New Zealand's domination of the Victoria Derby looks set to continue as three of the biggest names confirm they may attack the race. The harness racing classic has been kind to Kiwi raiders in the past 15 years, becoming the Australian feature most likely to fall to a New Zealand-trained pacer.
The reason is simple. It comes at a time when our best 3-year-olds are already matured and hardened by the battles of New Zealand Cup Week in Christchurch and Alexandra Park in December.
Yet Australia's best 3-year-olds are often underdone, with some of them not yet having debuted for the season.
With the heats of the A$200,000 Derby to be run on January 28 and the final a week later, the Kiwis have a huge head start.
This season's assault will be led by Gold Ace, who has won the Sires' Stakes Final,Classic and Sales Series Pace.
He has since had a quiet week but will be back at the trials next week to sharpen up for the heats which, like the Derby itself, will be run at Melton.
But while he was widely tipped to go to Victoria, last season's top juvenile Major Mark is a surprise addition to the New Zealand team.
He was a close second to Gold Ace in theClassic then luckless when three wide in the Sales Series Pace.
"But he has come through those well and deserves his shot at the Derby," said trainer Mark Purdon.
He will be accompanied by stablemates Sleepy Tripp and I Can Doosit, who raced with credit in Victoria last month.
Sleepy Tripp's main aim is the A$425,000 Hunter Cup, also at Melton on February 5.
He will race at Shepparton on January 21 and the Ballarat Cup a week later on his way to the Hunter, for which he is the $7 third favourite.
Purdon's move looks a smart one as Sleepy Tripp is off the front line in the Hunter Cup and Queensland stars Blacks A Fake andwill miss the race.
Smoken Up, who was outstanding winning the South Australia Cup on Saturday night, faces a 10m handicap in the Hunter, while I'mThemightyquinn, favourite for the Hunter Cup, faces a tough lead-in with two major races in Perth in the next fortnight.
"He [Sleepy Tripp] is a good stayer and the conditions of the race suit so it makes sense to go," said Purdon.
I Can Doosit will contest heats of the Australasian Trotting Champs on January 28 before the final a week later and Purdon's confidence has been boosted by Chris Lang, trainer of Australian champion's Gift, not confirming his superstar for the series until the handicaps have been declared.
While Purdon will take three of his stable elite to Victoria, Canterbury trainer Cran Dalgety will make a decision in the next week on whether he also launches a serious assault on the carnival.
Dalgety was initially certain he would take Empyrean to the Derby but that confidence was dimmed when he failed dismally at Cambridge last Friday.
He pulled up with a Nasal discharge so has returned home and his Derby plans will be confirmed next week.
"He is still likely to go but we will wait to see how quickly he gets over this," Dalgety told the Herald.
He will decide on whether Smiling Shard contests the Hunter Cup after he races at Marlborough on Sunday.
"He has done really well since winning the Ashburton Cup and if he wins the Pelorus this week then the Hunter is a realistic goal."
Meanwhile, Stunin Cullen's Hunter Cup aspirations will go under the microscope when he starts a hot favourite in the $55,000 Northern Southland Cup in Invercargill on Thursday.
"He is getting back to his best and won well last start so Melbourne is still on the radar," said trainer Tim Butt.
* Four of New Zealand's biggest stables could aim at the Victoria carnival, which culminates in rich finals on February 5.
* Gold Ace, Sleepy Tripp, Major Mark and I Can Doosit are confirmed to make the trip.
* Stunin Cullen, Smiling Shard and Empyrean are all possibilities to join them.
* Their aims include the Victoria Derby, Hunter Cup and Australasian Trotting Champs.
By Michael GUERIN (Courtesy of the NEW ZEALAND HERALD)