Oklahoma boasts some of the nation’s best horses, breeders, trainers and jockeys – including legendary jockey Cliff Berry, who retired in December 2015 after a career spanning almost four decades.
Over the past 20 years, thoroughbred racing in Oklahoma has increased in popularity, and its three horse racing facilities – Remington Park racetrack in Oklahoma City, Fair Meadows racetrack in Tulsa, and Will Rogers Downs in Claremore – are some of the state’s biggest attractions.
Berry, the winningest jockey in Remington Park history, rode in his first race in 1979.
“There are great horsemen in Oklahoma, and there are lots of fans,” Berry says. “In the last 20 years, Oklahoma-bred horses have come a long way. They can defeat anyone in the country, as far as I’m concerned. Hopefully it’ll keep getting bigger and bigger.”
The Making of a Legend
Berry has been riding horses since he was 5 years old. “My dad always had 15 to 20 horses at a time,” he says. The summer between his junior and senior years of
high school, Berry got a job at Midway Downs in Stroud making $75 per week. He liked working there so much he transferred schools so he could keep his job.
“That’s where I learned to gallop,” Berry says. “I knew early I wanted to be a jockey. My mom and dad made me finish high school, and right after graduation, I went to Louisiana Downs in Bossier City. That was 1981. When racing came back to Oklahoma in 1985,
I moved back.”
Berry says being a jockey is as much about relationships as it is about athleticism. A young jockey has to earn the privilege to ride the best horses.
“It’s hard work, especially when you’re just getting started,” he says. “You’ve got to get out early in the morning and get on the best horses. When I came to Remington, it was tough. There were some great riders and horsemen here.”
Berry rode in the very first race at Remington Park when it opened in 1988, and it remained his home track until his retirement. He never wanted to ride outside the South and Southwest, something he credits to the racing culture in the region, as well as to his wife, Kim, and two sons, Cale and Baylin.
“Being a jockey is the only job I’ve ever had, and riding here was a privilege – the fans are great,” Berry says. “It’s a different kind of life. I miss it.”
Berry has collected many exciting tales and memories over the years. He recalls the last big race he won at the Oklahoma Derby shortly before retirement.
“I hadn’t ridden the horse before. But I had watched him, and he didn’t show much speed out of the gates. So I’m thinking I just need to get him out good so we don’t fall back too far. But sure enough, he broke pretty fast, and in two jumps I look across and I’m in front,” Berry laughs. “I was kind of puzzled and didn’t know what to do, so I went with my instincts and let him stay in front. And we ended up winning the race. I didn’t expect to win, but it worked out.”
Throughout his career, Berry, now 53, won more Oklahoma is home to several popular horse racing tracks.
than 4,400 races and $65.5 million, and he ranks 44th among the sport’s all-time leaders. He has been the leading rider at Remington 15 times, five times at Lone Star Park and twice at Oaklawn Park.
Although Berry has retired from jockeying, he still feels at home at Remington. There are plenty of other roles to play.
“Right now, I’m helping a young jockey named Bryan McNeil,” Berry says. “I’m his agent – trying to get him on good horses.”