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Hayden Cullen has spoken of the “surprise” he felt when it was first mentioned that he take over the All Stars stables business at Rolleston. Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen stunned many in the sport when they announced last week that they were intending to take extended leave from the sport, and that their stable foreman Hayden Cullen and his wife Amanda would take over the business from January 1. It will be re-branded “Cullen Racing Stables”. HRNZ Marketing caught up with Hayden and Amanda Cullen as they look ahead to the biggest challenge of their working lives.     HRNZ Marketing

By Dave Di Somma, Harness News Desk    Major All Stars Racing Stables supporter Phil Kennard has called today’s announcement “big news” and “a brave call”. Phil and Glenys Kennard have had co-ownership of a string of champions with Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen including the likes of Lazarus, Spankem, Ultimate Sniper and Thefixer. Their association started with Purdon (and then training partner Grant Payne) with Fiery Falcon a dozen or so years ago.   Right now they estimate they have 12 to 14 horses at the All Stars’ Rolleston base, with many more at other stables in both the North and South Islands. “They are sensational at what they do,” says Kennard. According to HRNZ statistics the combo of Purdon and Rasmussen have trained 889 winners since 2014, with total stakes approaching $29m. Only last Tuesday they produced the trifecta in the New Zealand Cup with Self Assured, Spankem and Ashley Locaz.   News that they are disbanding their partnership at the end of the year was not totally unexpected for Kennard. He knows the physical and mental toll that running such a big operation has had on them. “We were not that surprised. .... It’s a brave call, and one you have to admire.” Purdon and Rasmussen say they will have at least a 12 month sabbatical. From January current stable foreman Hayden Cullen and his wife Amanda will take over the lease on the Rolleston property.  The new business will be known as Cullen Racing Stables.   Purdon and Rasmussen say they will continue to purchase yearlings, and  provide support for Cullen Racing Stables, especially in the lead up to big events like next June’s Harness Jewels. Kennard is yet to learn of the intricate details of what the new arrangement will mean for owners like himself. “We are treating it as a business as usual. We are not going to panic, as they say ‘one door shuts and another door opens’, and we have a lot of confidence in Hayden and Amanda.” “We are not rushing into anything and would be disappointed if anyone did.”

New Zealand's most successful ever horse racing stable is being disbanded in news that will stun the industry. All Stars Racing, the all-conquering harness racing stable of champion trainers Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen, will cease training from December 31. The pair remain together as a couple but has decided to take a year away from training horses and if and when they choose to return it will be on a much smaller scale than the huge operation they run at Rolleston on the outskirts of Christchurch. Their state of the art property will remain open but be run by current stable foreman Hayden Cullen and his wife Amanda, with Purdon and Rasmussen happy to help out around the times of the major carnivals if needed.   But the days of the All Stars machine which has dominated harness racing on both sides of the Tasman and is clearly one of the best in the world, are over. "It is time for a break," Purdon told the Herald. "Between us Nat and I have been training or working with horses almost 70 years combined," says Purdon who is 56. Rasmussen is 43. "We want to have a break, freshen up and take time to enjoy life next year. "And during that break we will take time to consider what our future looks like." Purdon says he will retain his race driving licence so he can still drive at major race meetings but Rasmussen is still considering whether she will. "Hayden is a good young trainer and we have made a commitment to him that at least initially we will drive the horses at major carnivals if needed. "We have told him we are happy to come help out leading in to these carnivals but the stables are going to be his with his wife Amanda's and the business will be theirs, definitely not ours.   "All Stars Racing will be closed down from December 31 and if we even come back to training full time I would say it would be a on a lot smaller scale. "But that is something we will think about during our year off." Purdon will take a team of elite horses to Australia for a small campaign in late summer to target major races there out of respect for their owners and the fact Cullen will be busy setting up his new business. Purdon and Rasmussen dominated the New Zealand Cup carnival at Addington last week, winning the New Zealand Cup for the sixth time the last seven years as well as three other group one races. Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen Their domination is like nothing ever seen in New Zealand racing before with the stable having broken every record there is in the harness industry. Purdon is bred to be a champion trainer, like his father Roy and brother Barry but since he went out on his own training in 1995 he has trained the winners of a staggering $58million in New Zealand alone while he has won most of Australia's richest races multiple times.   Rasmussen joined him as life and training partner in 2013 and the All Stars operation went up a level, with the Australian trainer having a relentless work ethic and organisational skills as well as being a wonderful big race driver. Their army of superstar pacers is too long to list but is headlined by Lazarus and in the last 12 months they have trained the winner of the New Zealand and Auckland Cups as well as the Inter Dominion Pacing and Trotting Finals. Winning normal group ones like Oaks and Derby races are so common they barely register. Purdon and Rasmussen told their staff of their decision to step away from the industry full time this morning and were pleased many of their owners not only support their move but say they will support Cullen in his new business from the All Stars property. But the change to the landscape of New Zealand harness racing will be enormous. The stable dominate betting markets and race days and well as the yearling sales. For many of their rivals their leaving will create opportunity and even renewed optimism about their chances to win at the highest level. And new faces winning the biggest race won't do New Zealand harness racing any harm.   Will Purdon, and even Rasmussen, eventually return to fulltime training? Probably. But will the juggernaut that is All Stars Racing ever re-start and conquer all in its path? Almost certainly not. So today's news is not just the end of an era, but the end of one of the greatest chapters in New Zealand racing history.   Michael Guerin Courtesy of New Zealand Herald

