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End of an era as Ballymacoll enters the home straight

Chris McGrath talks to manager Peter Reynolds about breaking up the stud

Troy and North Light were raised in these paddocks in County Meath
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Pale blue, yellow and white cap. It has always been an understated livery, and so it is with the matching paint here and there around Ballymacoll: the lodge, the gateposts, the stableyard clock. Instead it falls to the Irish spring, provoked from its habitual watercolours, to draw out the latent splendour of the opportunity awaiting someone here. Under an azure sky, and trees in pristine new leaf, the pasture gleams in great lakes of silver light.

Ah, but that clock - that clock, dozing among the ivy over an archway. The scene may be timeless, all these mares and skittering foals in their paddocks, but the clock keeps turning. And it now decrees this to be the very last cycle. This autumn, all 52 horses on the roster will go under the hammer - even the venerable Islington. Long before then, moreover, the land itself will have a new owner. The week after Royal Ascot, the Weinstock family will auction the birthplace of Arkle at the Shelbourne Hotel, just a few miles up the road in downtown Dublin.

Peter Reynolds did not want it to end quite this way. "I was hoping we could find someone to take it on lock, stock and barrel," he laments. "The way the place was bought in 1960. I wanted someone to say: 'We'll take the 52 horses as well. The ones we don't want, we'll sell, but we'll keep the rest.' And we did get close, a few times. But sadly we couldn't quite get it done."

The archway into the main stableyard
The stud manager has been here 46 years, presiding over the vast majority of the 30 individual Group 1 winners whose family trees are about to be broken up. When he arrived, Ballymacoll had four two-year-old colts in training. Two, Sun Prince and Sallust, would go on to win the St James’s Palace and Sussex Stakes respectively. The horses bred and raised here since run a seam not just through the pedigrees of the farm’s current stock, but across the memories of two generations of the racing public.

You need only consider a list of Ballymacoll runners in the Arc produced by the wry and lively Reynolds. It includes three seconds and three thirds - and could even be extended by the triple runner-up, Youmzain, who started life here for neighbour Frank Dunne.

"Here's my record," Reynolds says. "We tried desperately to win the race. It's a sad reflection. Two Derby winners stuffed. A St Leger winner stuffed. Pilsudski was exceptional. He could do no wrong. He just couldn't win the Arc. And I sold his dam before he came along, because she looked a mare that wasn't working out. I sold the dam of Snow Ridge, as well. So I haven’t succeeded in selling the place as one bloc; I haven’t won an Arc; and I’ve sold all the best mares. I must be the worst judge in the world.”

This kind of self-deprecation, characteristic as it is, will find little endorsement elsewhere. If Reynolds feels that the Ballymacoll roll of honour does not amount to par, then how many others in the business could do with a little more failure?


BALLYMACOLL HIGHLIGHTS

55 Group 1 wins include:

DERBY - Troy (1979) North Light (2004)
OAKS - Sun Princess (1983)
2,000 GUINEAS - Golan (2001)
ST LEGER - Sun Princess (1983) Conduit (2008)
KING GEORGE - Troy (1972) Golan (2002)
BREEDERS CUP TURF - Pilsudski (1996) Conduit (2008) Conduit (2009)
FILLY & MARE TURF - Islington (2003)
IRISH 2,000 GUINEAS - Spectrum (1995)
IRISH DERBY - Troy (1979)
IRISH OAKS - Helen Street (1985)
JAPAN CUP - Pilsudski (1997)
CORONATION CUP - Saddlers’ Hall (1992)
CHAMPION STAKES - Reform (1967) Spectrum (1995) Pilsudski (1997)
DEWHURST - Dart Board (1966) Prince Of Dance (1988)
YORKSHIRE OAKS - Sun Princess (1983) Hellenic (1990) Islington (2002 & 2003)
SUSSEX - Reform (1967) Sallust (1972)
ECLIPSE - Pilsudski (1997)


Now, of course, they have a chance to buy into the Ballymacoll heritage themselves. And however poignant the break-up of the stud, at least its bloodlines will have the chance of regeneration elsewhere. For the past 16 years, after all, Reynolds has had to operate to a very different brief - as when cashing in Islington's filly by Gone West in 2006, $2.4 million representing a record for a weanling filly; or making the odd private sale, like Fiorente before he won the 2013 Melbourne Cup.

