Hot favourites to dominate Cup night

By Michael Guerin

They are two old men playing a young man’s game.

But that doesn’t mean Mach Shard or Self Assured can’t win tonight’s $250,000 Trillian Trust Auckland Cup at Alexandra Park.

Mach Shard is nine, retirement home time for most elite horses, has had 107 starts and in Crystal Hackett has a young junior driver who a month ago had never won a Group 1 race.

Yet if you had only ever seen his last two starts, stunning victories in the Taylor Mile and NZ Messenger, you would think Mach Shard was all but unbeatable tonight. Maybe he is.

A year younger is Self Assured, the eight-year-old veteran of 73 starts, winner of $2.3million and a lovable horse who has been fighting a battle with Father Time for the last year or two.

Father Time may be undefeated in taking out sporting heroes but Self Assured is still winning the odd round, coming from last in the last two NZ Free-For-Alls to win races he shouldn’t have been able to.

In an industry increasingly dominated by young guns like Merlin and Don’t Stop Dreaming, that these two old men are the favourites for tonight’s Cup tells you a lot about their will to win and plenty about where this particular Auckland Cup sits.

“I think we all know it is nowhere as strong as most Auckland Cups,” says Self Assured’s trainer-driver Mark Purdon.

He should know. He has trained the last seven Auckland Cup winners, driving five of them.

Two of those training successes were Self Assured so if he can cap his career tonight he will become the first horse to ever win three Auckland Cups.

The true greats, headed by Cardigan Bay and including Elsu, Chokin, Luxury Liner, Themightyquinn and Delightful Lady have won two Auckland Cups. None could win three.

Purdon thinks Self Assured can because he prefers autumn to spring, is well placed under the free-for-all conditions and because four of the best pacers in the country aren’t going to Alexandra Park tonight.

“He is racing well and if he begins like last week and gets to the markers, either lead or trail, he has a real chance,” says Purdon.

If he does he will add a Cup treble to wins in the NZ Cup, the Race by Grins and those two NZ Free-For-Alls, a remarkable career for a horse never considered a champion.

Mach Shard won’t be remembered as a champion and a month ago would have been lucky to have been remembered at all.

He had been a journeyman in the Menangle circuit for the last two years, returned home a forgotten horse but in one of the most astonishing turnarounds in New Zealand racing history has become an unhoppled hero, beating our absolute best in his two Group 1s.

Mach Shard was dazzling in both and reminded us that back in 2019 it took Ultimate Sniper to stop him becoming an Inter Dominion champion.

While he is unplaced in all five attempts at 3200m he was a super sixth in the 2020 Auckland Cup and his no-arguments win when first to move in the 2700m mobile Messenger last month confirms his staying ability.

The old horse with his baby-faced driver can win this Auckland Cup because he is the only pacer in the field in career-best form.

The missing superstars mean (in some sort of order) Old Town Road, American Me, Better Eclipse or Alta Meteor could all win and it really is a rare Cup in that any of the eight starters could triumph without surprising.

Tonight two other Group 1s look far less open as Just Believe has been too strong for his Kiwi trotting opponents and is impossible to tip against in the $200,000 Reharvest Rowe Cup while Empire City is set to dominate the $110,000 Breckon Farms Trotting Derby, aided by the scratching of Paramount Kiwi.

Michael Guerin's horses to follow tonight :

1: Just Believe (R8, No.6): Champion Aussie trotter who outstayed Muscle Mountain last start and has manners to handle standing start. He is very short in the market so best add him to your multi bets.

2: Better Knuckle Up (R5, No.5): Stormed home last week when he got too far back but better drawn and fitter tonight. Should win with even luck.

3: Empire City (R6, No.4): Beat most of these last Friday and runs through the line like 2700m will suit. If she rolls to the front hard to see her passed even though the value is now gone.

4: Hawkeye Pierce (R3, No.3): Raced well against the best of his age last campaign and looked ready with workouts win last week. Stable has a good record with fresh horses and draw and driver a huge help.

5: Halberg (R2, No.5): Not the smoothest trotter but dropping enormously in class and if he trots all the way this will suit perfectly. Could win or finish last.

 

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