Hunting the Hunter
What: Hunter Cup night, Victoria’s biggest harness meeting.
When: Saturday night, first race 8.02pm NZ time.
What: A$500,000 Hunter Cup, $A250,000 Great Southern Star, A$100,000 Ladyship Cup.
Who: 11 of New Zealand’s best standardbreds against the locals.
By Michael Guerin
In Melbourne.—- If the Kiwi domination of the harness racing summer is going to continue on Saturday night they may have to buck the trend of the season.
Because while we have a huge array of chances in both the A$500,000 Hunter Cup and A$250,000 Great Southern Star, they are likely to have to come from behind some very good Australian horses to beat them.
And that hasn’t been the story of the season so far.
This Victorian carnival, starting at Ballarat and then Melton last Saturday, has been dominated by on-pace runners in the biggest races.
The Derby, Oaks and Ballarat Cup have all been won by leaders and while Temporale and Mach Shard managed to come from back in the field to win A$50,000 races last Saturday, they were minus some of the stars who hit the track tonight.
Go back a step further to the Auckland Cup, National Trot, Inter Dominion Pacing and Trotting Finals and all were won by horses on the speed with a lap to go. This has not been the summer of the swooper.
But it might have to be if the Kiwis want to take home some serious Aussie cash in the baking heat of Melton tonight.
That is not to say the likes of Mach Shard (2) and Chase Auckland (4) can’t lead the Hunter Cup, both are in strong form and with two of the best NZ-based drivers on Aussie tracks in Zachary Butcher and Natalie Rasmussen.
But as fast as they are off the gate horses like Alta Orlando (1) and Cash N Flow (5) have been racing well at Menangle where gate speed is the weapon of choice for many.
Their drivers know if the Kiwis get the lead and can control the race they will probably be too good so expect fireworks early and with the economical marker pegs runs so crucial in major staying trips, winning the Hunter will be trickier than the market suggests.
A new spanner could be thrown in the works this morning, with local iron horse San Carlo to undergo a veterinary examination on a troublesome hoof. If he is scratched emergency King Of Swing gets a start from a good draw and with intentions of leading.
That would rachet up the pressure a notch or two more.
The good news is that all four New Zealanders in the race have won races from behind off a solid speed.
Triple Eight, who is drawn wide, is at his best following a hot speed while A G’s White Socks may have led to win the Ballarat Cup last start but he was stunning coming from off the speed to win an Interdom heat in November.
So you get the feeling a New Zealand-trained horse might still get over the top of the locals but that will become more difficult should King Of Swing get into the field.
The A$250,000 trot will be even harder for the visitors as not only will Oscar Bonavena, Massive Metro, Temporale and Majestic Man have to come from off the speed but the leader will almost certainly be Tornado Valley.
He won the Inter Dominion leading here 14 months ago and has been unbeatable in front since joining the Andy Gath stable as a mid-grade battler from New Zealand.
Tornado Valley has been heavily backed from $3 to $2.30 and will take an enormous amount of running down, particularly if he gets a soft first lap so speed becomes the key to the race.
Oscar Bonavena was expensive for punters when fading to eighth after working over the last lap last Saturday and while nobody doubts his ability the hype and his place in the market don’t match his group one performances yet.
He has had four starts in group one races for one placing and while that includes two gallops, he is still getting used to the rough and tumble of racing at the highest level.
Trainer Mark Purdon blamed himself for having Oscar Bonavena too pretty last Saturday and has vowed he will have him at his peak tonight. Driven cold he may do something special but that hasn’t really been the way to win the richest harness racing races all season.
But with three very serious other New Zealand trotters in the race, tonight might buck the trend.
Earlier in the night Belle Of Montana should lead or trail and win the A$100,000 Ladyship Cup for Barry Purdon and Zac Butcher.