Fastorslow vs Galopin Des Champs: Racing’s David-and-Goliath clash

Martin Brassil trains only 30 horses; Willie Mullins has ten times that – they go head-to-head this weekend and, hopefully, again in the Cheltenham Gold Cup

Friday February 02 2024, 5.00pm, The Times

To be on the Curragh with Martin Brassil and his Cheltenham Gold Cup hope Fastorslow on a cold and foggy Kildare morning is to be filled with hope but touched by gloom. There is the thrill of sharing the dreams of a top horse tilting for Cheltenham glory, but fear that changes of public mood and government disapproval of betting will mean support draining out of the racing game.

Saturday’s battle of Fastorslow against last year’s Gold Cup winner Galopin Des Champs in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown is, in training terms, a classic version of David versus Goliath. Brassil, 67, has only 30 horses in his care. Galopin’s trainer Willie Mullins some ten times that number. The score between the two horses is currently 2-1 in Fastorslow’s favour but a belief that Galopin Des Champs underperformed on both occasions sees him odds-on for Saturday afternoon and favourite again at Cheltenham. That doesn’t entirely wash as Fastorslow and only three stablemates cruise round the all-weather track with the grass white with frost beside it.

He is an elegant, easy-moving bay who was injured while winning a steeplechase in France as a three-year-old and, after recuperating at owner Sean Mulryan’s Ardenode Stud, did not run again until April 2021. Under Brassil’s guidance he ran second over hurdles 11 months later at the Cheltenham Festival and last season, his first over Irish and British fences, ended with a neck second to Grand National winner Corach Rambler at Cheltenham followed by a shock defeat of Galopin Des Champs at Punchestown, a feat repeated on the two horses’ reappearance in November.

Brassil’s operation may be small, but the records show that he has been successful. He won the Aintree Grand National with Numbersixvalverde in 2006, the Midlands, the Kerry Grand National last year and Curragh companions Longhouse Poet, Panda Boy and Desertmore House could all be Grand National hopes this spring.

The quietly spoken trainer is famed for hitting his targets, most notably at the Cheltenham Festival in 2019 when Mulryan’s Ballymore Properties sponsored the first race on the Wednesday and Brassil won it for him with a horse named after the company’s iconic London Docklands development City Island.

“It’s all about getting your hands on good horses,” the trainer said, before adding with words weighed as carefully as he crafts his entries: “I can possibly give some of my horses that extra little bit of individual attention because I have the time to do it. It would be rare that I would miss anything that I shouldn’t have. If someone like me gets a chance like this, they can’t afford to have anything go wrong because they haven’t got any similar type horses to step into the breach.”

Racing stables are like schools with the trainer as headmaster. The big ones can be amazing places and a trip last Thursday to the ever-bubbling mastermind Aidan O’Brien’s 200-head super academy at Ballydoyle was to see the very latest in where technology meets intuition. Yet the memory of the little Brassil quartet, the informed support of Martin’s bearded son David and the skill of David’s pink-anoraked partner Audrey Sabatin in Fastorslow’s saddle, did not pale before the multiple Derby-winning magnificence of O’Brien’s racing Camelot.

Brassil’s stables may be unpretentious white-washed cement blocks but their inmates lack for little. Fastorslow is clearly a content and highly tuned athlete. He has his full turn of exercise in the morning and another on the horse walker and the vibrating Theraplate in the afternoon. Brassil can recite to you his every detail, such as 540kg bodyweight on summer break down to racing trim 510kg on Saturday afternoon.

“If you blindfolded Martin and took him down in the middle of the night and put his hand on one of his horse’s legs, he could tell you which one it was,” Paddy Aspell, the father of two-times Grand National winner Leighton Aspell and racing manager to Mulryan, said.

This is very much one-to-one tuition. Time spent close to the horses, whether at Brassil’s or Ballydoyle, reminds you of the vigour within the racing bubble but outside you have to wonder about the future of the game, particularly on the jumping side.

This March will be 60 years since Arkle beat Mill House in the most famous Gold Cup of them all. It was a time when racing and betting on it was still an integral part of British and Irish life. Half a century more looks a long shot, particularly in Britain, where we are swamped by Irish runners, the first five in the Gold Cup betting were bred in France, and proposed legislation and affordability checks linking racing with problem gambling already has meant prize money and horse numbers in serious decline.

For me 50 years of writing and broadcasting can now seem in vain. But what’s the point of pessimism when the daily battle of hope against expectation is racing’s most redeeming feature? While attendances are down, TV figures are holding up with ITV’s Cheltenham audience share the highest in 20 years. Concessions are being promised on the TV betting ban which could torpedo Irish racing. In Britain supporters are lobbying their MPs, as I have, to back racing in the upcoming debate on the proposed affordability checks, whose random intrusiveness could see a collapse of prize money and a surge in black-market betting.

I believe racing is worth saving in these two islands as an uplifting, accessible as well as traditional part of modern life. Share the spirit of adventure even if it is with a little bet. Think of Brassil’s team as they pitch in against Galopin Des Champs and the mighty Mullins leviathan on Saturday afternoon. “He’s just a very good horse,” Brassil said. “Whether he can beat Galopin Des Champs round Leopardstown, we will find out. Onward and upward. Never be afraid.”

How Fastorslow got his name

The story relayed to me by Sean Mulryan is that the horse’s French trainer, Arnaud Chaille-Chaille, had little grasp of the English language. So when Sean rang to discuss a name and said, “Is he fast or slow?” the trainer replied “Merci” and hung up!

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