Day At The Track

John Berry; “Jack of all Trades” in harness racing

01:08 AM 19 May 2017 NZST
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Hall of Famer John Berry has had a great career in harness racing
Ann-Mari Daley photo
John Berry during his professional bowling days. He once bowled a perfect 300 game.
Photo courtesy American Bowling Congress
John Berry with his parakeets Nilla (on top of head) and Pistachio
Abby Berry Photo
John Berry in the announcer's booth at Pompano Park
Gabe Prewitt photo
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Pompano Beach, FL - Screaming and shouting, cries of joy echoing throughout the grandstand.

These echoes travel across the racetrack to where drivers, trainers, owners, and grooms can hear.

Anyone within an ears distance can hear these chants and cheers. The atmosphere of the racetrack brings a variety of emotions whether it be tears of joy or sadness, screams of happiness or anger, the crowd is never silent.

The noise doesn't fall short of the horsemen and women that work behind the scenes and stand near the paddock gate watching their horse race on any given night.

However, there is one voice that overpowers them all, draining out all of the noise. Rather than putting the name to the face, people put the name to the voice for one track announcer, John Berry.

John Berry is a man of many talents and wears many hats as most would say.

“He is the Picasso of Harness Racing. Journalistic knowledge and professionalism second to none,” Wally Hennessey, Hall of Fame Driver and leading trainer at Pompano Park, recounts.

Aside from a race announcer, John Berry has played a vital role in harness racing as anything from a race office assistant to a publicity man to a live broadcaster. It's no doubt that John Berry is one of many that form the base of the horse racing business.

In the February 5, 1964 edition of The Horseman and Fair World, the week Pompano Park opened, there was a letter to the editor concerning time trials by John Berry.

And here we are, 53 years later, and Berry is still at it---writing brilliant, informative stories, announcing on occasion, co-hosting the Pompano Park pre-race show, writing a handicapping column, and serving the horsemen and our sport with the same enthusiasm that was evident back more than a half century ago.

Inducted into the Hall of Fame as a communicator several years ago, he has participated in school career days, countless charitable events, seminars, and many promotions to enhance the image of harness racing. He was even highlighted on a CBS (Chicago) news segment entitled “Someone You Should Know.”

The feeling all horsemen know or come to know at some point in their careers is the moment when your horse is pacing or trotting lengths ahead of the pack at the three-quarter pole.

Down the stretch and the win is a guarantee. That moment in time is brief but the memory of the feeling lasts a lifetime. At this point in John Berry’s life, it was like he had experienced this brief moment forever.

“That was amazing, I must admit,” Berry smiled. “It was a surreal moment. “I used to get films from Sportsman’s Park---16 millimeter films---and I went to different nursing homes and rehab facilities lugging my 50-pound projector to put racing programs on for the patients there.

“I went to the administrators of these facilities to see who needed a morale boost, so to speak.” Berry explained. “Then, I made programs up and put patients down as drivers of the horses. On this one occasion, the ‘winning’ driver was a lady that had a stroke several months prior and could not speak.

“Well, after the race,” Berry said. “I went right up to her with her daughter alongside and congratulated her on her win. I asked her to tell me how she won the race (as the doctors and nurses were cautioning me that she couldn't speak) and she grabbed the ‘mike’ and, after struggling a bit, said, “I tried hard’.

“To say that the doctors and nurses were amazed is an understatement,” Berry recalled. “Their jaws literally dropped. The administrators got ahold of CBS news about this miracle of sorts and, a few weeks later, when another show at the facility was arranged, CBS was there with a crew and it became a segment on a newscast in Chicago.

“It wasn't necessary,” John said, “but they said this story must be told.

“It merely propelled me to keep trying and looking for yet another miracle.”

John Berry, a man with a long history that keeps growing. Aside from racing, he holds his own titles himself - for bowling.

Interestingly enough, the 16-year-old's career in bowling led him to harness racing.

In Chicago of 1959, Berry won a match that began his new and long lived career.

“It was a match,” Berry recalled, “where four of us put up five dollars apiece with the winner taking $15, second place getting his money back and the lowest two scorers paying for the highest two bowler’s lines (games).

“I bowled a 248, 268, and 258 and I took the money.” Berry said with a smile.

“A gentleman by the name of Luke Schroer approached me after that match to give me a “tip” of sorts,” Berry added, “as he won some money betting on the match.” Although John refused the offer, they ended up going out for a bite to eat. On that August in 1959, Schroer had taken John Berry to the racetrack, up to a box at Sportsman's Park---”41-A” Berry recalls.

From that night on, Berry had an ever-growing interest in the sport.

The gentleman who arranged for Berry to get Sportsman's Park films, Don Stevens, introduced him to Stan Bergstein.

