The harness racing season is about to get serious.
Not just because some of the best trotters in Australasia step out in one of the strongest races of the last 12 months at Addington tonight but because the couple set to dominate New Zealand harness racing also kick off their season.
Champion trainer Mark Purdon is back from a rare holiday and now in partnership with Natalie Rasmussen, with the new team producing their first representatives tonight.
They may only have four starters, with star trotters Escapee and Cyclone U Bolt facing a daunting task in the Ordeal Cup, but regardless of how tonight unfolds, the Purdon-Rasmussen combination would be short odds to win back the premiership Purdon lost on the last day of last season to Cran Dalgety.
They have a huge number of promising youngsters who have started filtering through to the trials and workouts as well as superstars like I Can Doosit, Smolda (both back in work this week), Adore Me and Border Control to attack the best races with.
And Purdon has given the first hints he may send horses more regularly to destinations like Forbury Park and Southland, which would guarantee plenty of short-priced favourites and some easy additions to their premiership numbers.
"The way the programming and handicapping is going to be this season it will be smart for us to split some of the younger or lower grade horses up,” admits Purdon.
“So you could see more of ours travel.”
A prime example is handy maidens Machs A Flyin and Raesawinner, who clash in race one tonight.
Both should leave maidens before long, with Purdon favouring Machs A Flyin, who has trialled well since coming back from a long injury layoff.
But tonight’s main trot presents a vastly different test, with Escapee and Cyclone U Bolt up against Stig, Vulcan, Sovereignty, Dr Hook and The Fiery Ginga.
“It is going to be a very hard race to win,” says Purdon.
“Both of ours trialled well last Saturday but they are still on the way up.
“Escapee is very good as we all know but her manners can be a bit tricky when she is fresh whereas Cyclone U Bolt will get things right.”
So Purdon is hardly bursting with confidence in a race where luck in the running will be crucial as few horses are good enough to work in a race of this quality and still win.
The obvious exception is Stig, who looked totally out of sorts in his comeback race last Friday, sweating up badly then trotting roughly and never looking a winning chance.
His trainer Paul Nairn is less concerned about that than he is tonight’s wide draw from the 2600m start.
“He was wheezing after the race last week and we think he might have had an allergic reaction to something,” said Nairn.
“And he has worked well since so I expect him to go better but he will settle close to last and that is going to make it very difficult to get around all those good horses and win.”
Nairn also has Dr Hook returning tonight and says the speedster is working well but he would be surprised if he could win having not raced since February.
Vulcan has looked sharp at recent trials and is well suited by the conditions of tonight’s race but a lot will depend on what sort of passage Anthony Butt can negotiate for the 10-time group one winner from the inside of the second line.
The other standout performer tonight will be unbeaten three-year-old Locharburn, who looks a certainty again in race four.
By Michael Guerin (Harness Racing New Zealand)