Akuta and co heading across the Tasman

By Michael Guerin

New Zealand’s best pacer is set to head to Australia for the first time and he could be taking some heavyweight mates with him.

Akuta has had a change of plans and will be set for the Ballarat (January 20) and Hunter Cups (February 3) in Victoria after stopping in at Alexandra Park in Auckland for the $60,000 Franklin Cup on December 31.

“We looked at the programmes and there isn’t a great deal for him here in January and February and he can make a lot more money in Australia,” says co-trainer Mark Purdon.

“At this stage he is booked to fly to Melbourne on January 10 and that would give us the option of the Shepparton Cup a few days later.

“But that one isn’t confirmed. The main focus for him will be the Ballarat Cup leading into the Hunter Cup.”

That sets up a possible shot at revenge over NSW pacer Swayzee, who beat Akuta in last month’s IRT New Zealand Cup, the rigours of that race leaving Akuta vulnerable as he was beaten three days later by stablemate Self Assured in the NZ Free-For-All.

Before that he has dominated the New Zealand spring and the Australian trip will be his first there as Mark Purdon has barely raced a horse in Australia since the border re-opening after Covid.

That will change in a big way with exciting three-year-old Don’t Stop Dreaming to join Akuta on the plane to Melbourne and Oscar Bonavena still a chance of heading to Melton for the two-race Great Southern Star, also on February 3.

“Don’t Stop Dreaming is definitely going and he has a couple of Free-For-Alls he can race in and then the Bonanza on Hunter Cup night,” says Purdon.

“If he won that it would qualify him for the Chariots Of Fire (March 2) in Sydney and he would go on that.”

The Chariots is also on the agenda for Don’t Stop Dreaming’s arch rival and conqueror in last Sunday’s New Zealand Derby, Merlin.

Purdon says that would raise the possibility of Akuta also heading to Sydney for the A$1million Miracle Mile on March 9 but no decision will be made on that until after the Hunter Cup.

If Akuta, Swayzee and Leap To Fame all make it to the Hunter Cup to take on the local Victorian stars it would be a dream result for Harness Racing Victoria as harness fans have seen little true Trans Tasman competition since Covid, as this Saturday’s Kiwi-less Inter Dominion Finals highlight.

A decision on whether New Zealand’s trotter of the moment Oscar Bonavena joins his stablemates in Victoria won’t be made until mid January as Purdon and son Nathan don’t want the Dominion winner away from home for too long.

“He is in such a good space I wouldn’t want him over there for a month or anything because I’d hate to undo all our work.

“But if he is sound and happy in January he could pop over for the Dullard Cup on January 27 and then the Great Southern Star the following week.

“But that decision won’t be made for a while. For now, he will go to Invercargill next week.”

Any sort of consistent high-level Trans Tasman competition would be a blessing for the industry at the moment as the code is so parochial and the biggest names clashing in both Melbourne and Sydney would create a totally different dynamic to the two major carnivals, one that has been missing for much of the last five years.

Meanwhile, Purdon says the immediate future of unbeaten filly Millwood Nike will be cleared next Monday after she will have a scan to access the tendon injury that saw her withdrawn from last Sunday’s NZ Oaks.

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