Berry said he and his wife are ready to travel. He has learned what’s important and how to appreciate what he has, including a venerable career. A long-time resident of the winner’s circle, Berry can leave in one piece and with the satisfaction of knowing he honored the sport by always giving it his best.