Tactics key in tonight's two biggest Group 1s at Alexandra Park

By Michael Guerin

The old saying “talk is cheap” isn’t exactly true when it comes to the biggest harness races.

In fact, the pre-race could have a tangible effect on the outcome of the two huge Group 1s at Alexandra Park tonight.

The pacing stars who have contested the Race By Grins and Taylor Mile in the last month get ready for Round 3 in the $110,000 Messenger Pace tonight while Aussie trotting hero Just Believe will be trying to make it three straight over the locals in the $110,000 Peter Breckon Memorial National Trot.

Both races have different elements to their corresponding contests last Friday with the Australian pacers, Speak The Truth most importantly, finally drawing well in the Messenger while Muscle Mountain, New Zealand’s most talented trotter, returns in the National after missing last Friday.

Their connections have already declared their intentions in both races: Queensland trainer Shannon Price saying Speak The Truth will lead at all costs while Muscle Mountain’s trainer Greg Hope is adamant “we will be leading and staying there.”

If the driver of a top class harness horse with comparable gate speed to its rivals wants to lead and stay in front there really isn’t a lot their rivals can do about it, especially in a mobile start where all horses are at the same speed at dispatch.

So why does that matter so much?

Being on the marker pegs at Alexandra Park saves a horse 1.5 to 2 lengths per bend, which in tonight 2700m races that could mean those runners cover up to 10 lengths less than those in the running line.

That is the simple mathematics behind why harness racing Group 1 distance races, the Cups, Derbys and Oaks, are dominated by the horses on the marker pegs.

That also sees drivers of lesser performed horses happy to hand up the lead to a dominant favourite, hoping to slipstream their way to their best possible result, even a miracle win.

But if we believe Price and Hope, and they have been at the top level long enough that their words carry serious weight, then they also create doubt.

If Speak The Truth leads and runs hard what becomes of, for example, Merlin from barrier 3?

If the Speak The Truth team were talking a different language after a tough month and suggested they’d be looking for a trail, Merlin would be favoured to get the front, from where he would be clear top pick and his odds would crash.

But put him outside the leader and he could face mission impossible over the longer trip.

“We will go out and have a look and Zac should know after 50m if we have a chance of crossing them or not,” says Merlin’s co-trainer Scott Phelan.

“But if we can’t get there and he has to sit parked that won’t be a disaster. He can still win doing that.”

He can. But what punters perceive as value changes dramatically depending on whether you think Merlin is leading or sitting parked.

If you believe the horse drawn 1 is going to lead it is a wise idea to work out who might trail and that could be outsider American Me, and that makes him a Top 4 chance or better.

But the most likely scenario is Speak The Truth, Kango and Merlin create enough pressure early to leave themselves vulnerable and then Don’t Stop Dreaming becomes the horse to beat after his huge second to shock winner Mach Shard last Friday.

As for Mach Shard, on the raw numbers, he can probably win again after his $155 stunner last week for junior driver Crystal Hackett. But fairytales rarely have great sequels.

If Muscle Mountain goes flat out to lead in the National Trot and then stays there as Hope suggests the race becomes enormously more difficult for red hot favourite Just Believe.

The field would almost certainly drop into single file with Just Believe third at best as Hope’s words will have reached the ears of rival drivers and they will want to be close to him and in front of Just Believe.

The Aussie champ is so good he might pull out and sit parked from the bell and still be too good.

But the question now for punters is do you want to take $1.14 for him to win enduring that type of run when you get could $1.30 for him when he was certain to lead in a weaker field last week.

The answer is no, even if he wins. Because that isn’t value in a race which at least now has an element of doubt.

Yes, talk can be cheap. But that doesn’t mean tonight it is not worth listening to.

Michael Guerin's selections for tonight :

R5: Even from the widest draw Empire City is the one to beat, especially if the free-running The Moonstone puts tempo into the race.
R6: Don’t Stop Dreaming could get a handy run without having to work for it and he was enormous in defeat last Friday.
R7: There doesn’t appear to be much between Cyclone Jordy and Demon Blue but the better draw is a big advantage to Jordy.
R8: While Just Believe is the best winning chances backing Oscar Bonavena to run Top 2 from a potential trail at $1.80 makes more sense.

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