Jack Berry has never been one to shirk a challenge, so it should come as no surprise that at York this week he will be trying to achieve something unprecedented in the annals of the Turf in Britain. On Thursday, his high-class sprinter Mind Games will attempt to win a Group One race, the Nunthorpe Stakes, after completing a season at stud.
It is rare for a racehorse-turned-stallion to return to his old career. The usual reason for such a step is failure in the breeding shed, either in terms of fertility or patronage, but neither is the case with Mind Games. The five-year-old covered 62 mares (at pounds 3,500 each) at his joint owner Terry Holdcroft's Bearstone Stud in the spring, and successfully impregnated all. But after the business in the bedroom was over, Mind Games became, quite simply, bored.
Instead of being content to spend the summer lounging around his paddock, the big dark bay horse gave a fair imitation of a stressed-out executive taking an alleged holiday. Holdcroft said: "He started pacing up and down, wouldn't eat the grass, wouldn't relax. We put him on the horsewalker to give him something to do, and he immediately became happier. It was as if he said to himself, 'Great, I'm back in the Army', and we began to think seriously about him going back into training."
Berry was absolutely delighted to welcome Mind Games, winner of seven races and more than pounds 200,000 in his three conventional years of training, back to his old box at Moss Side Stables. But there are difficulties in switching a horse from stud to track, both physical and mental. Stallions tend to develop different muscles from racehorses, becoming cresty and thickset, and once they have experienced the task that nature intended they generally find it difficult to keep their minds on any other job.
Mind Games, however, slotted straight back into his old groove. Berry said: "It was extraordinary. As soon as he walked back into the yard he switched off, and the first morning he went back out with the string he was just perfect. He doesn't shout at the ladies, or get nasty with his teeth and front feet like you might expect from a horse who had been covering mares. He's as kind and professional as he ever was."
There is sound business as well as therapeutic sense behind Mind Games' return. Though he mixed it with honour with the best throughout his career - he was inched out in the King's Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot last year after an epic finish with the sprint champion Pivotal - he never won a Group One, and such a victory would do wonders for his value as a stallion.
But to re-expose him to the racecourse is undoubtedly taking a gamble and the very fact that he will be in the Nunthorpe field speaks volumes for his chances. It was a gallop during the week, when he sluiced past some of Berry's other best sprinters like the proverbial hot knife through butter, with two stone of lead in Darryll Holland's saddlecloth, that ensured his trip to York.
Berry reasoned: "It's not a vintage year for sprinters, there isn't a Dayjur or a Lochsong about, and at his best this horse is top class. And he does seem to be as good as ever. After that gallop Darryll said he had never been so fast in his life."
The omens for Mind Games are at least not inauspicious. The two best- known recent comebacks in Britain have concerned Environment Friend, who was beaten inches in the Coronation Cup four years ago after his first season at stud, and Radetzky, who won the 1978 Queen Anne Stakes after covering eight mares that spring.
Further afield, Carry Back, Bold Bidder, Fleet Nasrullah and The Pie King all showed good-class form in the States after stints as stallions at various times in the Fifties and Sixties. And in Australia in the Seventies, Raffindale returned to action to win a top-level handicap and run second in the WS Cox Plate.
There will be much of interest at York this week: the re-match between Bosra Sham and Benny The Dip, with Desert King and Singspiel thrown in for good measure, in the Juddmonte International; Reams Of Verse's bid for star status against the cream of the fillies in the Yorkshire Oaks; and the reappearance of Silver Patriarch in the Great Voltigeur Stakes.
But if Mind Games gives Berry - who is, though he trains in Lancashire, a Yorkshireman - his longed-for and much deserved first Group One win, the partisan and knowledgeable Knavesmire crowd will show their appreciation in no uncertain terms. And it would be entirely appropriate if the trainer, who has flown by the seat of his pants all his life, could crown his career in the face of convention.
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