Philip Reynolds spent the first half of his life as Albert Reynolds' young fella and thinks he might just spend the second as Presenting Percy's owner. With Pat Kelly, the 'genius' underdog battling the big guns, so reluctant to speak, it is left to the politician's son to tell the story of the horse who has captured the imagination of the racing public, writes
Seabiscuit: An American Legend
You could probably build a loose consensus among fans of horse racing that the first truly great movie about their favourite sport has yet to be made. There have been a few valiant attempts.
The recent treatment of the career of Secretariat wasn’t too bad and the film Champions was a reasonable attempt to tell the heroic tale of Bob Champion and Aldiniti’s recovery from cancer and injury to win the Grand National in 1981.
The challenge for directors has always been how to film the sheer complexity of the cut and thrust, the muck and sweat of the horse race that inevitably forms the climax of the story. The 2003 film, Seabiscuit, came closest to getting it right.
Adapted from Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling novel Seabiscuit, An American Legend and set in recession ravaged California of the 1930s, the final act has Tobey Maguire, playing the jockey Red Pollard, returning to ride Seabiscuit after an emotional recovery from a crippling injury that almost cost him his life.
Tobey has trouble readjusting to race riding and costs Seabiscuit about 20 lengths at the start of his final race, the Santa Anita Handicap. Just as all seems lost, he rallies his old warrior, who then cuts through the traffic of a crowded field to grab victory in the shadow of the post. But there’s a problem.
While making his decisive move Pollard slows on the back straight to partake in a motivational conversation with another jockey, George Woolf played by Gary Stevens, before haring off in pursuit of immortal glory. The was just something too unreal about watching Spiderman get a pep talk from Henry Cecil’s old stable jockey in the white heat of battle in one of America’s richest races.
For instance, everybody knows that Davy Russell is quite a nice guy, but even he won’t pause to wish Harry Cobden the best of luck if Clan Des Obeaux joins Presenting Percy on the run to the last in the Gold Cup on Friday. But this is probably nit-picking. It’s a decent celluloid treatment of a very good book. But what makes the story great is not really the horse — it’s the people that surround him that brings the tale to life.
The entrepreneurial owner Charles Howard desperately trying to escape from the grief of his son’s tragic early death. The half-blind Pollard resurrecting his career following a catastrophic leg injury. The incommunicative trainer, Tom Smith, known to all as ‘Silent Tom’ because of his aversion to most types of conversation. All united together through their belief in a troublesome horse and cheered on in their battles against wealthy monopolistic stables by a country fast emerging from a ravishing depression and badly in need of folk heroes.
D-Day. Minus Ten
Let’s get the first stretched comparison out of the way quickly. Presenting Percy has never been a troublesome horse. Anything but. It’s a week and half before his date with destiny in Friday’s Gold Cup and his owner, Philip Reynolds, an annoyingly fit looking fifty-something, is reflecting on the history of his beloved animal and how he came into his life. It all starts several years ago with Pat Kelly and his small training yard near Athenry in Galway.Silent Pat.
“A sister of mine was going out with the jockey Jason Titley at the time and Jason introduced me to Pat,” he recalls. “We got on well and bought a horse out of Nicky Henderson’s yard at the Doncaster Sales called Sovereign Parade. We immediately put him away for a big job at Galway. Everything was put away for a big job at Galway back in those days. Pat got him ready for the Albatross chase on the Tuesday and we backed him in from 16/1 to 7/2. I still slag Jason to this day that he had the race at his mercy when he fell off at the second in the dip. But that is how I first met Pat.”
If there was a machine that measured the intensity of the glint of an eye, it would record that Reynolds would now have moved from about level two to three. Spoiler alert: by the time he gets to discussing Presenting Percy chances of winning the Gold Cup on Friday it will push through eight on a scale of one to ten.
He visibly warms as he continues the tale of the unlikely partnership between the talkative son of a Taoiseach and a West of Ireland trainer who likes nothing more than to keep his own counsel.
“Years later, well after Sovereign Parade, both Pat and I had a runner at Mallow, or Cork as it’s now known. I hadn’t seen him racing in years, so I said hello and suggested we get a horse for old time’s sake. He told me he’d ring me.”
Reynolds pauses for a reflective chuckle and then continues. “It took him two years to make that call. You see, that’s typical Pat because if you said that to any other trainer, they would have taken two minutes to ring me back. He tells me that he found three horses for me to look at and that if I liked any of them, that he’d train him for me. We went down to Tom Costello’s in Clare to look them over. The one we bought that day was a four-year old by Milan who went on to called be Mall Dini. We went back a year later and bought Percy.”
