Merlin poised for winning return to Alexandra Park

By Michael Guerin

The trainers set to completely dominate Alexandra Park tonight say their biggest gun is ready to fire.

If you saw dual Derby winner Merlin at last week’s trials you would agree.

The exceptional four-year-old headlines the first Alexandra Park meeting for 2024 as he starts to hone down toward a Sydney campaign that could include the Chariots Of Fire (March 2) and, if he wins that, the A$1million Miracle Mile a week later.

Merlin hasn’t raced since winning the NZ Derby at Addington on December 10 but looked super sharp at the trials last Saturday and could spearhead a huge night for trainers Barry Purdon and Scott Phelan.

They have reps in six races and while nobody expects them to win them all, they have realistic hopes in them all.

Merlin has the raw speed and respect to lead Race 7 and would then would be almost a certainty as he continues this march toward being one of the best pacers in the country.

“He just keeps getting better, not that he needs to get much better,” says Scott Phelan.

“He was really good on the clock at the trials last week and is ready to win.

“We also think Sooner The Better (No.2) is an open class horse so he will go well but he just isn’t as good as Merlin.”

The stable also has Mach Shard returning home from three years campaigning in Australia in the same race and while he may find the right races back home this probably isn’t it.

The Purdon/Phelan assault starts in Race 4 where Halberg has a class edge on most of his rivals but might need to trot more squarely than he did at the trials last week where a race rival in Dhoni Trouble beat him.

The have the promising Jeremiah in race 5 where he meets Iron Brigade, who was brilliant at Cambridge last start and has the draw advantage, which could be crucial all night as most races as over the mobile mile.

“He is a really nice horse who we think is a Derby horse, but Iron Brigade might be too,” says Phelan.

They again have three runners in Race 6, with two more potential Derby contenders in Better Knuckle Up (6) and Escape Artist (8) as well as luckless mare Artisan (7).

“The two three-year-olds are good horses and while there isn’t much between them Better Knuckle Up has the better draw.

“But it won’t be an easy race because Throwyaarmsaroundme is going well and might be hard to catch.

“Don’t forget about Artisan. She hasn’t had any luck and she can win a race soon.”

Kiss is a smart another three-year-old resuming in Race 8 and while she is as good as her rivals she looked flattened toward the back end of last campaign so there could be a reluctance to drive her tough from the outside draw in the small field.

She also finds herself in a tricky race with three speedsters inside her, including Akatea who looked ready to win beating Minjee at the trials last Saturday.

For all of the talent in their line-up tonight, Phelan says the stable’s best chance after Merlin could well be Ultimate Racy Girl in the last race.

“She is a good filly who raced huge against the best fillies last season and she should probably win.”

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