Most interest in the fillies heat of the Sires Stakes on Thursday is likely to centre on Town Echo making her All Stars debut but Natalie warns against reading too much into the fact she has switched from What’s Your Secret to drive the newcomer. “Really it was Mark’s drive but he is in Auckland and when we got the filly we agreed that one of us would drive her in the series. That is the reason Jim Curtin is on What’s Your Secret and I think he will suit her” Town Echo is still getting to know All Stars and vice versa. “She worked well this morning (Tuesday) but she has a tricky draw and it is not as if she is just going to go out and win it. She will need some luck. She won’t want to be out working during the running” Natalie said. “I would have liked if better if we had got her a little earlier and could have run in an earlier heat. It is either qualify or she is out with this race” “Actually of ours I think it will come down to the run they get. What’s Your Secret has done nothing wrong. She doesn’t have a great draw but it might suit her to be held up for a run. And Avana shouldn’t be overlooked. She has had some tough draws and I think she will be a better filly when she gets the opportunity to get on the pace. Her win down south showed she has the ability” Wanna Play With Me and Major Moose are both coming off disappointing runs but expect better this time. “I think there was a bit going on with both of them last start. We had had a bug around at home. Major Moose has to be competitive in a maiden race. He worked good enough this morning. He is a bit of a lazy bugger at home but he should go well. Wanna Play With Me is up against boys again but she is trotting well at home”   Courtesy of All Stars Stables

The old timers used to say that patience was the only thing in racing that didn’t cost much and Olivia Thornley proved the theory last night at Addington. The astute young driver has always favoured the “soft hands, quiet aggression” approach to her driving and as with all youngsters sometimes it has cost her. But lessons well learned and what a beaut drive to get Aqua Sancta home at Addington. Olivia pushed forward early, settled in the trail and was then caught three back. But until the 600m she sat in her usual calm manner but eased off the fence at the right time and was trailing the leading contenders at the home turn. A good place to be. Then she capitalised, surging forward, the blinds working to help the enthusiasm of the horse who had been disappointing last start, to give Olivia a well deserved win. A natural horsewoman off the track, Olivia is an increasing presence on it and with the continued backing from Mark and Natalie looks in for a lot more success yet. It was a great result all round for All Stars in their debut for the night with Aladdin coming off the trail to run down What’s Your Secret on a slushy track but still breaking 28 for the last 400m and running 2.27 overall. “He was really good” Mark said of the winner. “He had the run but as I said in the preview I think he needed more racing than we thought and he has kept improving which is a big thing. Good to win a race for Jean and Bill too” Natalie wasn’t disappointed with What’s Your Secret by any stretch. “Look, she went really good. I was quite thrilled with her actually. She did the work and fought on strongly..I can’t wait to get her in behind and let her sprint home (parked on debut) and while i am not comparing her to the top fillies we have had at this stage I really like her and I think she has a future at higher level” Natalie’s enthusiasm on a cold night didn’t end there. Rock Legend’s Sires Stakes heat placing had her buzzing. “I was just thrilled with that. I mean he had to work into the open and work hard and he ran on well. He booked his trip to Auckland (Sires Stakes heat) on that run. “Horses like him that keep improving with every run are exciting” Mark was in no way disappointed with Its All About Faith who trailed winner Krug and fought on strongly. You got the impression he is looking forward to the next clash between the two which may not happen until the Sires Stakes Final. But the pair seem headed for more great clashes. “I was a wee bit surprised Krug went to the front like that” Mark said suggesting the stable’s pre race map was different from the outcome. “However we got the run after that and he was not good enough on the night. But actually I was thrilled with him” Tim was not disappointed with Delightful Dude but “hoped for a little more” and Olivia who got cover behind Natalie with Stag Party though his was a fair effort at this stage of his career.   Courtesy of All Stars Stables

