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Martin Brassil

Martin Brassil remembers when he first saw City Island.  He liked him lots from the start.  He liked everything about him, the way he looked, the way he walked, the way he stood. 

“Y’see that fellow there,” he said to Sean Mulryan.  “He could be a Champion Hurdle horse.  He’s related to two of them.”

City Island wasn’t City Island then.  He was an unnamed three-year-old gelding by Court Cave out of the Un Desperado mare Victorine, a half-sister to Morley Street and Granville Again.  There’s the Champion Hurdle reference.

Lot 303 at the Tattersalls Ireland Derby Sale in 2016, sent there by Ken Parkhill’s Castletown Quarry Stud, Brassil wasn’t sure how much he would make, but he thought that they should try to buy him.  Sean Mulryan had asked him to buy some young horses for him who could be useful, and this was one of them. 

The gavel fell at €31,000.  It’s easy to say that he was value now at €31,000, with the benefit of hindsight, but Brassil thought that he was value then, without the 20-20 vision that hindsight affords.

“Maybe he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea,” says the trainer.  “The Derby Sale is a big sale, lots of horses, lots of big sires.  We just got lucky.”

They got the Court Cave gelding home and gave him time.  He was still a little bit on the weak side.  He needed to strengthen up.  He ran in a couple of schooling races and made his racecourse debut at Punchestown in April last year. 

“Sean and Bernardine were very patient, they’re great, I’m lucky in that they were happy to give the horse all the time that he needed.  He strengthened up nicely and we were delighted with his first run that day at Punchestown, when he finished second in a good bumper.”

Martin Brassil and Sean Mulryan go way back.  Brassil trained Ambobo for the owner to win his beginners’ chase at Naas in 2008, and to win the Pat Taaffe Handicap Chase at Punchestown in 2009.  

“It’s great that Sean is back having horses again.”

City Island went back to Punchestown last May and won his bumper, beating a good horse of Noel Meade’s, Valdieu, into second place.  Then he went to Galway and won his maiden hurdle, staying on well to come away from Getareason and Debuchet.  Unfortunately, he was subsequently disqualified, as traces of the prohibited substance arsenic were found in the horse’s sample.

“It was unfortunate, but it was just one of those things,” says Brassil.  “It was in the seaweed-based supplement that we feed the horses.  It is a safe supplement, it’s advertised as being safe.  We used the same supplement for You Raised Me Up, who won a bumper that week, and he didn’t test positive.”

Brassil was fully exonerated at the time, his €1,000 fee waived, with the IHRB’s chief veterinary officer Dr Lynn Hillyer confirming that the trainer could not have been aware of the presence of arsenic in the supplement.

City Island just had to go and win another maiden hurdle, which he duly did, at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival.  He beat Dallas Des Pictons into second place that day, and Dallas Des Pictons has since won his maiden hurdle easily, and has gone on to land a valuable handicap at Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival.  Last Saturday, City Island went to Naas and easily landed the odds under Mark Walsh in a novices’ hurdle.

“He keeps on progressing. Everything we ask him to do, he does.  We don’t know how good he could be.  When he goes to the races, he just comes alive.”

Sean Mulryan sponsors the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, and it has always been the plan that, if City Island proved himself to be good enough to go to Cheltenham next month, the two-mile-five-furlong race would be the one that he would contest.  He wasn’t even entered in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle over two miles, nor in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle over three.

“That has always been the plan that we have had in mind.  If the horse told us differently, we could always change the plan.  He won his maiden over two miles at Leopardstown, but he stayed two miles and five furlongs at Galway.  It’s probably the right distance for him for now.  Hopefully he’s good enough.”

Martin Brassil can train a good horse when he has one.  He won the Thyestes Chase in 2005 with Numbersixvalverde and, two months later, he won the Irish Grand National with him.  It doesn’t get any better than this, his wife said to him.  Then, 11 months after that, he took his Irish National and Thyestes Chase winner to Britain and won the Aintree Grand National.

Brassil managed Nickname’s five-in-a-row winter of 2006/07, one Grade 1, three Grade 2s and a Grade 3.  He won the Munster National with Double Seven.  He trained Inchacooley to win a listed race on the flat.

“As anyone will tell you,” says the trainer thoughtfully, “the key is to get your hands on nice horses.  Thankfully, we have a few nice horses at present.”

City Island is obviously the stable star, but Take Revenge was impressive in winning a decent maiden hurdle at Punchestown last Sunday, and we haven’t seen You Raised Me Up since he won that bumper at Galway last August.  He is well though, and he could go for the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham, if he gets into the race. 

City Island will not race again now before Cheltenham.  Three weeks and three days from today until Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle day.

“We’ll just keep him ticking over.  Jim Bolger has very kindly let me use his gallop in the past, so I might take him down there, just for a day away.  It’s a lovely place to take a horse.  Just keep the horse happy, keep him healthy, keep him well.”

We still don’t know how good he could be.

© The Sunday Times, 17th February 2019