Donn's Articles » Tony Martin

Tony Martin

Tony Martin is standing beside his gallop at Arodstown, just outside Summerhill in County Meath, the Royal County stretching out beneath him as far as the horizon like a green baize, the sand gallop a four-and-a-half-furlong strip of apparent insignificance, a mere hair on the plush green carpet. If Martin chose to, he would be able to point out Mick Lyons’s place to his right, Kevin Foley’s place to his left. Martin played football with and against most members of that Meath team of the late 1980s, his vintage, All-Ireland champions of 1987 and 1988. He was too small to make it as an inter-county footballer, but he played to a high standard at club level and he did represent his county with a hurl in his hand.

For now, football and hurling are far from the trainer’s mind as his attention is honed on the sliver of sand that meanders its way up the hill towards us and the horses thereon. He pulls his cap down further over his ears as the first three approach, Royal County Star in front, Irish Grand National favourite, Robbie Colgan up, Newbay Prop next, then Patsy Hall, all swinging along at a fair pace, nothing too strenuous but enough to blow the cobwebs away if the wind (it has to register at least seven on the Beaufort Scale up here) does not.

He talks as the horses move away from us up the hill towards the white stick that represents the finishing post, half to himself, half for your benefit. “Royal County’s in fine form, he moves well, all set for Monday. Patsy’s a bull of a horse, isn’t he? He’s almost fully recovered after his exertions at Cheltenham. He’s very well.”

Also present this morning is Chris Byrne, owner of Patsy Hall, vice chairman of Drogheda United Football Club, complete with sky blue shirt, maroon tie. He seems happy, Martin seems happy. The trainer strides up the hill to meet the lads at the entrance to the circular gallop as they walk the horses back down. All well lads? All well boss.


Irish Grand National day, May 6th 2001. It is a strange year, the year of foot and mouth and the year that Punchestown has had problems with the track, with the result that the Punchestown Festival is run at Fairyhouse at the end of April and the Irish Grand National is put back to early summer.

Martin takes his place in the stands to watch the race. He has two bites at this, Linden’s Lotto, who may be 12 years old but who is in the form of his life and who has been chosen by Martin’s good friend Adrian Maguire, and Davids Lad, Timmy Murphy riding, just as he had done for the first time to win a big handicap chase at Fairyhouse two weeks ago. Martin curses as Linden’s Lotto unseats Maguire at the second fence. Nothing the jockey could do, hope he’s okay.

He watches Davids Lad as he moves easily under Murphy, almost last. He watches him make ground down the back straight easily, he watches as he latches onto the leading group over the fourth last, the jockey still motionless. Davids Lad moves into second place over the second last behind Rathbawn Prince, Murphy gets lower in the saddle and the horse picks up. They join the leader over the last and the jockey rides him out to win by a cosy length and a half. Martin thinks that his own roars from the stand drown out all of the other 15,000 voices.

To this day, Timmy Murphy says it is the best ride he has ever given a horse. Every time he needed a gap, it opened up for him and the horse just moved into it. Every time he needed the horse to stand off and wing a fence, he did. He hardly had to touch the reins. Martin doesn’t disagree. It is not just because it was one of his, but it was one of the best rides he has ever seen a jockey give a horse. You need a lot of luck to execute a ride like that, but Murphy was brilliant on the day.

And now, seven years on sitting in his kitchen, you can tell how much that win meant to Tony Martin. “I had only had a trainer’s licence for about six years,” he says. “We had had a few great days at the Cheltenham November and January meetings, but to win the Irish Grand National was fantastic. It’s like football, you win a game, you want to win a club championship, then you want to go and win at inter-county level. Or riding. You ride a winner of a point-to-point, you just want to ride a winner on the track, you ride a winner on the track, and bejaysus you just want to ride a winner at Fairyhouse or Punchestown or Cheltenham. You want to be progressing all the time, no matter what you’re in, but that day, Davids Lad, was one of the great days.”

Tony Martin has experienced many great days. From a farming background, he began working and riding with Clem Magnier in the late 1970s when he was just 13. It was during his formative years there that his skill and strength in the saddle earned him the nickname Harvey, after the top show jumping rider of the era Harvey Smith. And Martin could ride. He quickly established himself as one of the leading amateur riders in the country, riding 370 winners between the flags and being crowned champion point-to-point rider twice, in 1995 and 1996.

Michael Cunningham leased a house from the Magniers in the early 1980s, just down the road from Martin in Meath, and so began a long association between Martin and Cunningham. He and Colin Magnier shared the rides there. Colin rode the good ones (For Auction, Greasepaint) – tongue in cheek -Martin rode the rest.