Bergstein, who later would become harness racing’s only double Hall of Famer, being inducted to both the Living Hall of Fame and as a Communicator, helped John to get his very first position in the harness racing world, as an Associate Editor of the ‘The Illinois Sulky News,’ working for the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association.

His first position led to other doors opening. These ‘doors’ included jobs in publicity and public relations at Balmoral Park. At Balmoral, he wrote press releases and worked on handicapping and interviews.

“It was demanding since it turned out to be a seven day a week grind from early morning to late at night.” John said.

Developing a passion as well as a talent for writing, John Berry won a few regional awards for journalistic evidence.

In 1979, Berry accepted a position with the Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association of New Jersey. His new agenda included handling publicity and public relations; and hosting the long running series of television shows featuring Stakes races from The Meadowlands, Freehold Raceway and Garden State Park.

He also created and designed New Jersey's Stallion Directory and hosted several Miss Equine New Jersey contests.

“The Board of the SBOANJ was extremely active in partnering with the racetracks to publicize the sport,” Berry said.

“Tony Abbatiello and Ronnie Dancer led the brigade back then and one couldn't have asked for a more dedicated Board of Directors looking to move the sport in the right direction.

“I worked with John Higgins, then the Executive Director, a very knowledgeable horseman.” Berry added. “I also worked with an extremely talented gentleman by the name of Leon Zimmerman, who know every nook and cranny in Trenton, New Jersey, where the political stuff went on.

“Leon and I got elected to the Hall of Fame the same year,” Berry said. “and it was an honor to work with him and gain a bit of insight into the world of politics.”

During that time, Berry won the prestigious National John Hervey Award for an article he wrote in 1979 for Hub Rail Magazine about the Little Brown Jug.

“I have written many, many articles,” he said, “but this is, absolutely, one of my favorites because, when I put it in the typewriter---yes, we still used typewriters back then---the words just kept flowing and I, literally, didn't make any changes once the article was finished.

“It included a Roger Huston race call and I have been told on many occasions that the reader could ‘hear’ Roger’s voice while reading it.”

After three years with the SBOANJ, he accepted a position with the USTA as Public Relations Manager, working from an office, in Freehold, New Jersey, to cover the New York-New Jersey and eastern racing scene, which was blossoming at the time.

When they asked him to move to Columbus, Ohio, he parted ways with the USTA and accepted a position with Sports Information Database (SIDB) as a Senior Editor for harness racing with the objective of putting the entire history of harness racing on computer.

“I was honored to work with many of the great minds in sport, including Bill Shannon, the famed official scorer for baseball; Logan Hobson and Bob Canobbio, the inventors of ‘punch-stat’ for boxing matches; and one of harness racing’s great geniuses, Phil Sporn.”

A consolidation deal fell through and SIDB went out of business. Berry was asked if he was interested in moving to South Florida to be Public Relations Director at Pompano Park.

The track enjoyed its finest two seasons in history benefitting from promotions like a car giveaway, cruise nights, where 10,000 cruise passes were distributed to guests, and mall promotions.

John Berry has always worked to make the name of harness racing go viral across the world. He gained more exposure to the track when he became the host of his own radio show, featuring big bands and jazz from the 1920’s and 1930’s.

“The show featured music from many of the great bands that were left somewhat obscure to the vast majority,” Berry explained. “I guess you would call them ‘territory bands.’

While modern and pop music was taking over the radio stations, Berry’s interests in the ‘throwback’ tunes caught on in the public ‘ear’, so to say, and he had a lot of loyal listeners.

Around this time, Berry was elected President of the United States Harness Writers Association and served that organization for a two-year term.

In the 1980’s, he was lured into taking a position with a newly formed company--brainchild of well-known owner and breeder Eric Cherry. The start-up company, National Raceline, had a goal to provide results and race calls from tracks coast-to-coast.

Within the company, Berry secured many racetracks that sent in results by fax for the information to be disseminated over a “900” network of telephone lines.

In short order, the “Raceline” became the nation's leader in providing information on racing results with nightly calls growing by “leaps and bounds”.

Later, he was approached by Allen Greenberg to see if he would be interested in conducting auctions aboard cruise ships.

“I agreed to ‘try it for a couple of weeks’ to see if I liked it enough to continue.”

Not only did Berry like the position, he was “auctioneer of the year” the first two years the award was given and broke several records along the way.

During one of the auctions at sea, a representative of WPBT-Channel 2 Public Television approached John with an offer to go on the air during the station’s membership drives.

Accepting the offer, John became one of the hosts of the show and eventually served the station during their on-air auctions. Conducting over 1,800 auctions within his career and raising money for many charitable organizations, libraries, and his beloved Harness Writers Association; the most expensive item sold at one of his auctions was an internet domain name --Sex.net--for $450,000.

Serving as an auctioneer, Berry was absent from the sport for a few years. However, like any true horseman who cannot stray too far from the track, he returned after an offer from Isle of Capri’s director, Jim Patton, and Director of Publicity and Marketing, Steve Wolf, in 2004.