"When the old man died, the executors said to me: 'Well, Peter, continue running the place as long as you like - but don't ask for any money. Run it as you see fit, and when you want to retire, that's fine.' And I've kind of run out of retirements. The grandchildren own the place, basically, and it just couldn’t carry on this way forever. It would want a serious injection of cash, and to change the policy around maybe. So at the end of the year I retire."

Peter Reynolds: 'It couldn't just carry on this way forever'
It is hard to believe that he will be 72 in a few days' time; still easy, in fact, to picture him as a young man nervously introducing himself to Sir Arnold Weinstock, as he was then, along with his father-in-law Sir Michael Sobell in the parade ring at Goodwood. Reynolds' future wife Wendy Smith, whose father Doug had ridden for Sobell, had to point out the great industrialist.

"Didn't look a horseman, I must say," he remembers. "I think a lot of it was to do with the fact [Weinstock’s son] Simon was so keen. 'Go over there and sort them out,' he said. 'They're robbing me.' One day we'd had a major bill for hay, and he wrote across the top: 'Peter - I want to buy the hay, not the man's haybarns as well'."

Reynolds' father had been a Turf Club clerk of the scales, there had always been horses around at home, and he had spent in seven seasons at Egerton Stud. "But for the Newmarket jobs, in those days, you had to be blond - for a start," he says. "Second, you had to be ex-army. But then you did one stud season, and you were in. Oh, and you're English, of course. So I had no chance."

Charlie Rogers had managed Ballymacoll during the Dorothy Paget era - in a characteristic eccentricity, she never visited the place once in 14 years - but he was now retiring, and his replacement was only coming in once a week. That left plenty for Reynolds to be getting on with. Ballymacoll was badly in need of smartening up, and he had only been there 18 months or so when the new manager abruptly died. Weinstock rang Dick Hern. "Is Reynolds good enough?" he asked. The rest is Turf history.

Not that things were always easy. Reynolds admits his boss to have been "a desperate man for saying the most outrageous things." On one occasion he announced that the French horses that had just denied him an Arc were palpably full of drugs. As a stewards' inquiry dragged on after the Coronation Cup, Weinstock growled that he would move his entire string to France if Saddlers' Hall were disqualified. Nobody knew how seriously he meant it, but they did know not to make any assumptions one way or the other.

The gateposts and lodge are painted to match the discreet racing livery
Reynolds knew to expect a call early evening, his boss barking into a speakerphone. "He'd have done his day's work then and was ready to talk horses," he recalls. "He'd have me racking my brains as he asked about this mare or that relation. But he sold Helen Street [dam of Street Cry; granddam of Shamardal] so if he ever gave out to me…

"Stoute rang him up one day. And the boss said [he deepens his voice sternly]: 'Name?' 'Michael Stoute.' 'Hmm. I used to have a trainer of that name.' It comes with power and money, I think. But Willie Carson and he used to have a great rapport."

No wealth, nor any carapace, could preserve Weinstock from the harrowing grief of Simon’s death, in 1996, aged just 44. "Simon was very enthusiastic about what was going on here," Reynolds says. "But he was an incredibly shy person. He'd come here on his annual visit, we'd get through an hour ahead of schedule for getting back to the airport - and he'd sit there and wouldn’t say a word. People like that tend to be thought of as rude. But they're not, they're just shy.

"It was a terribly sad time, after Simon died. Nobody was there with Pilsudski when he won in Toronto. I said to the boss: 'I suppose you'll sell the place now.' Sheikh Maktoum was next door at that stage, at Woodpark, and I knew he wanted the place. But he said: 'No. Simon wouldn't like it'."

