Merlin too good in Flying Mile ahead of next week's $1m Race by Grins

By Michael Guerin

The man who has achieved almost everything possible in Australasian harness racing now has a new target.

Hall of Fame trainer Barry Purdon, and training partner Scott Phelan, have three shots at their first $1million race at Cambridge next Friday.

And judging by the performance of their three starters in Thursday night’s McMillan Equine Feeds $60,000 Waikato Flying Mile at Cambridge, they are the stable to beat.

Merlin showed he has gone to the next level when he sat parked to beat stablemate Sooner The Better in 1:52.17 for the mile with Don’t Stop Dreaming storming into third.

The Purdon/Phelan other starter Mach Shard was held up in sixth but the trifecta showed the four-year-olds have now well and truly had the New Zealand open class pacing baton passed to them.

While the draw reveal for the $1m Race by Grins on Monday could change everything and the arriving Aussies in Better Eclipse and Speak The Truth are top class, the Purdon/Phelan four-year-old pair appear to have reached new highs after their Sydney heroics.

Now they have one more mountain to climb and if one of them does next Friday then it will be the first time in his storied career Purdon has won a $1m race.

They, of course, don’t come around that often and are still relatively new and ironically the closest the stable has come to a $1m win was Sooner The Bettor’s second to Leap To Fame in the Miracle Mile last month.

“We haven’t even been in many $1 million races to have a chance at winning them,” says Purdon.

“In fact these three will be the first ever starters we have had in the Race by Grins.

“I couldn’t be happier with how tonight went, Merlin was great and Sooner The Bettor is getting better all the time.

“It is a credit to the whole stable and it is pretty exciting.”

If Merlin draws well on Monday he could even start favourite next Friday night but Don’t Stop Dreaming is clearly the big danger among the Kiwis as he stormed home and is another who seems to have been hardened to open class racing from his Australian travels.

Phelan can go one better than his training partner in that he hasn’t even been to a Race by Grins night but will now be driving Mach Shard in it.

“He went okay tonight and I’d love to get a good draw with him next week and get to the markers,” says Phelan.

“But Merlin has turned into a beast. We all drove our own races tonight and he was too good even sitting parked.”

The timeline for the Race by Grins is now the three potential emergencies are declared on Friday and final acceptance on Sunday with the one floating emergency chosen from those three.

The barrier draw will be done on Monday, with markets closed, before the reveal at 7.30pm on Monday night.

Thursday night’s other lead-up went to most people’s plans when Oscar Bonavena led, handed that role to Queen Elida, then beat her for speed up the passing lane in their Flying Trot Mile.

Oscar back to his best adds more depth to one of the great trot races of all time in this part of the world and Monday’s barrier draw will be crucial.

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