Both directors persuaded Berry to return to the track, to work in publicity, serving as a “point man” for the upcoming referendum on allowing casinos to be built in Broward County.

“Steve (Wolf) came up with an ingenious plan to canvas the area to try and secure support for the casino referendum,” Berry said. “which had failed in two previous attempts.

“Well, we got it done and it was quite a scene as we broke ground and, here we are, with a now well established casino that has a 10-year history and racing is still flourishing in South Florida.”

Today, Berry, now approaching his mid-70’s, continues to perform several duties at the track---a “three-of-all-trades” ---as he says.

He particularly enjoys handicapping for his many followers and looks for “value” in his selections. “Hardly a man in now alive,” he says, “who paid his mortgage at 3 to 5!”

One of his most memorable recollections from the handicapping floor comes from the time he predicted a dead-heat during a seminar at The Meadowlands in 1980.

Other moments being earning his PHD--Professional Handicapping Degree-- from Tele-Track in 1983 after a six-for-six night there, selecting a “cold” pentafecta at Pompano Park this season, and a string of recent longshot winners in his nightly Pickin’ Berrys handicapping column, one as high as 50 to 1.

“The prediction of a dead-heat was as much luck and handicapping skill---something like Babe Ruth predicting his home run at Wrigley Field.

“I couldn't separate numbers six and seven and just happened to blurt out, ‘to tell you the truth, I cannot separate these two horses, so I think it'll wind up to be a dead-heat and it was!”

Aside from picking his most memorable handicapping memory, John claims the most memorable race he has ever seen was on March 17, 1962 at Maywood Park in Chicago.

“I've seen a lot, yes, from Su Mac Lad to Bret Hanover to Albatross to Niatross to Nihalator, to the stars of today but [this] was my most memorable race.”

John describes the temperatures to have been wavering in the 30’s mixed with snow, sleet, and rain.

“The track had turned into a quagmire,” John explained. “There was a horse named Scotsman, driven by Ken Lighthill, who won in 3:38 ⅗… yes, 3:38 ⅗, which was the slowest winning pari-mutuel mile in history.

“It's a record that will ever be broken and it, indeed, is the most memorable race I have ever seen.”

John has gotten some well-deserved accolades when in the announcer's booth, too, subbing for Gabe Prewitt when called upon.

Racing fan Rich Stern from Chicago lamented, “I love his race calls. They are clear and concise and he's added some nice terms like ‘double-bubbled’ when a horse is three wide.

“He gives those behind the scenes nice credit, too. I like that!”

His meticulous morning lines have also drawn praise and he was the first and only Morning Line maker to make all horses the same odds--7 to 2--in a six-horse field last season at Pompano Park.

The horses had all been around the same time, been beaten about the same number of lengths and were so evenly matched that they all deserved consideration.

“I decided to make them all the same in the morning line and that race got huge attention from the media because of it!”

Clearly, John Berry has a knack for talent as well as talent himself, in the harness racing world.

As a publicity man, fill-in announcer, and writer among many other hats that Berry wears, he covers all bases of harness racing.

“He is the equivalent of an encyclopedia of harness racing, a true gentleman,” Standardbred owner and trainer, John Hallett, conveys.

Outside of racing, as mentioned before, John was a champion bowler, including capturing the Illinois State Bowling Singles in 1970 by averaging 246 for the tournament. And he is one of few who have ever bowled a perfect 300 game.

He lives with his “bride of many years,” Abby and their Quaker Parrot, Pistachio, who, as he says, “brings us joy beyond belief.”

Berry has had a lot of “firsts” during his career and plans on helping the sport he loves and its participants as long as possible.

Today, John splits his time helping publicize the sport for the Florida Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association in the am and doing the late shift in Pompano Park's racing operations office in the afternoon and night.

Many horsemen know and recognize John Berry for his talent as a writer and his character as a horseman.

“I've known John for many years. He's a nice guy and fun to be around. Working with him sure makes the day go by faster,” iterates Rosie Huff, who works with Berry at the FSBOA office.

Berry related, “at the FSBOA, I am lucky enough to work with Rosie Huff, one of the most dedicated individuals with whom I have ever worked. At Pompano, I am honored to work alongside someone as great as Gabe Prewitt, who has an enthusiasm for the sport like no other.

“We enjoy and respect each other's talent and company. “You could call it a ‘pari-mutuel’ admiration society!”

If there is anyone that the sport of harness racing needs to clone to help promote the industry, they should look no further than John Berry.

By Jessica Hallett, for Harnesslink  

Jessica Hallett is a new correspondent for Harnesslink. Jessica, 17, lives in Margate, Florida and is currently a senior at Deerfield Beach High School. She is the daughter of Pompano Park owner/trainers John and Michelle Hallett.

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