Start critical in today's Alabar Kaikoura Cup
By Michael Guerin
Northern pacer Old Town Road is good at something he probably has no right to be good at.
Whether that is enough to win today’s $60,000 Alabar Kaikoura Cup could come down to the manners and tactics of his key rivals.
Today’s 2400m standing start feature looms as a huge pointer to the New Zealand Trotting Cup on November 14 as it pits Old Town Road against Akuta for the first time this campaign, with Self Assured among their opponents as he looks to regain something like his best form.
But all things being equal if Akuta and Old Town Road both get a fair shot at winning after the early scramble for positions then it will surprise if one of them doesn’t come out on top.
The start of the Kaikoura Cup is unique and crucial, with the horses crammed on to the front line with crowds and noise either side of them.
Those distractions could be enough to see young driver Olivia Thornley taking the cautious approach with Akuta to get him away safely but slowly to keep his standing start manners on an even keel before the NZ Cup.
She did that at Ashburton last Monday, letting him settle early before launching to sit parked and Akuta still won easily so he could definitely do that again.
But he was beaten sitting parked outside Kango in this race last year and if a natural front running speedster like Old Town Road reaches the front he will take enormous catching.
Many northern open class pacers lack front-line experience in standing start races as the better horses end up back in the handicaps very quickly in the north because of the small fields.
So today will be only the third time in 10 standing starts Old Town Road has been on the front line.
While some horses can find that very claustrophobic, Old Town Road has actually been not only safe but fast away in both his front line standing start attempts and if that continues today he could gain an important tactical advantage.
“He has been really good off the front line,” says trainer John Dickie.
“In fact last year he began almost too well in the New Zealand Cup and had it not been for Copy That being directly inside him he might have got around to the front.
“I think he will handle that part all right and while he is still on the way up if he managed to begin fast and get in front of the two All Stars runners (Akuta and Self Assured) then that changes things.
“He will definitely improve with this run but being in front around Kaikoura would give him a good chance.”
Of course if Akuta hops on to the right hoof early and ends up handier than last week going into the first corner then race is still his to lose as, with those slight fitness queries, Old Town Road could even relinquish an early lead if a challenge from the favourite came soon enough and hard enough.
Standing start manners could also decide today’s open class trot with Aardiebythehill very hard to beat of he can lead or stay handy especially as $2.80 favourite Oscar Bonavena has to start from the 15m backmark.