The most feared stable in New Zealand harness racing gets a little more serious about their comeback at Addington tonight, but champion trainer Mark Purdon says some of his runners come with a warning. After a deliberately patient return from lockdown, the All Stars produce 10 starters over four races tonight and will have the favourite in all four. But Purdon says their softly-softly approach to the comeback means punters should be careful. "The ones racing are fit enough to race but we had bad weather here a few weeks ago which set a few of the team back fitness-wise," warns Purdon. The stable has four juvenile trotters in the first race tonight and Purdon rates Wanna Play With Me (R1, No2) as their best chance even though he isn't driving it. "I don't base who I am driving on who is the best chance, often it can come down to an array of other reasons," explains Purdon. "The filly I am driving — Paramount Princess — goes really well and so too does Mexicana, even though she can be a bit tricky on the bends while she is still learning. "But Wanna Play With Me is trotting well and is our top chance," he told the Herald yesterday. The stable also has four juvenile pacers in race four and Bettor Call Me (No1) has the draw and the experience to be the best chance. "They all go well but for these young horses the draws can be crucial. He [Bettor Call Me] ran second last campaign in a Sires' Stakes heat and I think he will have gate speed to use the draw. "Of the others, Stag Party and Bettor Twist are both on debut and should improve whereas I think Delightful Dude will need one run, maybe two to see his best." Italian Lad (R5, No15) would seem to have a decent class edge on his rivals and should win but has at least two factors against him.   "He comes out of those good three-year-old races which were all mobile so reverting to a stand we have put him on the unruly," says Purdon. Aqua Sancta (R9, No1) has burned the punters before but Purdon says he has strengthened this campaign and from the ace might be too good. ‚óŹ The stable roll out their big guns such as Auckland Cup winner Self Assured, Princess Tiffany and Another Masterpiece for their first race starts of their new campaigns at Addington next week while they also have 10 horses booked on a transporter next week bound for Auckland where they will add huge depth to the northern racing. The team will be headlined by Inter Dominion trotting champion Winterfell who prefers right-handed racing and Purdon and partner Natalie Rasmussen will treat the horses on a case-by-case basis as to who returns to Canterbury for feature races, who stays in Auckland and who heads to Australia.   Michael Guerin

By Dave Di Somma - Harness News Desk    The all powerful All Stars stables are about to have their first starters on raceday since the Covid-19 lockdown. Trainers Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen will line up two of their unbeaten two-year-old trotters, La Reina Del Sur and Regal Attire at Addington on Sunday, against the likes of  Eurokash, stable-mate Franco Jorik, and Time Up the Hill. It caps off a big week for the team, with 48 of the 55 horses they have in work going to the trials on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Making her way in an efficient manner through the smooth organisation that is All Stars stable is Mikayla Lewis a promising young horsewoman who is likely to be wearing the stable colours at some time in the new season. Mikayla, partner of Nathan Purdon who is training in partnership with Cran Dalgety, already has a very healthy strike rate from her race driving having posted 10 wins from 173 drives the most notable being behind Mach Shard as a concession driver for Barry Purdon in August 2018 . During that time she was working alongside Nathan atnBarry’s before they returned south. However the bulk of her wins have been with Brent White of Ashburton where she was employed before travelling north then returned to after the end of her time there. “Brent got me started in the driving ranks and we did quite well but I needed to look closer to Christchurch. One night we were out socially with Mark and Natalie and Nat said that if a position became available they would be interested if I was and here I am” In her first season of driving (2017-2018) Mikayla posted 5 wins from 73 drivesher first winner, Petite’s Blue Chip coming at Addington on September 2017. Nothing like starting at the top. Three of her wins were behind Xmas Joyella, also trained by Brent and there were three second placings with trotter Missie Castleton, Jesse Wedderell and Donna Williamson also offered support. The following season she had success with Mach Shard and Benson Boys in Auckland and ended the season with wins back with the White stable when Tokyo Joe and Rogie Falls were successful. She has had limited opportunities this term witha win nd three minor placings from just over 30 drives, one of the minors for Grant Payne. Mikayla, like most juniors, ust loves to get a raceday drive but in the meantime she is concentrating on work and trials drives for All Stars as a priority.   Courtesy of All Stars Stable

