Trotter of the year title at stake at Sunday's Grand Prix meeting

By Michael Guerin

Oscar Bonavena may have been handed a shot at a most unlikely Trotter of the Year title at Addington on Sunday.

There wouldn’t have been a day in 2023 that Muscle Mountain hasn’t been considered our best trotter and he still is but he will now miss Sunday’s $110,000 Livamol NZ Trotting Free-For-All after a slight setback and won’t race again this year.

He goes to the paddock the winner of eight of 12 starts including two Group 1s in 2023, which encapsulates the harness racing season as it now runs for the calendar year.

But being the best and winning Horse of the Year doesn’t always go hoof in hoof as when the voters get their papers early next year Muscle Mountain’s CV will be missing the two biggest trotting races that matter: the Rowe Cup and the Dominion.

Not much fault of his own there, he galloped but staged a huge recovery for fourth in the Rowe Cup while he suffered atrial fibrillation in the Dominion last start and was pulled up.

But voting forms don’t note circumstances or merit, just finishing positions and while this spring has been a costly rollercoaster for Muscle Mountain, it has seen the renaissance of Oscar Bonavena.

He was the budding champion four years ago but has been fighting his frailities for many of the seasons since until he came back this campaign looking happier and sounder.

Oscar not only beat Muscle Mountain fair and square in the Canterbury Park Trotting Cup but bolted away with the Dominion and, maybe crucially, was second to upset winner Love N The Port in the Rowe Cup in May.

With Muscle Mountain to miss Sunday’s Free-For-All, Oscar Bonavena will start around a $1.20 favourite and if he wins he and Muscle Mountain’s records will look surprisingly similar.

They will both have won two Group 1s during the season being voted on, won similar Group 2, 3 or lesser feature races and have a head-to-head record of 3-3.

If he wins on Sunday, Oscar Bonavena has that second placing in the Rowe Cup as his little bonus credit and while name recognition and simple stunning brillance will take Muscle Mountain a long way toward the title, Oscar Bonavena’s case may be impossible to deny.

The little horse winning Trotter of the Year would be one of the great redemption stories of all time after he won one minor race in 13 starts last year for a mere $45,252 in stakes.

He won’t be the only star trying to potentially seal a Horse of the Year category at Sunday’s Grand Prix meeting as there could also be a title on the line in the $250,000 Garrards Pacing Derby in which Merlin (barrier 4) has the draw advantage over arch rival Don’t Stop Dreaming (6).

Again, it is a case of Don’t Stop Dreaming having felt the better horse for the second half of their three-year-old season but if (there is that word again), Merlin can win the NZ Derby on Sunday and add it to the Northern Derby he won in March and the Harness Million.

That would means his major race body of work could trump Don’t Stop Dreaming although in the latter’s favour will be a 3-1 head to head advantage but that gap could close on Sunday and the early tactical battle in the Derby could be the highlight of the day.

Millwood Nike gets another dreadful draw at barrier 9 as she tries to remain unbeaten in 18 starts in the NZ Pacing Oaks while the NZ Trotting Derby sees a rare Australian age group trotting raider in Not As Promised, who should start favourite.

The day also contains four Group 1 juvenile races, two of each gait, Addington saving the $110,000 Betavet Ace Of Spaces for the male pacers by keeping nominations open, two late entries bringing the field to seven starters.

To see Sunday's Grand Prix fields click here 

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