Who's the best of the best?

By Michael Guerin

Up for grabs: One crown. Condition: Well worn, plenty of former owners.
Apply: In person at Alexandra Park, Menangle, Cambridge and Addington.

That could be the advertisement for the role of New Zealand’s best pacer, a title with two very obvious applicants, both of whom race this weekend.

Over the last four years the crown of New Zealand’s has sat on the head of Copy That, Self Assured and even briefly Akuta. Two of them are now injured and will not be part of our racing lives for the next six months or longer while as brave and blessed as Self Assured is his best feels like it is behind him.

He could prove that wrong in a four-horse field at Alexandra Park tonight but to do so he will have to beat one of the young pretenders who are bidding to be the new No.1 in Merlin.

Merlin races over 2200m mobile tonight and his arch rival Don’t Stop Dreaming at Menangle tomorrow night.

They have both embellished their records this summer, Merlin winning the NZ Derby while Don’t Stop Dreaming won the Franklin Cup and much more importantly finished second to Leap To Fame in last Saturday’s A$500,000 Hunter Cup.

So while Self Assured and even Old Town Road have claims on their day to be as talented as the youngsters, it is time for one of the four-year-olds to take over.
But which one?

It has often felt like Merlin was faster and Don’t Stop Dreaming tougher. But Merlin seems to be getting tougher and Don’t Stop Dreaming faster. They are both, quite simply, turning into complete racehorses.

Don’t Stop Dreaming seems to do more incredible things but Merlin seems to win the races that matters, like two Derbys and two Harness Millions.

Merlin should make it 15 wins from 21 starts in the free-for-all tonight, which has basically been put on to give him and Self Assured a race and tonight’s meeting a draw card.

“He has improved since his win two weeks ago and I think Zac (Butcher, driver) will use his speed early,” says co-trainer Barry Purdon.

If that happens Merlin should be able to go as fast, or as slow, as Butcher wants and then it will take a wicked performance from Self Assured to beat him, although he did just that to Akuta in the NZ Free-For-All three months ago.

After tonight Merlin will head to Menangle in two weeks to try and win his way into the A$250,000 Chariots Of Fire on March 2 and then maybe the Miracle Mile a week later.

Waiting for him in the Chariots will almost certainly be Don’t Stop Dreaming, who is on the quick back-up after last Saturday’s Hunter Cup into a Chariots prelude at Menangle tomorrow night.

“He travelled so well we are happy to back him up because we are confident he can show his best,” says co-trainer Mark Purdon.

Don’t Stop Dreaming meets Merlin’s stablemate Sooner The Better and NSW star Better Be The Best in the mobile mile but on his best form he should win.

So the Merlin and Don’t Stop Dreaming show should roll on this weekend, then through the Chariots and maybe even the A$1million Miracle Mile and eventually back home.

They will both be in the $1million Race by Grins at Cambridge on April 12, Merlin getting his slot this week while Don’t Stop Dreaming’s connections already own one.

If they make it that far the Auckland Cup beckons in May and by the first scarf of winter we should know who wears the crown: Merlin or Don’t Stop Dreaming. One thing is for sure. It will be earned the hard way.

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