And so the roots of the Ballymacoll family trees were allowed to reach ever deeper. Two of the 130 horses originally bought from the Paget estate - along with the farm, for £250,000 - were Country House and Sunny Gulf. The latter was dead, before Reynolds arrived, and the former was a plain old mare, by then difficult to get in foal. But every mare going to Tattersalls this autumn traces directly to one or the other.

Do the parallel families have any shared trademark? "They're tough," Reynolds explains. "They're not really precocious, but it's not that they're just stayers. It's a longevity they have. If you look at the stud book I had 20 years ago, you'd see another ten families. Lord Weinstock used to love buying French fillies and mares. But they're all gone, they've all petered out."


AND THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY:
BALLYMACOLL ARC RUNNERS

2009 Conduit (4th)
2004 North Light (5th)
2002 Islington (5th)
2001 Golan (4th)
1999 Greek Dancer (6th)
1997 Pilsudski (2nd)
1996 Pilsudski (2nd)
1992 Saddlers’ Hall (15th)
1991 Hellenic (8th)
1988 Emmson (8th)
1983 Sun Princess (2nd)
1980 Ela Mana Mou (3rd)
1979 Troy (3rd)
1972 Homeric (3rd)
1967 Dart Board (11th)


Now these genes can reseed studs all round the world. Some will doubtless fall on fallow ground, but perhaps their introduction to a different gene pool - in Kentucky, say, or Japan - will produce a great champion, somewhere in the world, in 20 years' time. Because these two families have proved so robust, moreover, purchasers will always have other horses working for them.

Just this week at York, for instance, the Sunny Gulf line has been embellished by two mares offloaded since Lord Weinstock’s death: Serres was carrying Serenada, who made the frame in the Musidora, when sold to Hesmonds Stud; while Wardstown Stud bred Middleton Stakes winner Blond Me from Holda, who is out of a half-sister to Serres.

"For every page, there will be so much happening," Reynolds says. "And because they're going to to be spread all over the place, different people are going to be trying different things. We seem to have an awful lot of fillies, especially through daughters of Hellenic. And anybody buying one has a serious chance of getting a decent foundation mare. You do see some total mare collections bought by one person and then get lost. As it is, even if you buy 'the wrong nut' a half-sister might be blooming somewhere else, so you mightn't be badly out. Unless there's a total crop failure. And I doubt that."

Nonetheless it is hard to suppress a touch of wistfulness on behalf of Reynolds and the rest of the Ballymacoll staff. It is, unmistakably, the end of an era. This has been his home, after all, the place where he has raised his own children as well as his patrons' horses. On the other hand, he will keep himself busy - stewarding, licensing, the odd mare of his own - and will never be short of friends in the game, or requests for counsel. Here, after all, is a man who has nursed many champions from their foaling straw.

"Watching them over the years, it's not necessarily the first man up to the feed pot," he says. "Troy, you wouldn't know he was in the paddock. Because he's the one that doesn't get into trouble. It's the ones that come in with a splinter or a cut leg or a kick that usually turn out to be the same in a race, things go wrong, they find trouble, they come in with their feet hurting. It's the fellow who avoids all that, who just cruises, that was Troy."

The Ballymacoll template would seem to guarantee that there will be some improvers among those destined for the Tattersalls Horse-in-Training Sale. Reynolds seems particularly taken with Pivoine, while Abingdon looks guaranteed to build on her progress last year. 

"I think I've made another mistake in selling the dam of Pivoine," Reynolds says. "But I won't be selling anything now, before they go into the ring. I want to keep the package as vibrant as I can, and for this to be considered a proper dispersal, where everything's for sale and there is no reserve. It can be particularly difficult to convince Irish people of that! We sold five at Goffs early in the year, and sold well. But friends were saying: 'No reserve? Surely there's some reserve?' And I said: 'No, that's it'."

It is long odds, of course, against even a slow-burning Ballymacoll horse salvaging the Arc now. "We're still trying," Reynolds shrugs. "Though we're very much running out of time now. But I'm not depressed about what's happening. I've accepted it. It's been a fantastic innings."

 

I was hoping we could find someone to take it on lock, stock and barrel - the way the place was bought in 1960
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