Chariots Of Fire - who wins?

By Michael Guerin

Preparation both on and off the track could be the key to a Kiwi victory in Saturday night's A$250,000 Chariots Of Fire in Sydney.

In one of the greatest shows of New Zealand pacing strength since trans Tasman harness racing rivalry fell into a post-Covid slumber, three New Zealand-trained pacers will contest Australia’s biggest four-year-old race at Menangle.

Auckland trainers Barry Purdon and Scott Phelan have both Merlin and Sooner The Bettor in the mobile mile, with Merlin an outstanding second after sitting parked on his Australian debut last Saturday but set to start from the tricky barrier 7.

Sooner The Bettor gets the perfect ace draw but while always a factor in major races he has rarely threatened to win at this level yet.

Which leaves Don’t Stop Dreaming as not only the best Kiwi hope but the favourite from barrier 2.

He has transitioned well to Australian racing, finishing a brave second to Leap To Fame in the Hunter Cup a month ago before two huge winning runs at Menangle, a track which often catches New Zealand horses out first time of asking.

Don’t Stop Dreaming seems almost as potent leading or swooping but from barrier 2 over a mobile mile trainer-driver Mark Purdon knows leading would be the better scenario.

Which is where Purdon’s personal preparation comes in.

“I think Sooner The Bettor is the sort of horse who would be keen to take a trail on him but I don’t know about the two horses drawn directly outside him,” says Purdon.

“They are both pretty good obviously so I will have to do a fair of video work and see how their gate speed is and how they like to race so I can have my tactics right.”

The pair outside him are Better Be The Best, the best three-year-old in NSW and their Derby winner last season, while outside him is Frankie Ferocious, the latest flying machine from a team Purdon knows well.

He is trained by Jason Grimson and driven by Cam Hart, the combination that beat Purdon’s pacer Akuta with Swayzee in the NZ Cup in November, while they also down Self Assured with Majestic Cruiser in a Messenger at Alexandra Park two years ago.

Frankie Ferocious has been airborne in two starts for Grimson so if he or Better Be The Best reach the lead early, Don’t Stop Dreaming’s job becomes a lot trickier.

That raises the question of how does Purdon eek enough gate speed out of a horse like Don’t Stop Dreaming to beat the red hot Menangle milers at their own game?

Purdon is not one for short-term boosts like hopple shorteners or buzzing horses up in prelims, believing the elite horses often have more gate speed than expected when asked.

But he does have one card to play.

“I will look to pre-warm him up two or three races before the Chariots,” he explains.

“He is not a horse who races sore but he can be a horse who takes a while to warm into things so to get his mind on the job and body ticking over I will pre-warm him.”

Before then Purdon and his brother Barry’s pair have a different sort of heat to worry about as Menangle was expecting temperatures around 39 degrees yesterday when all 12 Chariots contenders were supposed to enter the Menangle retention barn for surveillance 48 hours before the race.

“I hope that gets delayed, that just too hot for 12 horses to be stuck inside under one roof even though they have fans to try and keep them cool,” he explains.

The exact situation that could muddy Don’t Stop Dreaming’s chances, a hectic early speed and pressure, would seem the perfect one for his arch rival Merlin, who can win if those inside him go too fast early but would face a huge task if one of the two favourites got an easy lead.


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