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Martin Brassil

Martin Brassil watched as the horses raced to the end of the back straight and turned.  He watched as JJ Slevin crouched a little lower in the saddle and gave his horse a little squeeze.  Fastorslow was fourth and there was a gap developing between him and the first three horses.

This was the big time.  Just five runners in the Punchestown Gold Cup, but class ran deep.  Galopin Des Champs was there, the Gold Cup winner, one of the three who were up ahead, up on the outside.  On the inside was Bravemansgame, the King George winner, the Gold Cup runner-up, and between the two was Envoi Allen, the Ryanair Chase winner.  You couldn’t have assembled a more talented triumvirate.

You wonder if you belong and, deep down, you hope like hell that you do.  Fastorslow had run in a handicap at the Cheltenham Festival.  It was a high-class handicap and it was a massive run, but the gap between handicap and Grade 1 can be huge, and you hope that you won’t fall into that gap.  That said, in any handicap in which Fastorslow had run after that, he would have had top weight or close to top weight, so Brassil said it to owners Sean and Bernardine Mulryan: Punchestown Gold Cup, why not give it a whirl?

Over the fourth last fence, and the gap between the front three and Fastorslow had grown to three lengths, maybe four.  JJ Slevin’s hands started to move as the three riders in front of him sat still.  Over the third last and the gap was still three or four lengths.  He hadn’t closed, but the gap hadn’t grown.

“I didn’t think that he’d be too far away,” says Martin Brassil now, “but you never know for sure until you try.  You’re hoping.  I knew that our horse was in good form, and I knew that he had come out of Cheltenham well, but I also knew that it was a big step up.  They really started racing from the fourth last fence, and you could see that he was going as fast as he wanted to go.  When they turned for home though, and they weren’t getting any further away from him, I thought that he was definitely going to be placed.” 

Galopin Des Champs and Bravemansgame moved on as they raced down to the second last fence but, by the time they got there, Fastorslow had joined Envoi Allen in third.  On the run to the last, JJ Slevin moved Fastorslow to his left, outside Bravemansgame, inside Galopin Des Champs, challenged between horses.  Very quickly it became apparent that the Cheltenham Gold Cup re-match had a gate-crasher.  

“You’re thinking, as long as he runs a respectable race.”

Bravemansgame was still in front as they rose to the final fence, but Fastorslow was only a half a length behind, and Galopin Des Champs was another half a length behind.  Martin Brassil’s horse jumped the last well and landed running.  His rider drove him forward and he responded, went a neck up, a half a length up, a length up.  By the time he got to the winning line, he was over two lengths clear of his two decorated rivals.

“Ah it was a brilliant feeling all right,” says Brassil.  “We weren’t expecting it, of course we weren’t, you couldn’t be expecting to beat those horses, the Gold Cup winner, the King George winner, the Ryanair Chase winner.  So when it happened, it was unbelievable.”

Remarkably, when Fastorslow won the Punchestown Gold Cup in April, he was winning for the first time since he joined Martin Brassil.  He did win a chase and a hurdle as a three-year-old in France for Arnaud Chaille-Chaille, so he wasn’t a novice by the time he got to Ireland, he couldn’t run in any of the novice races.

“He had an injury,” says Brassil, “so he went back to Ardenode Stud, where he recovered.  Then Sean and Bernardine Mulryan decided to send him to me here during the 2020/21 season.  We were delighted to get him, we were happy to take our time with him.  It wasn’t ideal that he wasn’t a novice, it was frustrating at the time, there aren’t many opportunities on the Irish calendar for horses with the profile that he had when he came to us, but we always liked him.  We knew from early that he had lots of ability.”

He showed that ability in March 2022 when he went to Cheltenham and finished second in the Coral Cup, beaten a short head by Commander Of Fleet.  And he showed it again when he went back to Cheltenham in March 2023 and finished second in the Ultima Handicap Chase, beaten a neck by Corach Rambler.

“It was tough,” says his trainer, in philosophical mode.  “When you get that close.  You’d nearly wish that you had finished third or fourth.  But it was a massive run, and the winner ran out an impressive winner of the Grand National next time.  Really, we were delighted that he ran so well, that he proved himself to be a good horse.”

Martin Brassil knows a good horse when he has one, and he knows how to nurture a good horse, to allow him fulfil his potential.  History tells you that.  His relaxed, calm demeanour is reflected in his training style.  He is always happy to give a horse time, always happy to do the right thing by the horse.

His first good horse was Nordic Thorn, winner of the Grade 3 Ballybrit Chase at Galway in 1996.

“I was renting a yard from Kevin and Úna Manning at the time, and I remember seeing this horse of Jim Bolger’s winning a 12-furlong maiden at Thurles.  I thought that he might make up into a decent National Hunt horse, so I asked Kevin if he was for sale.”

He went to see him at Jim Bolger’s shortly afterwards.

