Saturday night at Melton’s Tabcorp Park will see the 66th running of the time-honoured premier harness racing handicap of Australasia, the Del-Re National Food Group A.G. Hunter Cup.
The event is steeped in tradition and prestige.
The annual stand-start Group 1 is a highlight on the Australasian harness racing calendar, an event whose honour roll is adorned by such stars of the game as Minuteman (1964 and 66), Pure Steel (1977, 78 and 80), Koala King (1981), Gammalite (1982), Popular Alm (1983), Blossom Lady (1994 and 95), Elsu (2005 and 2006) and Blacks A Fake (2008), just to name a few.
This year another star will etch their name among the sport’s elite, and a highly competitive race looks assured with most of the key players peaking in form at the right time.
With $400,000 in prize money on offer for the 3280m marathon, the race annually draws the strongest and fastest pacers from around the land and abroad.
In recent years, the Kiwis have boasted bragging rights in the Hunter Cup, largely thanks to genius siblings Tim and Anthony Butt, who have combined to win four of the last five versions of the race.
Anthony has seven times driven the winner of the Hunter Cup, his domination of the event kicking off back in 1994 when the mighty Blossom Lady prevailed at Moonee Valley.
The super mare would return to the Valley 12 months later and go back to back, despite being forced to punch the breeze outside the leader from the 1700m. The champion stayer trained by the late Derek Jones raced to the lead down the back the final time and held off all comers late – including the brilliant Golden Reign – to score the gutsiest of successes.
Nine years later Butt combined with his brother, trainer Tim, aboard Mister D G, who defeated Mont Denver Gold by 1.3m.
The siblings would win the race again five years later, this time with Mr Feelgood, kicking off a domination of the event with further wins in 2011 with Stunin Cullen, 2012 with Choise Achiever and last year with Mah Sish.
The Butts are back this year with reigning champion Mah Sish shooting for back to back wins in the big race. And if his most recent win at Ballarat – he led all the way to take out The Pure Steel on Saturday night – is any indication, the brothers might be the toast of the town again.
Another Land of the Long White Cloud Hunter Cup hopeful will be Christen Me from the Cran Dalgety yard, whose runner-up effort behind locally trained Restrepo in the Petstock Ballarat Pacing Cup last weekend was enormous.
With star Kiwi reinsman Dexter Dunn in the sulky, Christen Me looked home for all money before fast-finishing Restrepo nabbed him with a last-gasp lunge.
Christen Me’s Australian record is first-class, with wins in the Hondo Grattan and Chariots Of Fire last year, followed by a second in the Miracle Mile behind Beautide and a third in the Victoria Cup before last Saturday’s Ballarat effort.
One of the leading hometown hopes at Melton in the Hunter Cup will be Andy Gath-trained big-race specialist Caribbean Blaster.
The son of Bettors Delight, who won the SA Cup earlier this month and last year captured the SEW-Eurodrive Victoria Cup, is flying.
Before his Globe Derby success he had run placings in the Victoria Cup and a free-for-all at Melton after an enormous fourth when he worked overtime in a top-quality Cranbourne Cup field.
Another local aiming to keep the Hunter Cup in town will be 11-year-old marvel Smoken Up, one of Caribbean Blaster’s regular sparring partners.
The Lance Justice trained-and-driven warhorse was winning races when a lot of his rivals weren’t even born, yet he is expected to line up in one of the few big races to elude him so far in a career that has netted 70 wins and over $3.5 million in prize money.
Smoken Up found the lead at Ballarat before finishing fourth and being relegated to fifth on protest.
He ran a head second to The Gold Ace in The Shepparton Cup off a 30m back mark, was second to Caribbean Blaster in a stirring finish to the Group 1 SA Cup, was second to Keayang Steamer in the Horsham Pacing Cup, won the Laser Electrical over Mah Sish at Melton in December, and ran fifth in last year’s Miracle Mile behind Beautide after a blistering victory in the Group 1 Cordina Sprint a week earlier.
Up-and-comer Im Corzin Terror from the powerful Dean Braun stable has his eyes on the prize after running second to Mah Sish in The Pure Steel and might be the under-the-radar Hunter Cup chance.
On January 11, Im Corzin Terror’s run to win the Bendigo Cup was sublime, coasting clear of his rivals for a 14.8m triumph. He’s got gears.
New South Wales hot pot The Gold Ace got shuffled back early at Ballarat despite most punters assuming he’d find the lead. He’s much better than his sixth-place finish in that race suggests, with big wins in the Shepparton Cup, Cranbourne Cup and Kevin Newman Cup at Menangle at three of his previous four runs before Ballarat. Astute punters won’t be jumping off the Belinda McCarthy-trained star too quickly.
And of course the honest Restrepo will take winning form into the race after the Emma Stewart-trained gun took out the Ballarat feature with superstar driver Gavin Lang aboard.
Adding to the intrigue in the Hunter Cup is the fact the race is a stand-start event, with a key stipulation of entry into the event being that horses must have qualified for the race by starting in and beginning safely in a minimum of one stand-start race in the 12 months leading up to the event.
The A.G. Hunter Cup will be the jewel on a big night of harness racing at Melton on Saturday night, with other highlights to include the Group 1 Chiko Australasian Trotting Championship, the Group 2 Empire Stallions Vicbred Platinum Trotting Mares Sprint Championship, the Group 3 Glenferrie Farm Melton Trotters Cup and the heats of the VHRSC Victoria Derby.
NEED TO KNOW:
- Free entry
- Gates open from 5:30pm
- Free Kids entertainment including Animal Farm, Jumping Castle, Face Painting, Sulky Trotting Carousel,
Giant Slide & Bungee Run
- Music on the front lawn
- On-course betting voucher promotions
- After party in the Legends Bar from 10:30pm onwards
- TAB Jackpot
PICK-UP POINT: 4:30pm, Saturday 1 February Federation Square, Russell St extension (located at the back of Federation Square near carpark). Travelling to Tabcorp Park, arriving approximately 5:30pm.
DEPARTS TABCORP PARK: At 11:00pm, travelling to Federation Square.
To book call (03) 8746 0600
Ticket price - $10 per person
There’s plenty of dining options available so be sure to book your spot today by calling (03) 8746 0631
Home Straight Restaurant - $65 per person
3 Course Buffet
Cash Bar Facilities
Dress Code – Smart Casual
Toolern Room - $110 per person
3 Course Meal plus Beer Wine & Soft Drink
Dress Code – Jacket & Tie
Corporate Suites - $140 per person
Accommodate between 20-30 guests
Deluxe Canapes plus Beer, Wine & Soft Drink
Private Wait Staff
Private balcony overlooking the Home Straight
TO BOOK CALL (03) 8746 0631
By Cody Winnell (Harness Racing Australia)