Merlin's three big wins on Cambridge's Night of Champions

By Michael Guerin

The new prince of pacing Merlin won three titles with one blistering sprint down the Cambridge straight in the $1million Race by Grins on Friday night.

The South Auckland four-year-old pacer, a ball of muscle and energy perfectly honed by trainers Barry Purdon and Scott Phelan and driven with a wizardry befitting his name by Zachary Butcher, won the richest race in New Zealand harness racing.

Win number one.

In doing so he made it five straight victories over arch rival Don’t Stop Dreaming, so is undoubtedbly now, on this night and maybe for plenty more heading forward, owns the title of New Zealand’s best pacer.

That was his second win.

But Merlin did something even more special last night. He won hearts, the hardest thing for any racehorse to do.

Good and even great horses come and go and some times even champions, better horses that Merlin, don’t touch the hearts of those who watch them.

They need that moment, the moment when they win the race they shouldn’t. They need their Rocky moment to make people love them.

Last night Merlin got the love.

It wasn’t that the Race by Grins was ever beyond him but Don’t Stop Dreaming is so good that when he led he shouldn’t have been beatable.

But he was beaten fair and square by Merlin, the horse with the looks and people around him to become the new people’s champion of New Zealand harness racing.

The fairytale angles were everywhere.

Barry Purdon is a legend of the harness racing industry yet had never had a horse in the Race by Grins and never won a $1million race. Boxes ticked.

His training partner Scott Phelan is no longer a junior but a huge part of the business and his name sit comfortably alongside Purdon’s on the stable stationary. He had never been to a Race by Grins until last night.

You can bet he will be back next year.

For Butcher it was his most important win, the child prodigy who grew up down the road from the track he owned last night.

The Butchers are Waikato harness racing’s royal family so for Butcher to win this race, especially for Purdon who took take him from junior driver to superstar, is as good as it gets.

Last night also belonged, as does Merlin, to a man who couldn’t be there.

Merlin is owned by Dean Shannon, the boss of Entain Australia and therefore the most powerful man in New Zealand racing.

Long before he was that he has owned harness horses, hundreds of them. Some good, some slow. But he has never had a Merlin.

“I have loved the trots my whole life. I grew up across the road from the Redcliffe trotting track,” said Shannon.

“I would have loved to be there tonight but was too busy but what Barry and Scotty have done for me has been amazing.”

So what was is like for the new boss of the entire New Zealand racing industry to win our richest pacing race?

“I didn’t win it, Merlin did. I wanted this for him, not me.”

Butcher saved some rare race night words of emotion for Shannon.

“I love you big fella and hoped you enjoyed that at home,” said Butcher.

Yes, love was in the air Cambridge on Friday night. It is what only the chosen few of racing’s special animals can create.

Merlin making magic.

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