The youngster was very quickly in demand. He rode Smooth Escort for Di Haine to win the four-miler at the Cheltenham Festival in 1991, and he won the same race on Deejaydee for Michael Hourigan eight years later. By then, he was training as well as riding, a fact that was no more in evidence than at the Aintree Grand National meeting later that year, when he trained and rode Extra Stout to win the novices’ hunters’ chase.

Training was something that he just fell into after riding, a natural progression, but more for want of something to be getting on with than a carefully concocted plan. He was just doing an odd point-to-pointer with Arthur Fennelly. They bought Noble Crescendo, and trained him to win three point-to-points. That was the springboard.

“We started off riding out maybe five or six in 1994,” says Tony, “and it just took off from there. Actually, our first winner was Cool Nora, who turned out to be Davids Lad’s dam.”

Big winners followed. She’s Our Mare won the Grade 2 Powers Handicap Hurdle at the Irish Grand National meeting at Fairyhouse in April 1999, the Swinton Hurdle at Haydock the following month, and the Cambridgeshire at Newmarket that autumn. Xenophon won the Pierse Hurdle in January 2003, and followed up in the Coral Cup at Cheltenham that March, providing Martin with his first Cheltenham Festival win. Davids Lad, Linden’s Lotto, Dromlease Express, Dun Doire came along in due course.

Dun Doire’s win in the William Hill Chase at the 2006 Cheltenham Festival provides precise testament to Martin’s universally acknowledged success with handicappers and in handicap contests. Just four months previously, the same Dun Doire had won a novices’ handicap chase at Wetherby off a mark of 79 – exactly 50lb lower than the mark off which he prevailed in the William Hill. Not everybody is happy when a horse shows that level of improvement. Martin is matter-of-fact.

“We like to give horses time to grow into themselves,” he says. “Dun Doire there, for example, he got his handicap mark over fences before he even won a hurdle race. We ran him in a couple of chases as a big raw five-year-old. We knew he was slow, but he was always going to improve, you see the size of him there. Then he went out in the summer, came back in, won his races over hurdles, and then the following season we started running him in chases off his old mark. He was an improving six-year-old, and as we stepped him up in distance he improved again. He’s an idle slow horse so he was only winning by a length or two and wasn’t getting hammered by the handicapper as a result.

“The handicapper has a job to do,” he concedes. “We all have a job to do. But sometimes if we have Ruby or Paul jocked up, the public latch onto them and they’re backed, the price comes down, and maybe stewards and handicappers start to ask questions. But it’s not a case of anyone trying to be smarter than anyone, it’s just a case of doing the best job you can. Ruby or Paul do influence the odds, but a lot of the time Robbie Colgan or Kenny Whelan will do as good a job. We all have a job to do, we can’t get it right all the time. Stewards get it wrong sometimes, handicappers get it wrong, punters get it wrong, trainers get it wrong, and we all get flak if we get it wrong.”

Royal County Star’s bid to justify favouritism in the Irish Grand National tomorrow is the highlight on a busy weekend at Fairyhouse for Martin and his team. Similar to Davids Lad in 2001, Timmy Murphy will be on board. It’s tough on Robbie Colgan, who would have ridden but for the imposition of a suspension for his ride on Magnet For Money at Gowran Park earlier this month, but Murphy is a great catch.

“The horse is well,” says Martin. “I’d rather if the weather was a bit warmer, he does like to have to sun on his back, but he has been trained for this race since he won the Troytown, and he ran well at Naas three weeks ago. We’re happy with him.”

Psycho goes in the big handicap hurdle on Tuesday. He got 7lb for finishing second in the County Hurdle, but he gets to run off his old mark on Tuesday. He is Martin’s idea of his best chance of a winner at the meeting.

“Robin Du Bois and Reisk Superman should both go well for Seamus Ross on Monday,” says the trainer, “while Save The Bacon would have a chance on Tuesday. Estuary House goes in the maiden hurdle on Sunday, Drumconvis should go well in the handicap, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Newbay Prop were to run well in the National. The Royal Dub may run on Monday, or he may wait for Navan next week for that valuable novice chase. He’s in great form.”

From where Tony Martin is standing, his vantage point at Arodstown, things look good.

“We’ve never had the quality of horse that we have this year,” he says. “We have a great team of people, Liam O’Brien and Rob Green, Robbie Colgan, and a great back room team. We have really good facilities here now and hopefully we will be able to go on from here.”

Progress continues.
© The Sunday Times, 23rd March 2008