It's hip to be square for Merlin

By Michael Guerin

Being called a square isn’t usually a compliment but when Barry Purdon says it about Merlin it is meant with love. And a warning.

The $1million Race by Grins winner is back to work with trainer Purdon and partner Scott Phelan, one of a trio they have being aimed at the New Zealand Cup in November.

The red hot stable also have Miracle Mile runner-up Sooner The Better and unbelievable Taylor Mile/Messenger winner Mach Shard for the great race, giving them rare control over their own build-up.

By having three genuine open class stars they can plan where and when they race and their trio alone will go a long way to ensuring races like the Spring Cup and Holmes D G get off the ground in the north during the spring, something which has been doubtful on occasions in the last decade.

Consistent and confirmed lead-up races will provide the stable with certainty about their early season targets as Purdon has tended to prefer keeping his New Zealand Cup horses in the north for as long as possible before launching his Canterbury assault.

“All three of them are back in work and we couldn’t be happier with them,” says Purdon.

“Mach Shard actually never really went out of work, being an older horse we kept him jogging every few days but Merlin and Sooner The Better had good spells.

“They both look great but Merlin has developed even more. He looks like a square.”

By square Purdon doesn’t mean somebody who is good at maths and goes to bed early, he means Merlin is also as wide as he is long, the four-year-old pacer having developed a body builder physique.

He has clearly developed into a stronger horse than arch rival Don’t Stop Dreaming, that strength one of the reasons he was able to over-power him in the Race by Grins at Cambridge in April.

“He looks so strong and that can only help this campaign so to have three genuinely top class horses who raced so well in the first half of the year is very exciting looking forward to the second half.”

That serves as a powerful warning to his local rivals because if Merlin is getting strong he could well be our best pacer over the next year or longer.

The Purdon/Phelan power players don’t stop there for a stable that has already won a NZ-leading $1,572,332 in stakes as the half way stage of the harness season with 34 winners from just 119 starters.

They also have star three-year-olds Duchess Megxit and Cold Chisel and a small army of talented juveniles suggesting they have the strongest racing team in New Zealand for the back end of 2024.

None of those will be at Alexandra Park tonight but Purdon/Phelan still have a major winning hope in both the main pace as well as an unlucky last start runner in Isla’s Son in race 9, the Book Now for Mid-winter Christmas at Alex Park Mobile Trot.

He really should win second-up after a long layoff caused by a quarter crack.

Artisan (R7, No.5) is nearing the end of her racing career as the broodmare paddock beckons but finds herself in a winnable Commercial Realty Winter Cup.

“She probably only has a few starts left before she retires but she is a good standing start mare and this looks a really suitable race,” says Purdon.

Earlier in the night the unbeaten Arna Donnelly-trained Mako will try to extend that sequence to three wins and even from a second line draw looks the one to beat in the Classique Landscapers Mobile Pace.

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