Goodbye, Mike

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Mike Berryman died January 24. The veteran horse trainer was 67.

Berryman was everyman. The affable, upbeat, horse trainer made a difference when he showed up at the races. Not in the record books, but more importantly, in our hearts. Berryman brightened your day, it didn’t matter if you were riding a maiden claimer for him or sharing a shed row or passing him in the paddock, he simply made a positive difference. He worked hard, made time for his family and friends and smiled bright. What else is there?

The last time, for me, was at the International Gold Cup in the fall. I hadn’t seen Berryman, once a mainstay from Camden to Camargo, for a while. I walked into the barn and caught that smile, that infectious, beaming, one-of-a-kind smile. It was just like Berryman, without a horse entered, there he was at the barn, with his people, in his element. Sitting on a hay bale, back against a stall partition, Berryman introduced me to a woman friend, we laughed, reminisced, caught up on our lives. I asked him about the music business, he looked at me quizzically. I stammered, explaining that I thought he went into the music business. He laughed, almost scoffed, confused by my confusion. Later, I realized he had been kidding when he told me he was concentrating on his singing career after he retiring from training horses. It was a punch line that lasted four years. In my mind, I still hold the image of Mike picking a banjo at Tootsies Orchid Lounge, singing about road trips over mountain ranges and slow horses over bushes and posts.

I walked away, thinking about riding White Eyed Judge for Berryman at Saratoga, winning on Summer Island at Aiken in the fall, crashing on Willowark at Aiken the following spring. More than the horses, I thought about the soulfulness of the man. I’m glad I stopped and chatted. Life is about stopping and chatting.

As we do when a trainer, a jockey, an owner, a horse for that matter, leaves us, we checked Equibase, looking for statistics.

Berryman won 80 races and just over $1 million in his training career, a career he stepped away from in 2016 (I thought for the music industry). The sport was poorer for his departure.

With Bruce Haynes, another icon gone way too soon, Berryman etched his name into the sport. It was a slow etch, but an etch just the same.

Berryman began with Gala Golightly for Rob Banner’s family. The Maryland-bred son of Cougar II won at Tryon and Strawberry Hill way back in 1983. A decade later, Berryman was banging away, winning eight races in 1992, another eight in 1993, with horses who mostly were on their second or third tours of the sport.

Berryman and Haynes carried the net, picking up the likes of English Reel, Exuberant Speed, Jog On, Doubledarn, horses who were moved to fill orders for others and filled orders for the mileage piling pair from Tennessee. Nobody logged more miles in a shorter amount of time than those two. When you rode for them, you better have hurried back to the barn to check on the horses because they were locked and loaded as soon as the horse was watered off.

Great to ride for, Berryman knew his horses, knew most were limited but never let that interfere or affect his approach or attitude. Eventually, Berryman and his horses were priced out of our sport, unable to shop the local markets at long-gone whistle stops like Oxmoor, St. Louis and St. James. There is a void in our sport.

Berryman was born in Leesburg, Virginia. He was educated at Banneker Elementary and Douglas High School in Virginia and Dobyns Bennett High School and East Tennessee State in Tennessee. The oldest of five children, he is survived by three daughters, seven grandchildren, a family of jockeys whom he gave a start and a sport that will never be the same without him.

After retiring from training horses, Berryman was employed in the health care field as a caretaker for clients with developmental disabilities. Berryman held several positions at Friendship Baptist Church in Johnson City. Mike met and fell in love with Myca Gray. They planned to get married and move back to Virginia. The music career would have to wait!

Funeral services will be held at noon Saturday at Friendship Baptist Church in Johnson City. The family will receive friends from 11 a.m. until noon at the church, prior to the service.