Sport Horse Racing

Sunday 25 August 2019

Brassil staying calm during Indian summer

Martin Brassil. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Martin Brassil. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Daragh Ó Conchúir

His calm demeanour and unhurried delivery when speaking paint a picture of Martin Brassil as someone who is unlikely to get carried away. That is not to say he does not enjoy the good days, and he has had quite a few in 25 years as a trainer.

It is just that when you have been exposed to Kipling's two impostors, you have context. And even for the highly successful, jump racing is quick to provide grounding.

After a slow, steady grind, Numbersixvalverde's Aintree Grand National victory in 2006 brought the former jump jockey into the limelight, and Nickname kept him there. But then the recession bit and bit hard. How did he manage to keep the ship afloat?

"I honestly don't know," Brassil says. "I just kept working. A lot of my long-standing owners were always there, JP McManus and Bernard Carroll, who was there from the very beginning. The fact that I had won a National was a big help in attracting an owner to give me a horse to train. At the same time our numbers were very low and we just kept the head down and kept working."

It isn't that he ever wanted to work on the scale of Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott or Joseph O'Brien. There are advantages to keeping it smaller, but consequences too. With 200 horses, the odds of unearthing quality are obviously higher.

"It was difficult to get people to invest in a better type of horse. You have to buy an awful lot of young horses just to find one. It is picking up now but I don't want numbers, I prefer to have quality. Sometimes I would maybe have 17 or 18 horses riding out. But if I had 25 or 30 horses that is as much as I would want. I couldn't be one of those fellas who trains 200 or 300 horses, I couldn't get my head around that.

"I ride out myself and I feed them. I do whatever has to be done with them. When you are in the coalface of it like that, you don't miss a whole lot. I have one full-time staff member, this is his 14th year with me, Paul. Everyone else is part-time."

Brassil took out a licence to train in 1994, having hung up his boots three years earlier. He bought his first horse from Jim Bolger, and Nordic Thorn won a Killarney maiden under the late Anthony Powell in May. He also provided the first graded prize in Galway two years later, with Kevin O'Brien in the plate.

Then along came Numbersixvalverde, an Irish Grand National winner in 2005 - under this year's successful jockey Ruby Walsh - who added the Aintree edition the following year with 20-year-old 'Slippers' Madden doing the steering.

"We knew we had a contender when he won a Thyestes and an Irish National as a novice. We knew we had a horse who could line up in it anyway. He had the profile of a horse that could win it. The likes of Bobbyjo and Papillon, and Hedgehunter won a Thyestes. You could have all of those things but you need the luck at the end of it."

Nickname took over star billing for a couple of years, winning seven graded races, including the Grade 1 Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase, in 14 glorious months. He was very unusual for a National Hunt horse in that he was a stallion, one who went on to sire the current highest-rated jumper Cyrname, recent Cheltenham hero Frodon and a host of other multiple winners.

"He was a great horse. You wouldn't think he was a stallion at all. He was just like any gelding. He had no side like that to him at all, was very easy to handle and train."

The racing sector in Ireland is ultra-competitive in a small pond. You have to be imaginative and you have to fight tooth and nail for everything.

This year has seen an improvement in fortunes for Brassil, with eight winners - his best return in Ireland since he had 12 in the 2006-07 campaign. That this is from just 38 runners, at a strike rate of 21 per cent, is a testament to Brassil's astute handling and placing of his charges.

And he's not finished yet. In City Island, the 62-year-old Dunmurray handler is working with a real talent again. Bought for €31,000 as a store at the Derby Sale in 2016 from renowned breeder Ken Parkhill, the well-related, scopey, athletic son of Court Cave is far more valuable now.

City Island showed promise from the outset, making his debut in a bumper at last year's Punchestown Festival, where he finished second and had the subsequent Albert Bartlett victor, Minella Indo, behind him in third.

He returns 12 months later for the Alanna Homes Champion Novice Hurdle on Friday, with four wins on his CV, the most prized one arriving in the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham in March.

It was a first Cheltenham winner for the 62-year-old trainer, and the owners Seán and Bernardine Mulryan, after years of trying. That it came in a race the Mulryans sponsored was additionally sweet.

Morley Street and Granville Again are relatives of City Island's that went on to win Champion Hurdles and the Ballymore has produced plenty of future champions over the smaller obstacles. But there is no guarantee that it lies in City Island's future.

"I would say we will probably have a chat after Punchestown but there is a possibility we might go chasing with him . . . anyone can see the way he jumps, he jumps really well. It has changed a lot, but mostly for the better I would say. As far as both riding and training is concerned, it has gone so professional."

Keep the head down and keep working.

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