Donn's Articles » Tony Martin

Tony Martin

Tony Martin is sitting easily in his chair, talking about the Aintree Grand National and the luck that he has had in it.  Or the lack thereof.  

There was Hollybank Buck in 2001.  That was the year of the heavy ground, Red Marauder’s year, when only two horses finished without falling and remounting.  Hollybank Buck fell at the third fence that year, there were still 27 more fences to jump and about four more miles to run, but still the memory grates. 

Hollybank Buck was in rare form that year, his trainer tells you.  He stayed forever and he loved that heavy ground.  He had jumped around Aintree too twice before that, in Papillon’s Grand National the previous year and in the Becher Chase the November before that.  The ground had come right for him that year.  He would have taken some beating.

Gallant Oscar was travelling well for Mark Walsh in 2016 when he blundered badly at the second fence on the second circuit and unseated his rider.  Davids Lad was cruising under Timmy Murphy in 2002 when he got the fourth last fence wrong and came down.

“Davids Lad wasn’t really a stamina horse,” says Martin softly.  “Strange for a horse who won an Irish National for us, but stamina wasn’t his forte, you always rode him for a little bit of toe.  He was travelling well in the Aintree Grand National in 2002, but there was a long way to go.  He wouldn’t have the stamina that this fellow has.  This lad has an abundance of stamina.”

This lad is Anibale Fly.  The last time we saw Anibale Fly, he was staying on strongly up Cheltenham’s hill under Barry Geraghty to take third place in the Gold Cup behind Native River and Might Bite.  It was some run, it was a performance of strength in a Gold Cup that was run at an unforgiving beat on ground that demanded every sinew.  And yet, JP McManus’ horse finished off his race like a horse who wanted more.  It was a run that screamed Grand National.

“We said after Cheltenham that we’d take our time with him,” says Martin, “see how he was when we got him back home.  The Grand National was the obvious race for him after Cheltenham.  And he’s 9lb well-in now.  From next Sunday on, he will be 9lb higher in the handicap, so it made sense to have a go as long as he was well.  The most important thing was that he was well.”

Martin is a horseman.  One of the top amateur riders in the country before he ever took out a licence to train, he has that innate understanding of horses that has seen him ply his trade as one of Ireland’s leading trainers since the turn of the millennium.  And the horse comes first.  You can be as well handicapped as you like, but there is no point in going to the races if you are not ready to race.

“The Gold Cup was just his fifth run of the season, and I don’t think that it knocked him.  He finished off his race very strongly.  The lads are very happy with him too.  Donagh Meyler, who won on him at Leopardstown, and Tommy Finn, who won an Irish National on Luska, they are good lads, they both know him very well, and they are happy that he’s well over Cheltenham and that he’s ready to go again.”

Martin has had Anibale Fly since the start.  He saw him at the Arqana breeze-up sale in France in the summer of 2013 and, €16,000 later, he had him home with him.

“Paul Shanahan has always been a good friend of mine, so I called him then and told him that I had a nice horse, that he could have him if he wanted him.  So he said he’d have him.  He didn’t even look at him.”

When Anibale Fly made his racecourse debut, in a bumper at Fairyhouse on New Year’s Day 2015, he raced in Mrs Paul Shanahan’s colours, and he showed the promise that Martin had seen in him at the breeze-up sale in finishing second behind Jetstream Jack.  That run attracted the attention of others, and JP McManus bought him before he went on to win his two bumpers that spring.

“As a novice chaser, I was hoping that he’d be a Sun Alliance horse,” says Martin.  “I have no doubt that he could have stayed the four miles of the National Hunt Chase, but I always thought that he had more class than that.  He was second in the Drinmore over two and a half miles, but he has always been a stayer, he has always been a horse who finds plenty.  If you look at his novice hurdles or even his bumpers, all he does is stay.  I don’t think that the Grand National trip will be a problem for him.  The biggest thing that you need is luck in-running.”

A high-class novice chaser, Anibale Fly has taken another step forward this season.  He was impressive in winning the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival under Donagh Meyler.

“We put him in everything after that run,” says Martin.  “We were hoping he was a Gold Cup horse, and we put him in the Grand National as well.”

He was under pressure when he fell at the second last fence in the Irish Gold Cup back at Leopardstown in February. 

“That was disappointing,” says his trainer.  “But he didn’t have a lot of room at the fence, and I’m not sure that he was beaten at the time.  He wasn’t far behind the leaders, the winner Edwulf was just beside him on his outside, and Barry (Geraghty) hadn’t gone for everything.  He is a horse who finds lots for pressure, so we don’t know how much he would have found.”

The Cheltenham Gold Cup run was much more like it.  Martin was just hoping that he would redeem himself after his Leopardstown fall, and he did.  The way that he travelled, the way that he finished off his race, the way that he has come out of the race. 

“I said it to Frank (Berry, JP McManus’ racing manager), that maybe we should go to Aintree, and Frank said, if you’re happy with him.  Frank’s great like that, he lets you get on with it if you think that it’s the right thing to do.  The horse is well, and that’s the main thing.”

A little bit of luck now on Saturday, and you never know.

© The Sunday Times, 8th April 2018