It’s a gamble that has paid off in spades. Initially his sole focus was on the track and almost immediately he enjoyed success, classic success; a few years ago he then turned his hand to coursing and again, almost immediate success.
It’s not just the business, however. Compounding the pleasure and the satisfaction Ian so obviously derives from his new career is the fact that this is a family affair, a family love-affair. His wife and life-partner, Joan, is also his business partner, as are his two children, Leaving Cert student Shannon (18) and Billy (10); all four are equally in thrall to the dogs they train, a fact that becomes obvious within minutes of sitting down to talk at their generous and welcoming kitchen table.
The coursing dogs though have a special place in their hearts. This weekend in Clonmel, only 12 years after Ian first took out his trainer’s license and testimony to his growing expertise, the Reilly clan have five dogs heading to the National Coursing Meeting. It’s been some journey, says Ian.
“My father, Danny, was always into dogs, he was on the Irish Greyhound Board for nine years. He has a printing business, BCR Press, used to print the cards for Shelbourne Park and whenever there was a meeting coming up I’d call into the factory on the way to school and pick up a copy – it developed from there.”
Joan’s father, Pat Lynch from nearby Navan, also had a passion for dogs, a passion she inherited so that from the start they were well matched.
Given the love and the lore of this ancient sport that both had assimilated over the years, given also the fact that the family farm of over 80 acres is quite literally the back-garden of their home at the foot of the Hill of Tara, going into the business was a no-brainer.
“In 2002, our first year, we won the Munster Puppy Cup and ran up the Laurels in Cork with Droopy’s Ruud, that was the first big one. In 2004 Droopy’s Scholes won the English Derby and Droopy’s Cahill won the Consolation Derby and the Puppy Derby. We won two Puppy Derbies in Harold’s Cross, in 2003 and 2004, both worth 50 grand. Those were two great dogs. Then we won the English Oaks in 2005 with Droopy’s Stacy, an outstanding bitch — that really got the show on the road. Those were nearly all Dunphy dogs.”
Ah yes, the Dunphys, the famous Droopys kennels in Waterford. “I knew them through my father, who had bought Droopy’s Vieri, he had him at stud, a really top dog. I met Michael in 2001 and when I got my own training license in 2002 I went to him looking for dogs.”
A fortuitous connection and a profitable connection for both, a connection that will be maintained long into the future. “I’d be nearly best friends with Michael Dunphy at this stage, great pals,” says Ian.
The great Gerry Holian in Galway modestly reckons that the secret to being a good trainer is to have good dogs, but of course you must also have good owners. Ian has the Dunphys to satisfy the former; the latter? “We’re very, very lucky that we have a couple of great owners. Brendan Keogh is living in England for the last 25 years or more, from Kilcullen in Kildare. Gavin Johns is living in Singapore, he’s a trader out there — he’s an English lad, going to retire in three or four years and I think he’ll come to Ireland. They’re both mad coursing men, Gavin especially.”
Which brings us nicely to the coursing, the reason for this piece. Given all his success on the track, a much more predictable and thus more profitable business than coursing, why did Ian and his family turn to the field? Inevitable, he reckons.
“The first coursing dog we had was Needham Time, owned by Brendan — that was 2010. She qualified for Clonmel and was runner-up in the Oaks. I knew I’d get hooked on coursing, had been holding back down the years because of that. The track had been booming but it has gone back a bit in the last few years (with the recession), obviously, but the two owners are mad into coursing, and these (his family) are all mad into coursing. Every time I go through the Lodge Gate in Clonmel, the hair stands on my head. We have the bug now.”
The reason? Young Billy, a Gaelic football fanatic, can’t put his finger on it – “I just prefer it to the track, maybe it’s the day-long excitement, I don’t know really.”
Ian though has the answer. “It’s the adrenaline. What I find is that the adrenalin rush on the track lasts for about 30 seconds — in the coursing it starts on Saturday morning and you’ll come home here on the Sunday evening absolutely wrecked!”
There’s satisfaction of course in having the smallest part in any winning dog, be it even being one among many in a large syndicate. The greatest satisfaction though is when it’s entirely your own work, from breeding, through to owning and then training. Though Ian’s work for this year’s Clonmel meeting is mostly as trainer, even in the short few years in which they’ve been involved in coursing he and his family have already had a teaser, a taste of how it would feel to enjoy ultimate success.
“We got to the Derby quarter-final last year with Phoenix Bruno, our own dog. We’ve started breeding from Needham Time, pups coming from her the whole time which is good and this year we have our own bitch, Phoenix Tango, a reserve in the Champion Bitch Stake. She won in Clonakilty a couple of weeks ago — we think the world of her, I think she’s every bit as good as the mother, Needham Time. Hopefully we’ll have her to breed from for ten years or so.
The same day that Phoenix Tango won in Clonakilty, another of our own dogs, Phoenix Frankel, won the all-aged cup in Sevenhouses so it was a great weekend for us.”
And the other Clonmel hopefuls? “We have two dogs in the Derby; Brendan bought Eshwary Leader off Gary Anderson and Gavin bought Droopy’s Newman off the Dunphys, two top-class dogs.
“Then we have three Oaks bitches. Gavin has Sotogrande, which I sold to him as a pup – she won her Trial Stake in Cavan and I never seen a fella to get as excited, it was just unbelievable. He’s coming back from Singapore for Clonmel, landing in England on the Thursday, straight to here and then down to Clonmel, and he’s bringing eight lads with him.
“Last year he was between jobs over there, had three months off and was to start in February, while Clonmel was on. However, he still came over!
For the previous months though he went to every meeting he could, even meetings where we didn’t have any dogs running. He’d fly in from England for the weekend just for the coursing.
Then we have another two bitches owned by Brendan, Ocean Hannalora and Bower Lucy, who won in Doon. She’s a sister of the Kingsmill Rover dog that’s favourite for the Derby, formerly Droopy’s Rover – the Dunphy connection again!
” If he went on to win the Derby, to have a full sister of his would continue the whole thing on, continue the breeding.”
And of course that’s coursing, that’s the lifeblood – literally – of the sport, the breeding.
It’s not just maintaining and freshening the blood-lines of the dogs, however; it’s also maintaining and freshening the blood-lines of those who handle those dogs and in that respect, in the likes of the Reilly clan – Ian, Joan, Shannon and Billy – coursing is truly blessed.
Nuts, meat, brown bread, soup, vegetables - the usual for maim meal. In the morning a bit of brown bread, Weetabix and honey.
One thing I'd say, especially with coursing dogs, there's no excuse for not having them fit, everyone should be able to go that far anyway.
We'd work the coursing dogs hard enough, walking and galloping. We started the coursing season with ten dogs and we can manage that - I wouldn't want much more, no point saying otherwise. You'd need extra staff then. They're walked every day but we have a walking machine as well and they get both every day. How often we gallop them depends on where we are in the season. Coming up to Clonmel now we'd be cutting back. It depends on the dog.
I'm not really into bloods. If a dog isn't looking well I might have the bloods done but you'd know by the conditioning. If you have a dog and he looks bad and you worm him out and he's still not looking right, if his tonsils or something are at him, then I'd go for bloods, there's obviously something wrong inside.
They get plenty of rubs, any soreness or that you take care of them and any time they're running they get plenty of rubbing.