The Mark Purdon - Natalie Rasmussen stable has labelled their open day for their owners a "big success". Over the weekend around 60 owners turned up to watch their horses in action at the All Stars stables in Rolleston. The owners were brought in in relays to comply with Covid-19 social distancing protocols.  The initiative was all about getting owners to see their horses in action after being barred from doing so during the Alert 4 lockdown. Here's a video of the open day which ran from 8am to midday on Saturday.

Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen's nitty gritty harness racing assessment under L3 and what is a return to racing might look like for them.   Courtesy of All Stars Stables

Champion trainer Mark Purdon hasn’t given up on getting New Zealand’s best pacer to this year’s New Zealand Cup. But the next set of scans on Inter Dominion champion Ultimate Sniper could be a crucial decider. Purdon, like everybody else in New Zealand harness racing, is adjusting to life without the early morning start and the smell of horses in his nostrils as we go through the Covid-19 lockdown. He and partner Natalie Rasmussen decided to turn all their horses out as soon as racing was halted and he says even if the country returns to Level 3 by the end of this month and racing by June, they will not line up another horse this season. “If things go as planned we are probably looking at starting training again in the first week of May, depending of course on what the Government says,” says Purdon. “So we definitely won’t have any horses racing for the rest of the season, even though like everybody else, we will be happy to see racing resume.” Purdon says the All Stars will target late August or September to roll out their horses at a time when a regionalised racing model could see Addington racing twice a week. “We have a number of horses spelling at home who can come back into work straight away and they have enabled us to keep the staff on a rotation to feed and look after the horses. “That and the Government subsidy has allowed us to pay our staff at 80 per cent of their usual wage and I think that is important.” When the horses do start to roll back into work one who there are not expected to be problems with is excitement machine Self Assured, who even though he missed the Miracle Mile last month because of a minor issue. But Purdon is also cautiously optimistic about Ultimate Sniper, who hasn’t been seen since capping a remarkable unbeaten Inter Dominion campaign at Alexandra Park in December. He was found to have a small tear in a suspensory and initially there we fears he could miss a year of racing but Purdon is now hopeful that won’t be the case. “It was a strange one because he never took a lame step so we got it early enough. “The indications are good so far and he is on the water walker at Margaret Park in Waikato. “They do a great job with them there and they are able to work through cause it is just the two of them working there I think. “I think because he has been there when he comes back into work, providing his next scan is all good, he will have a good fitness base. “At this stage, and again it is dependant on his scans, that could be in July and if it is, with that water walker fitness base, he could well make it to the Cup meeting. “So we are hoping that is the case.” One thing about the shortened season it should guarantee Ultimate Sniper the Horse of the Year title, with his only likely challengers probably Winterfell or Amazing Dream is they clean swept the rest of their races for the season, which is Amazing Dream’s case was a realistic possibility. With those races gone, Ultimate Sniper’s Inter domination should get him the top award, although whether we all get together to celebrate it in August or September is anybody’s guess. Also still in the north and having done his time on the water walker is Spankem who should be back good as gold next season but the future is less certain for his arch rival Turn It Up. He hasn’t been seen since the Jewels last season and Purdon says he will come back into work in May but he is not sure what to expect. “We will give him his chance though and see how he holds up.” While missing a series of group one races and the Jewels will sting the All Stars more than anybody, Purdon takes some solace in the fact races like the two-year-old Sales Series, now called the Harness Millions, and the Sires’ Stakes races, are likely to be run twice next season to make up for missing their usual May window this term. “I think it would be great to have some of those feature races early in the season for us all to aim at, maybe September, and then we can race through the Cup carnival here and in Auckland, providing all the travel restrictions come off.” So what does a man who has worked as hard as Purdon for years do when the merry go round stops for a while? “I have caught up on my sleep,” he laughs. “I slept in one morning till 11am, which I never thought I’d be able to do. “I didn’t realise how exhausted I was until I stopped.”   Michael Guerin

