Trans-Tasman interest heating up Cambridge's Night of Champions

By Michael Guerin

Cambridge is preparing for one of the strongest Australian harness racing invasions New Zealand has seen in decades.

And the man who invented the $1million Race by Grins is hoping they bring plenty of fans with them.

Better Eclipse is the first Australian-trained pacer officially signed for a slot for the Race by Grins on April 12 having secured the Entain/NZ TAB slot yesterday.

He joins Merlin as the first two horses signed but he is almost certain to be joined by Australia’s best pacer Leap To Fame, who is believed to have up to five slot holders chasing him.

There is also slot holder interest in New Zealand Cup winner Swayzee, Rock N Roll Doo and last season’s Miracle Mile winner Catch A Wave among others.

Merlin’s arch rival Don’t Stop Dreaming is all but guaranteed as part of his ownership group who have a slot while other leading contenders for a place in New Zealand’s only $1million harness race include former winner Self Assured and last year’s runner-up Old Town Road.

Better Eclipse is an ideal fit for the Entain/TAB slot as he straddles both countries, being trained in Victoria but having raced so well here last autumn.

“His record speaks for itself with wins at Group 1 through to Group 3 level, and he never gives up,” says Entain’s New Zealand managing director Cameron Rodger.

“What’s more, he’s a familiar name to both Australian and New Zealand punters, which is really important as we look to increase engagement in our New Zealand features across the Tasman.”

Better Eclipse’s signing could hardly work better for trainers Jess Tubbs and Greg Sugars as they are already bringing their champion trotter Just Believe for the new $575,000 TAB Trot the same night, which is likely to have three leading Australian trotters.

The Australian participation and the new trotter’s slot race will take Race by Grins night to a new level and Cambridge boss David Branch says this is the culmination of the club’s vision in inventing the night three years ago.

“We wanted this to be a big Australasian event and one of the great nights of harness racing,” says Branch.

“The standard of horses we are looking at having here for both races now could make it the strongest night of the season on either side of the Tasman based on the sheer number of elite horses, which is tremendously exciting.”

But Branch says the red hot racing isn’t just what the meeting they have branded the Night of Champions is about.

“When you get horses like Leap To Fame (likely), Just Believe, maybe Swayzee and now Better Eclipse coming to take on Merlin, Don’t Stop Dreaming, Oscar Bonavena and Muscle Mountain you hope they will bring Australian fans with them too.

“There aren’t too many racing towns like Cambridge in the world and people who come for this race can have a real racing experience of both codes while they are here. So we hope they take advantage of that.”

Continuing that theme Branch says he wants the night to be “the Karaka Millions of harness racing” in regards to crowd pull and after party.

“We can’t be as big as the Karaka Millions, which was pretty speciall, because we will cap our night at 5000 people when tickets go on sale on Friday,” he said.

“But we have a big band signing for the after party, which we will announce soon, and we would like to think the local racing community will come enjoy a chance to get together without having to travel to Auckland.

“This level of event is what we dreamed of when we started the Race By Grins and to have it, the TAB Trot and the huge party in one night is what harness racing needed so to to see it coming together it very exciting for us and the industry.”

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