Merlin magic at Harness Million

By Michael Guerin

Training legend Barry Purdon was both proud and thrilled after the $200,000 Harness Million at Cambridge on Friday night.

The pride was spread far and wide. Firstly of his mighty little horse Merlin, who stormed home four wide to grab stablemate Sooner The Better in the last 50m of the NZB Standardbred sales race over 2200m. The margins were head, head, nose.

That is the second stable quinella in a Harness Million in six months after Purdon and training partner Scott Phelan quinellaed the two-year-old trot last October when Southern Diamond beat Halberg at Addington, no mean feat for two guys who don’t take truckloads home from the yearling sales.

So Purdon was also proud of the stable, particularly training partner Scott Phelan, who partnered Sooner The Better and almost stole the race with a daring sub 2:40 drive in front.

It took all of Zachary Butcher’s timing and Merlin’s acceleration to deny him victory, yet another reason for Purdon to leave the Cambridge winner’s circle bursting with pride.

But that wasn’t his only emotion. Purdon was thrilled, plain old-school happy for Merlin’s owner Dean Shannon, who stood alongside him as the son of Art Major came back to scale.

“Dean is a great guy and the perfect owner,” says Purdon.

“He is wonderful to deal with, never complains when things go wrong and understands what he is seeing.

“So to have him get a horse like this after Belle Of Montana is wonderful because he is a real pleasure to train for.”

Purdon also revealed while Queensland-based Shannon stays out of the training decisions he is very hands on at the sales.

“He picked both Merlin and Belle Of Montana out,” Purdon said.

“He finds the ones he likes and then I go look at them, like a lot of trainers do around things like legs and so on and seeing if we actually like the horse too.

“But the final decision is Dean’s. He does his own bidding and he is a very astute buyer, he doesn’t go silly on price even though he is one guy who could probably afford to.”

Shannon, Purdon and Phelan will be trying to replicate their recent success when the NZB Standardbred sales get underway to Karaka on Sunday while Merlin will have to wait a little longer before he goes back to work

After Friday’s win, his ninth in 11 starts, his next major target is the Northern Derby on March 24, with at least one lead-up race beforehand.

While he is now the $2.50 TAB favourite to win the Derby the closeness of Friday’s finish suggests that Group 1 will be no pushover.

Purdon believes Sooner The Better will relish the Derby distance while third-placed Sinbad, who tracked Merlin into the race, was almost as good as the winner and Son Of Mac was enormous after sitting parked throughout.

Quite remarkably, one year and five days ago Merlin won his first start at Alexandra Park, beating Sooner The Better and Son Of Mac (Seve was second), so three of the main players were back reaffirming early season juvenile form a year later.

Add to horses like them Sherlock, who was never a winning chance from a poor draw on Friday and will improve, and a few others and the Derby is going to be a good first classic test for this crop.

The Mark and Nathan Purdon-trained Millwood Nike extended her winning sequence to nine in accounting for the NZB Harness Million 3YO Fillies Final field.

Backed down to paying $1 for the win the daughter of Captaintreacherous worked her way to the lead mid race. She went on to win by over a length with Seaclusion, who'd been in the trail, running on well for second.  



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