Donn's Articles » Tony Martin
You probably know the YouTube video by now: Aidan Shiels hugging unsuspecting Channel 7 reporter Neil Kearney, bear-hugging him, wrestling him to the ground.
“I don’t care!” Shiels says.
“This is the Melbourne Cup,” says Kearney.
“I don’t care! I don’t care!” says Shiels. “We came here, we finished second. We would have been happy with last!”
It is the aftermath of the 2016 Melbourne Cup, and Heartbreak City has just finished second in the race that stops a nation and many hearts, beaten a head by Almandin. Heartbreak City is owned by the well-named Here For The Craic Partnership, of which Shiels makes up one-third, and his euphoria quickly becomes a YouTube sensation.
Three months later, and Heartbreak City’s trainer Tony Martin is more circumspect.
“I was gutted.”
You learn about horses gradually, and Tony Martin knows all about Heartbreak City by now. The horse likes to be covered up in his races, he likes to be held up early, come with his run late, he likes passing horses, he has a searing turn of foot that is a potent weapon when it is deployed with precision timing.
“The plan was to hold him up, as usual,” says Martin. “Switch him off, cover him up early, ride him for speed, get a lead to the furlong pole and then ask him to quicken. But it didn’t work out like that unfortunately. We were always just getting there too soon.”
Passing the six-furlong pole, Tony Martin could see it unfolding. Heartbreak City and Joao Moreira were just further forward in the field than ideal. Then, at the top of the home straight, the gaps opened and suddenly his horse was moving towards the front rank. That was two and a half furlongs out, and that was just too early.
“We gave Almandin a lead, whereas it should have been the other way around. He was able to chase us. We should have been chasing him. Our horse battled on well, and the two of us pulled well clear of the rest of the field, but he had us to aim at.”
It was gut-wrenching, to travel so far, to the other side of the world, and to go so close. Martin knew that his horse was well, he had travelled well and he was bouncing. You can never be confident in a race like the Melbourne Cup, but Martin was confident that he had his horse as well as he could have him.
He travelled 10,000 miles to be beaten by inches. No surprise that he was gutted.
It was in August 2013 that Tony Martin first saw Heartbreak City. Cassells Rock and he were running in a claiming race at Deauville, and the trainer like the two of them. Cassells Rock won the race, Heartbreak City finished fifth, and Tony Martin had the pair of them home with him.
“I liked his pedigree and I liked his size,” says the trainer. “I thought that he would take a bit of training and that he would be able to jump a hurdle. I showed him to George (Swan) and George said he’d do him grand.”
It took Martin a little while to get his new acquisition right. The horse was quite jarred up all through his body, and it took a lot of work to get him sorted. He raced in 2013 and 2014, but he never troubled the judge. Then, he finished third in a handicap hurdle at Killarney in July 2015, and Martin started to think that he could be all right.
“I never would have been able to say that he would do what he has done already. Only one or two out of 10 will go the way that he has gone. I did like him though when I got him home and did a little bit with him, I thought he had potential, I thought there would be days in him.”
Heartbreak City went to York’s Ebor meeting in 2015 and won a handicap. It didn’t happen for him in the Cesarewitch at Newmarket or in the November Handicap at Leopardstown – he just saw too much daylight too early – but he got it all together last year, and he soared. He won a handicap at Cork, a maiden hurdle at Tipperary and a handicap hurdle at Galway. Then he went back to York last August and won the Ebor.
Sadly, George Swan passed away last year, but the Here For The Craic Partnership – comprised of Aidan Shiels, Niall Reilly and Charlie Gavigan – rarely miss an opportunity to pay tribute to the horse’s former owner.
“It took us a while to figure Heartbreak City out,” says Martin thoughtfully. “To get him sorted physically and to find out how to ride him. You have to take your time on him, he loves to be ridden for a turn of foot. You saw that again at Galway, he looked in trouble at the last but Donagh Meyler didn’t panic on him and he showed that speed on the run-in.”
Meyler is set to take the ride again when Heartbreak City lines up for the feature race at Leopardstown this afternoon, the Coral.ie Hurdle, and you suspect that he will ride him similarly, slowly slowly, then fast. It worked the last time, the only previous occasion on which the young rider has ridden the Lando gelding in a race. He is intent on maintaining his one hundred per cent record.
“We thought about going for the Irish Leger after the Ebor, before the Melbourne Cup,” says Martin. “But we decided to skip it, keep him fresh for Melbourne. And we did consider skipping Sunday’s race too, keeping him to the flat, going to Dubai. But the boys are National Hunt lads really, and this would be a great race to win.”
The trainer knows what is required to win today’s race, he won it with Xenophon in 2003 and he has had six horses finish placed in it in the last decade. If Heartbreak City can translate his flat form, his Ebor form, his Melbourne Cup form, to hurdles, then he could be a seriously well-handicapped horse.
“It doesn’t always work like that,” says Martin cautiously. “Some horses just can’t cope with the jumping. But we’re hopeful.”
The trainer fields four horses in today’s race, and he gives all of them a chance.
“They are all owned by different people, so they all deserve to take their chance. Golden Spear there, owned by Maurice Regan, you’d love to win it for him. Tudor City, John Breslin, top man, he went close there in the race a couple of times in the last few years with Ted Veale and Quick Jack. And Gladiator King, JP McManus, another top man, you’d love to win a big race like this for him. They all have chances.”
Look out for more YouTube footage.
© The Sunday Times, 22nd Janaury 2017