'The roof had blown off, we were bust and had rats. But we also had an ambitious £6m vision to transform Down Royal and we did it ourselves'
Racecourse boss Mike Todd on his passion for horses and fast cars, getting out of the saddle and behind the wheel at 50, and how next weekend's big Festival of Racing came to pass, Field Of Dreams style
How do you wind down and relax after organising the biggest Festival of top class horse racing this country has ever seen? Simple. You leap into a racing car and hurtle around Kirkistown at breakneck speed.
Mike Todd, the dapper, ever smiling, general manager of Down Royal racecourse, routinely swaps one kind of horsepower for another.
Now 57, he only took up motor racing, aged 50, as an itch that had to be scratched and now he even has a Formula Ford championship on his CV.
It was always his ambition to be a racing driver, growing up in Parkgate, Co Antrim.
Instead it was his family who put their foot down, having lost an uncle, John Magee, who was tragically killed in a double fatality on Kirkistown's darkest day in 1965.
Fate has a funny way shaping one's destiny.
The young adventure seeking Todd found the adrenalin rush he craved in horse riding and racing, sporting pursuits not without their own dangers, but this time with parental approval in a family with a strong equestrian tradition.
Fast forward 40 years and horse racing remains his all consuming passion, albeit with his feet firmly planted on the course.
Totally immersed in the massive logistical task of bringing next weekend's big two-day Down Royal Festival to the boil, he pauses briefly to reflect on the eventful career path that has brought him to this point.
Variously employed as a car salesman and hospital equipment rep, he is now responsible for royally entertaining 12,000 race-goers over two days, next Friday and Saturday; for the wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of the best bloodstock; the comfort and safety of their riders and the demands of the owners and trainers. Oh, and delivering this near £1m extravaganza without any funding whatsoever from outside the racing industry. So no pressure then.
"In a job like this you need a hobby," is how Todd attempts to explain his other sporting life. Gardening, walking, fishing.. those are the antidotes usually prescribed when the brakes are applied in the fast lane. Todd, quite literally, looks for increased acceleration.
"It's like this. All my life I've needed a buzz and I get that from going fast, in one form or another," he says. "I ride horses, I cycle, but I always wanted to race cars. It was a no-no in the family, understandably, in my youth. But when I turned 50 I was going for it. I was determined to do all the things I wanted to do in this decade of my life."
To that extent, Todd has been speedily ticking his boxes in a nippy little Mondial and a Reynard, competing mostly at Kirkistown but also, with a sense of pride, at the iconic motor racing circuits of Spa in Belgium and Zandvoort, Holland.
We chat in the more sedate setting of a Down Royal course, resplendent in the late autumn sun. The stands, hospitality suites, parade ring and course, itself, are immaculate, awaiting next weekend's throng.
It wasn't always like this.
Todd recalls his arrival, 21 years ago, aptly, he thought at the time, on April 1, 1996.
"The roof had blown off the saddling boxes.. we had rats.. the place had fallen into terrible disrepair. We'd been bankrupt, there was no money, the race meetings we were staging were run of the mill, crowds were meagre. I wondered what I'd signed up to."
The Troubles and recession were only partly to blame for the stagnation and neglect Todd walked into that fateful All Fools Day.
A vision and business plan for the future were needed and those were provided by then recently installed course chairman Jim Nicholson, well known in the hospitality industry as owner of the renowned JN Wines at Crossgar, and whose acumen and expertise proved invaluable.
"Jim sold the job to me," Todd says. "He is a passionate, enthusiastic and driven individual. He could see the potential for the course. Quite simply, he saved Down Royal.
"It wasn't easy, starting from zero. He spent years sorting out finances, renegotiating with banks and creditors, building confidence within the racing industry and with the wider business community with whom we had a credibility gap. Rather than approach them with a sense of entitlement, we had to demonstrate that we could give them something of value. Build it and they will come. That was our motto."
And, like in the movie it comes from, Field Of Dreams, that is where the concept of the Down Royal Festival was born.
With Todd on the bridge as the new general manager and public face of the course, and Nicholson heading up a restructured, hard working and hands on committee, slowly, but surely, the Supertanker began performing its three point turn.
"I came on board in 96 with Jim believing we could stage Championship racing at Down Royal by the year 2000," Todd relates. "By 1999, the Festival was up and running. We still hadn't attracted a sponsor for the main feature race so Jim Nicholson stepped in with his company as backer of the JN Wines Champion Chase and he's never been able to extricate himself to this day."
Florida Pearl, bred locally by the still active Patricia Macken at Templepatrick, was the first Festival winner. Since then its success and popularity has grown in tandem with that of the course.
The event is now a go-to fixture on the Northern Ireland sporting calendar. In racing terms, it is seen as a proving ground and pointer towards the Cheltenham Festival the following March.
The legendary Kauto Star, regarded as the most famous Steeplechaser since Arkle, and twice winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, won twice at Down Royal Festival. Likewise Don Cossack. Other horses became crowd favourites, most notably locally owned Beef Or Salmon, who had a hospitality suite named after him, and three times Festival winner Moscow Flyer.
Every leading National Hunt jockey has graced the November Festival, AP McCoy winning on Jezki three years ago ahead of his retirement. The top trainers in England and Ireland, Paul Nicholls, Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliot and Noel Meade among them, send carefully selected horses to test their Cheltenham credentials.