Mall Dini. The horse that transformed 20 years of Philip Reynolds’ risk, money and patience into overnight success. The eye glint machine moves on to level four as he recalls the story of how his new horse came to be named.
“You see the horse was by Milan and my young fella loved Paolo Maldini the Italian full-back, so I tried to register the name Maldini. But Wetherby’s wouldn’t give it to me so I told them that couldn’t be right because Maldini was a Gaelic name. I told them it was the Irish for slow (mall) people (daoine). So off they went to check and came back a couple of days later and apologised, they said that they hadn’t realised it was two words and I said, ‘yeah that’s it’ and so we had the name.”
The Milan full back famously won the Pertemps Hurdle at the festival three years ago and equally famously set off noisy celebrations among the extended family and friends of Philip Reynolds that might yet still echo around the unsaddling enclosure.
Always a talented hurdler, Mall Dini was given a Davy Russell Cheltenham special, creeping around towards the rear, making progress three out, produced to lead after the last and holding on by three-quarters of a length from Paul Nicholls Arpege D’alene. While Philip Reynolds happily recounted the story of the conquest to every hungry post-race microphone, Pat Kelly quietly observed the culmination of his life’s labour from afar and left the talking to others.
When Philip Reynolds speaks of Pat Kelly the word genius drops regularly into the conversation. Asked to explain his choice of that term, to outline what he thinks differentiates Kelly and makes him unique, there is an unusual pause. Consideration is deep, words are carefully chosen but when they come, they come with genuine passion. Glint equals five.
“I have horses in a lot of places,” he explains. “I see the set-ups, how other trainers train horses these days and then I look at Pat. He doesn’t have a big yard or many good horses. In fact, I have betterfacilities at home for a few show jumpers and ponies than Pat has for training racehorses and I’m not kidding you when I say that. He has the use of what used to be a point-to-point field just outside Athenry, which is probably five or six miles from the yard.
“He has Percy and the next best is Mall Dini. If you go to any of the big yards, Mullins, Meade, Elliot, De Bromhead, they would have dozens of yardsticks like Mall Dini and they can earmark easily where a horse is in their ability and preparation. Pat doesn’t have that luxury.
“Secondly, he doesn’t have any of the technology the other yards use now, in fact, he doesn’t even have a smart phone. The words Pat Kelly and technology don’t belong in the same sentence. There is no GPS system, there’s no heart monitors, he does everything by stop watch. I mean literally a stop watch. He’ll time them from that hole in the hedge to that other hole in the other hedge and if it’s anything less than 50 seconds then we are in business.”
His sense of genuine respect and admiration grows more palpable as he continues.
“To be able to survive today against the big yards, without a fleet of horses, without having embraced the technology, and to still be able to produce a horse like Mall Dini to win and be placed twice at Cheltenham, to be able to produce Presenting Percy to win twice, that’s why I think he is a genius.”
So, does he see himself and Kelly two sides of the same coin, a happy blend of Yin and Yang that helps drive public enthusiasm for the partnership?
“Well if Pat is Yin,” he explains, “then it has certainly has nothing to do with Yang. It’s the small man, David versus Goliath. This week Percy might take on maybe four from Willie Mullins stable, maybe three from Paul Nicholls. It’s the old story of the small man taking on the big guys on the biggest stage of all and that’s what I think has captured people imaginations more than anything.
“As well as that, the horse tries every time he goes to the track and lots of punters speak through their pockets and Percy has been good to people’s pockets. As well as that his jockey, Davy Russell, is a hugely popular jockey an absolute master of his craft.”
The glint machine bleeps as it pushes through six.
Philip Reynolds has spent most of his career in the leading role at C&D Foods, the Longford based pet food company founded by his father before he set off seriously on his political journey.
He recently sold his stake in the company and is presently winding down some open business projects before he cuts the cord completely. He is acutely proud of both his parents’ achievements but naturally dwells mostly on his father who spent more time in the public eye. Albert Reynolds, he claims, spent most of his spare time thinking about and attending race meetings. This is what first drew his son into a love of thoroughbred racing and was also responsible for his first excursion into ownership.
“I bought my first horse about the time Dad was getting out of politics. I thought that if I owned a horse that he’d get more involved again, so I rang Aidan O’Brien who was still training jumpers at the time and asked him to keep an eye out for me. He found a Be My Native gelding called Francis Street and I loved him. In fact, I doubly loved him because dad’s first ever business was based in Francis Street in Dublin — it was a bacon factory.”
High hopes, moderate horses, frustrated dreams — on it went for a couple of decades until he made that critical return visit to Tom Costello’s place. A year after he’d bought Mall Dini he returned with Pat Kelly to look over some more potential purchases. They were both impressed by a four-year-old son of Sir Percy out of a Presenting mare.