“Jim asked me if I wanted to sit up on him, so I went to ride him up Jim’s gallop with another horse.  There was a young fellow riding the other horse, a young rider who hadn’t had many rides at that stage.  He kept asking me if I had anything that he could ride, anything that I wanted to claim off, so I said that I would keep him in mind.”

That young fellow was Anthony McCoy and, true to his word, Martin put him up on a horse of his, Practice Run, in a three-mile handicap hurdle at Gowran Park shortly afterwards.  Of course he won.  Claiming 7lb.

“McCoy had only ridden about three or four winners over jumps at that stage.”

Nordic Thorn wasn’t as prolific as that young rider proved to be, but he still proved worthy of the faith that his new trainer had placed in him.  Ridden by Anthony Powell, he won a four-year-old maiden hurdle at Killarney on his first run for Brassil, and he morphed into a talented hurdler and chaser, the highlight coming in that Grade 3 contest at Galway, which he won by 10 lengths.

There have been other highlights so far.  Higher highlights.  Nickname provided several.

Nickname was unusual in that he was an entire, a top-class chaser.  He won his beginners’ chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival in 2005 on his first run for Brassil, and he won the Grade 2 Paddy Fitzpatrick Memorial Novice Chase back at Leopardstown the following month on his second.

He won the Fortria Chase and the Tied Cottage Chase and the An Uaimh Chase and the Newlands Chase and the Norman’s Grove Chase twice.  And he won the big Grade 1 two-mile chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival, the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase, in the days when people used to dial a bet, a first Grade 1 win for his trainer.  And Nickname went on to be a hugely successful sire, his progeny including Cyrname and Yala Enki and Le Mercurey and Frodon.

“He was a special horse for us all right.”

Numbersixvalverde was obviously another special horse.  Winner of the Thyestes Chase in January 2005, he won the Irish Grand National two months later before going to Aintree the following year and, under a superb ride from Niall Madden, famously, won the Grand National.

The Bernard Carroll colours in which Numbersixvalverde raced are around again these days.  Ricky Doyle wore them when he won the Kerry National at Listowel in September on Desertmore House.

“We were a reserve in the Kerry National,” recalls Martin, “and I wasn’t sure that we were going to get in.  But Gordon Elliott called me to tell me that two of his wouldn’t be running, that the ground had gone against them, so we were able to travel.  That was very good of Gordon.”

Desertmore House got into the Kerry National all right and, number 20 of 17, he stayed on well to win impressively.

“He went up to a mark of 135 after he won at Kilbeggan.  I wasn’t sure that that would be enough to get him into the Kerry National, but he won well, and Ricky gave him a super ride.  He’s up to 145 now, I’m not sure that that will be high enough go get him into the Aintree Grand National, with the reduced field now this year, but it’s an option.  He has only run four times over fences, so he would have to run two more times to qualify.  He’ll be in the Irish National too, so we’ll see how we go.”

Easter is early next year, and Aintree is late.  The 2024 Irish Grand National, governed, as it is, by Easter Monday, will be on 1st April, while the Aintree Grand National will be on 13th April.  A 12-day gap, it’s short.  It does give you options though.

Martin Brassil won the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle in 2019 with City Island, the coming-to-fruition of a plan that had been long-since hatched.  The race, sponsored by City Island’s owners Sean and Bernardine Mulryan, had been City Island’s target for a long time, and his trainer duly had him at concert pitch on the day.  He dug deep for Mark Walsh and came away from Champ on the run up the hill.

“That was another fantastic day.”

Double Seven provided others, JP McManus’ horse won the Midlands National at Kilbeggan and he won the Munster National at Limerick, and he finished third in the 2014 Aintree Grand National.  He was ridden at Aintree by Anthony McCoy, who couldn’t claim 7lb that day.

Longhouse Poet won the Thyestes Chase in 2022 under Darragh O’Keeffe, and he went on to finish sixth in the Aintree Grand National that year.  Last April, back at Aintree, Longhouse Poet was just getting into his rhythm when he unseated his rider at the Canal Turn.

“It was just one of those things,” says Martin.  “He just let fly at the fence to get out of the crowd.  Hopefully he’ll be back again next year.”

Longhouse Poet’s 2023/24 campaign starts tomorrow, in the Pertemps Qualifier at Punchestown, while An Epic Song, beaten a head by Langer Dan in the Coral Cup at Cheltenham in March, starts off his season in the beginners’ chase at Punchestown today.

And Fastorslow starts off in the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase tomorrow, where he will meet Galopin Des Champs again.

“He has had a really good summer break,” says his trainer, “and he has come back in great form.  We have had the John Durkan Chase in mind for him for his debut since the end of last season, and we’re very happy with him.  We’re looking forward to seeing him out again.”

You know now that he belongs all right.

© The Irish Field, 25th November 2023