And celebrity owners, like Ryanair boss, Michael O'Leary, have lined the rails, alongside home grown personalities like Carl Frampton, Jimmy Nesbitt and Darren Clarke.
If ever Todd, Nicholson and their industrious committee, which includes UTV presenter Pamela Ballantine, (left) another passionate supporter of the course and the sport of horse racing, were to step back and take stock of the magnitude of their achievements, a Jereboam of Mr Nicholson's finest fizz would be in order.
Over six million pounds has been raised, without any funding whatsoever from outside the horse racing industry, to provide three new stands, three expansive hospitality suites, 20 private boxes and three bars.
But Todd insists: "The work goes on. We have plans to make the Down Royal experience bigger and better. We realise a visit to the course is not just about racing. People come to be entertained. We have our Ladies Day, which is a big draw, and our Best Dressed competition. People love to put on the style. One of the first things we did was to position a jazz band just inside the entrance gate. When people hear music, it puts a smile on their face, gets their feet tapping and creates a good vibe for the day ahead.
"We have people from all walks of life coming back year after year and bringing their friends because the word is out that Down Royal is a great day out."
And all of it self-financing. Down Royal receives not a penny from the public purse.
What to many would be a source of resentment is a matter of pride for the pragmatic Todd, whose metaphorical glass tends not be half full, but invariably overflowing.
"We don't receive any Government funding. That's how it is and we deal with it," he shrugs. "We are non-profit taking. No one gets a dividend. Everything we make is re-invested into the course and the racing. Everything you see here, we did it on our own."
Next weekend's Festival will run with help from the industry body, Horse Racing Ireland, for which Todd is grateful though he points out: "We put in way more than we receive."
The much-vaunted bookmakers levy, a meagre £1123 per bookie, amounting to £320,000 divided annually between Down Royal and Downpatrick, does not even come close to the £1million it will take to stage next week's Festival with prize money alone amounting to nearly half a million. Here again, Todd has no gripe with other major sports here and the grant aid they receive.
In fact, he meets regularly with the organisers of our other big crowd pulling major events and venues to compare notes and discuss mutual concerns and developments that would apply as much to Down Royal as the North West 200, Ulster Grand Prix, SSE Arena, Windsor Park and Kingspan.
"We are all in the entertainment business and a lot of legislation and the like would be applicable to us all," he says.
North West 200 race chief Mervyn Whyte will make his annual visit to the Festival next weekend, well aware of the parallels between their two events; the constant quest for finance to improve facilities and safety, and both run by a small day to day staff, rising to hundreds on race days.
Todd operates out of a modest course office he shares with his assistant manager Molly McCluskey, hospitality manager Susan McCartney and his daughter Caroline on the organisational side.
Track boss Carson Lyons keeps the course in order with a full time staff of five but next Friday and Saturday, over 400 part-timers will be employed to manage and cater for the vast crowds.
Todd puts his managerial skills down to the 'first class' training he received as a salesman with leading car dealers Hursts and Agnews.
He later became head of Unilever's Northern Ireland hospital division and it was the recruitment agency boss who provided him with staff for that job (who also happened to be on the Down Royal committee) who turned the tables on Todd by head hunting him for Down Royal.
"I was 36 and looking for a new direction but at first, I thought: 'Nah, not for me.'
"That all changed when I met Jim Nicholson who convinced me the course had a future and that I could help make a difference."
Todd's qualifications for all he has helped achieve at Down Royal come from the school of life.
He attended Ballyclare High School, where top motorcycle racing photographer and author Stephen Davison was a classmate, and admits: "I was no academic. I trained to be an architectural technician but it bored me.
"Because horses were always in our family, I became an amateur jockey. My mother, Joan, trained horses and my grandfather, Matt Magee, had Skymass, the most successful Northern Ireland trained horse to this day with 24 wins, including four at Down Royal and the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham.
"But I was never going to be Richard Dunwoody and decided I needed to put a bit more effort into my career. My training and experiences at Hursts and Agnews and later Unilever gave me an invaluable insight on modern business which has stood to me at Down Royal."
Todd, who still lives at Parkgate, with wife Donna, has two sons, Nick (34) and Matt (18) as well as middle daughter Caroline.
All are supportive of his work which is just as well this time of year when he lives and breathes Down Royal.
It is his dream job, he agrees, but like all risk sports, there can be a down side when falls inevitably occur.
Here again, Todd looks at the positive. "When Ruby Walsh unfortunately broke a leg here a few years ago, he said if it was going to happen anywhere, he was glad it was Down Royal, because of the medical facilities and response we provide.
"We have three ambulances on course every race day and a team of trauma trained doctors, provided by the private Proparamedics company.
"Only once in my time here has a jockey suffered life-threatening injuries. Had it not been for the first aid he received from our doctors, most likely he would not with us now."
Typically, Todd cannot stay sombre for long.
As he returns to making ready for the influx of riders, owners, trainers, punters, and, of course, the equine stars of next weekend's racing extravaganza, he reminds us: "We are fuelled by passion here. Our sole desire is to provide quality racing and a great value experience for the race-goers."
Bet on him succeeding.
FOR MORE INFO ON DOWN ROYAL FESTIVAL, GO TO www.downroyal.com