Racing in the blood
With Mall Dini and Presenting Percy, Philip Reynolds has two serious chances at this year's Festival. He tells Michael Verney about his '20-year overnight success' and trying to stay under the racing radar
A lot of people lay claim to having been born into racing but christened with a first name which means 'friend or lover of horses', it was probably always destined that Philip Reynolds would be immersed in the equine industry.
Eldest son of the late Taoiseach Albert, his father passed down the grá for horses, with "everything designed around race meetings" when he was growing up and summer holidays in Galway always resulted in the annual trip to Ballybrit.
Politicians get little downtime but whenever his father was free, there was a racecourse to be attended and Albert always dropped into Philip and his younger brother Albert Jr on both legs of the journey to the Listowel races during their schooling in Cistercian College, Roscrea, County Tipperary.
"He'd call on his way down and his way back and sure we couldn't wait when we got out of school to go to Listowel and see what was going on down there. There's no doubt that's where we got it from and my brother is every bit as bad, if not worse than I am in terms of racing," a smiling Reynolds says.
Reynolds took the reins of the family business C&D Foods - a Longford-based pet food manufacturer - at the age of 25 in 1990 but horses have always been an integral part of his life, having been involved in hunting, showjumping and breeding.
It was a while before the racing bug bit and his time as an owner came and "his overnight 20-year success story" only reached the public consciousness when the unheralded Mall Dini stayed on stoutly up the Cheltenham Hill to claim the Pertemps Handicap Hurdle at the Festival two years ago.
So remote were his chances, Philip's wife Ann had already checked into Birmingham Airport on her way home. "She was watching it on her laptop and when the horse won, she went to the people at the ticket desk to tell them that she'd have to get back out and go back," Reynolds recalls from his offices in Edgeworthstown, County Longford.
"She was in such a flap that they thought she was having a panic attack. They asked her to sit down and relax and she was trying to explain to them, 'there's nothing wrong with me other than the fact that my husband is just after winning a race at Cheltenham'."
By the time Reynolds had left the racecourse and made his way to their favourite Greek restaurant in Chipping Campden (Michael's Mediterranean), Ann and two of his sisters, who had flown in from Dublin after the race, were already there to cap "a crazy day" as his dream of having a Festival winner was realised.
Philip had worked with Galway trainer Pat Kelly nearly 20 years ago, most notably with a horse called Sovereign Parade, but the alliance ran its course until a chance meeting in Mallow's parade ring a few years back eventually resulted in the purchase of Mall Dini from Tom Costello Jnr.
For the same partnership to produce Presenting Percy to win the same race 12 months later is "total madness" and now the two Cheltenham victors return to the Cotswolds next week as fancied runners with Mall Dini set for the Kim Muir while 'Percy' is RSA Chase favourite.
The remarkable change in fortune is not lost on Reynolds.
"I'm a long time owning horses and the dream is that you'd get one good enough to bring to Cheltenham, let alone to come home a winner. I had a couple of runners before, the first one surprised everyone so much that the trainer, who I won't mention, forgot to bring my silks so he didn't even run in my colours," he says.
"To win the same race two years in a row with the same trainer, the same jockey and a different horse is just mind-blowing stuff to be honest. But I'd prefer to be going with an outsider and come home with a winner than going with two live chances this year and come home with nothing. I'd prefer to be going in under the radar."
Kelly is notoriously difficult with the media as he adopts the 'tell 'em nothing' approach but having also trained two Galway Hurdle winners in the '90s - Natalies Fancy in '92 and No Tag three years later - his genius is obvious even if little is known about him.
"Pat is in racing a long, long time and when you do get to talk to him, and thankfully he does to me quite regularly, he would tell you about the time he spent with old Tom Costello and watching how he'd bring horses along. That's Pat; he looks at every horse as a work in progress and is extremely patient with them," Reynolds says. "I suppose he's accused of not training the orthodox way but that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with it. Pat would explain exactly why he's going one route as opposed to the other route, and just because convention says that's not the way everyone else would go, doesn't mean there's anything wrong with that.
"From the day Mall Dini won the Pertemps he told me that he had a horse every bit as capable of winning it the following year (Presenting Percy) and he could blow my mind with where he tells me Presenting Percy will end up and I wouldn't doubt him, he definitely has a way with horses that I haven't seen before.
"That's just what he does, he lives with them, he understands them, he knows them as individuals. He talks to me about the way Mall Dini will look over at him when he's running around in the schooling yard whereas 'Percy' will put the head down and keep going, He can talk to you about them as if they're human beings."
With just 15 horses in his Craughwell, County Galway yard, Reynolds believes Kelly has "no aspirations to be a Gordon Elliott or a Willie Mullins" as he's content to maximise his current resources with another couple of nice horses ready to flourish when the spring ground comes.
All of Reynolds' string return to his Mullingar base for their summer break and another resident of the Westmeath town, Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary, will also makes the trip across the Irish Sea next week, although his Gigginstown House Stud battalion dwarfs the Reynolds duo.
They are "all equal at the starting line", however, and in Presenting Percy, Reynolds has one of the most exciting novice chasers in training, with many in the know - including racing legend Ted Walsh - predicting that he could be a future Gold Cup horse.
A week is a long time in racing, however, and Reynolds is well aware that notions of a blue-riband runner are just that.
"People are talking to me about 'Percy' and next week but I try to tell them to cool the jets. There has been a runner or two every day dropping away so to be thinking beyond next week would be stupid. It's a dream that some day you might have a horse good enough to line up in a Gold Cup but, God, I haven't thought that far.
"I've often said 'he could be a Gold Cup horse' about such a horse but so much has to go right and they have to stay sound. From my own experiences there's always 35-40pc of horses on the easy list so to think about a Gold Cup horse and you lining up in a novice chase is losing the run of yourself."
One thing O'Leary and Reynolds do have in common - apart from running thriving businesses - is the use of jockey Davy Russell, who has played his usually shrewd and calculated part aboard both Mall Dini and Presenting Percy in their Festival wins.
Having been "shocked and disappointed" after losing his status as retained rider for O'Leary to Bryan Cooper four years ago, Russell has knuckled down to rebuild his career, with the 38-year-old Cork pilot now set to be crowned Ireland's top jockey, having ridden more than 100 winners already this season.
Reynolds is thrilled to have Russell play such an integral part of his team, believing him to be "a genius" around the undulations of Cheltenham, where he has amassed 18 winners and had at least one win at each of the last 12 Festivals.
"Davy took his punishment and moved on; another fella could have lost the rag. The fact that he was able to take the disappointment of losing a prestigious job like that in the autumn of his career as a jockey, you have to admire the fact that he was able to bite his lip," he says.
"I'm sure it killed him inside but he moved on and that's what I admired most about him. Another lad might have left that relationship in such a place that he would never put on their silks again, that's not the way Davy left it.
"That's a huge testament to the man that he could deal with it professionally. It's a long road without a turn and now he is bearing the fruits of it.
"I've huge time for him and I hope he wins the jockeys' title again. He's some example to young jockeys and to not be retained by one of the big owners. That's how you carry on your career."
Speaking of carrying on, Reynolds will be keen to continue his Festival fever next week and watch his green and white silks be steered to success for the third year in succession. What a story that would be.