“There was just this fabulous looking horse,” says Reynolds. “The way he walked. He was very, very loose from the shoulders down, which is unusual. Pat and I independently concluded that if we were going to buy any of them that day it would be him.”
So began the nervous interval known to anybody who has ever owned even a hair on a horse. The period between the cheque being cashed and finding out if the horse was sound, fast and hopefully even both. Reynolds waited anxiously as his new acquisition galloped between two gaps in a hedge, monitored by a stop watch with just one yardstick to measure his ability. The glint pushes to seven as Reynolds recalls the realisation that in Presenting Percy they’d found a good ’un.
“You never know how good they are really until you get them to the track. I tend to buy stores and take my chances, but you don’t really know until youactually get them on a race track if they are any good or not.”
In Percy’s case this was as early as his first race in a very good bumper at Punchestown.
“He started at 50/1 but Pat really didn’t think that was his price and he was only beaten by Battleford, a very good horse trained by Willie Mullins. I thought that day that Pat was actually disappointedalthough he didn’t say so.”
At least they knew now that they now had a horse and his development was carefully planned. A year after Mall Dini won the Pertemps, Percy was ready to take his chance in the same race. Battle was memorably joined long before he reached the start.
Phil Smith, the British handicapper at the time, hiked Percy’s racing weight by 6lbs in response to a Fairyhouse victory and both Reynolds and jockey Davy Russell were loud and public in their objections. Reynolds looks slightly embarrassed as he recalls the quarrel, especially in the light of what subsequently occurred.
“Look,” he says. “I don’t have enough horses to be laying them out every day for this and that, so they run to their ability. I thought that we were badly treated. Horses should be rated on the ability that they have shown and not on the ability somebody thinks they have. That was the point I was making, but I probably picked a bad example given how he turned out!”
Percy improved even further when switched to fences last season, culminating in a seven-length hammering of the very useful Monalee in the RSA chase. He hasn’t jumped a fence in public since due to ground concerns through the dry winter, his sole run this season being an encouraging win in the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park in January. Reynoldsexplains his reluctance to risk him.
“We’ve waited all year to run him. I don’t know how many more opportunities Pat is going to have a horse going to the Gold Cup — I certainly doubt I’ll have many more opportunities — and we just decided to be ultra-careful.”
However, the dynamic duo recently persuaded the Galway management to reverse the direction of the fences to replicate Cheltenham conditions in a recent racecourse gallop. This was a feat of persuasion that may well come to rival his father’s achievement in driving home the Downing St declaration. Reynolds Jnr is acutely aware of the value of his heritage as he faces into the publicity clamour of owning the Gold Cup favourite in the lead in to the festival and the extra burden of being the connections’ only spokesman.
“It would be better if Pat would speak and give people an insight into how much of a genius he is. I think he’d do a lot better off the back of that, to be honest, but he doesn’t want to. We’re all different and I think we should respect that. He’s a very honourable and loyal man and a man of deep faith. One of the regrets for me, of course, is that dad isn’t around to see the success that we have had,” he says. “He would have got a huge kick out of that. But I’m a politician’s son and can spoof all day long and I’m absolutely delighted with it all to be honest. I was going racing for a long time without anybody knowing who the hell I was. I spent the first half of my life being Albert Reynolds’ young fella and it looks like the second half will be spent as Presenting Percy’s owner.”
In reality, the film about Seabiscuit has few serious parallels with the story of Presenting Percy. Apart from the talkative owner and silent trainer that is. Or the inexpensive horse that achieves way beyond any expectations and gradually becomes the darling of a horse loving nation that is emerging from a deep recession and hoping for fairy tales to bring a ray of light to a drab world.
Of course, both were ridden by jockeys who had emerged as stronger people from career set-backs. In Red Pollard’s case it was a badly broken body, with DavyRussell just the indignity of a famouslyunsweet cup of tea with Michael O’Leary when he was very publicly fired from his number one job riding for Gigginstown five years ago.
The true heart of the Seabiscuit story is how a horse unexpectedly came into the lives of some very broken people and made them whole again. There are no broken people in the Presenting Percy story. Just a good horse that might yet be a great one and some very interesting, diverse and engaging group of individuals who have got him this far.
Philip Reynolds is an experienced businessman who has learned well to practice a calm demeanour. But even he can’t hide the tension and excitement no matter how hard he tries. As he heads off into the longest ten 10 days of his life the eye glint machine has pushed the score well past level eight. And by a quarter to four next Friday the whole damn thing might blow apart.