A dramatic work morning in Sydney has seen SELF ASSURED and CHASE AUCKLAND out of the Miracle Mile carnival. A foot abcess has appeared with Self Assured who will be flown home for a spell after a busy campaign. Chase Auckland is suspected to have cracked or fractured a pelvis. He is headed to Sydney University for further tests.   Courtesy of All Stars Stables  

Spankem is not likely to return to the tracks any time soon but there was better news over the fetlock injury that sidelined him from the Inter Dominion series. Originally he was programmed to have an operation on the injury. However after x rays there was doubt raised whether an operation was in fact necessary. All Stars veterinary experts and shared the x rays with other experts who came to the same conclusion. So in the meantime Spankem will have another month’s rest, Mark said, and will then be reassessed probably with further tests at the Matamata Veterinary Services where internationally sophisticated procedures will establish the immediate future with more precision. However the likelihood that an operation on the injury may not be necessary now will shorten the recovery period for the Miracle Mile winner of $1.3m though it will be some time before he is seen out again. Stablemate Turn It Up is at All Stars doing light exercise but his racing future is still in doubt. That All Stars would have five starters in the Inter Dominion Grand Final including the first two favourites after two such stars suffered setbacks is a testimonial to the depth of the current team with Self Assured also being allowed to miss the series in favour of the Auckland Cup.   Courtesy of All Stars Racing Stables

Having taken no harm from his unfortunate incident in the Dominion Handicap which robbed the race of so much interest, Oscar Bonavena will soon be back in the spotlight. Mark and Natalie intend to give him three outings over the Inter Dominion and Cup carnival before he heads later to Australia. Two are at Alexandra Park and one at Cambridge in the Trotters Flying Mile. An R50 + event is on the cards for December 14 followed by the Trotters Flying Mile at Cambridge on December 24 and then the National Trot at Alexandra Park on December 31st. In spite of the Dominion debacle, Oscar Bonavena remains the most exciting trotter in New Zealand. What is more he has Alexandra Park experience from a light campaign there last summer. Oscar Bonavena might gain special attention when he lines up at the Pukekohe trials on Saturday. It is posslble his co-owner Roy Purdon will be on hand to watch the heat all going well. Oscar has won 9 of 13 starts and been second twice so far after being purchased out of the Williamson stable as a later two year old by Chris Ryder and Roy Purdon.   Courtesy of All Stars Racing Stables

When and if Self Assured lines up in the NZ Free for All on Show day at Addington it will be either his 10th or 11th start, probably the 10th. If he wins, history will be made. No horse has ever won the NZ Free for All with so few starts going back to the first edition in 1914. He will not be the first four year old to win the race of course. By a long shot. All Stars have already posted wins at 4 by Ultimate Machete, Lazarus, Auckland Reactor, Young Rufus and Il Vicolo on their own. It was Ultimate Machete’s first try in open company a singular achievement at such a young age. A decade before Lordship, underlining what a great horse he was, added the Free for All to his NZ Cup win at 4 in an era of pacing giants beating the mighty Cardigan Bay in the process. His was one of the most popular wins in the history of Addington for the little black who was one of the most stylish and courageous horses ever seen on the track given his bouts of injury and the long marks he had to run from. Walk into some liquor locations on a Saturday even now and someone will tell you Lordship was the greatest of all. Self Assured may yet show he is in that class. Think of it for a moment. He had not raced until May. He has never been further back than third in a race even though thrown in the deep end having to compete against the best open horses around after his three year old Queensland campaign when unbeaten. All of the other four year olds to have won this race had a lot more experience. But there is one exception even though it was outside of the NZ Free for All. Self Assured’s grandad, Christian Cullen, put up one of the most astonishing performances of modern times winning a $100,000 Free for All at the Addington Cup meeting-as a three year old! It wasn’t the official free for all but a brave promotion at the time by the Met (who said clubs can’t be innovative given the chance ?) to lift the final night of the meeting, a G1 event over 1950m-the first time the distance had been tried- with bonus payments for pacesetters. The race was full of talent. Anvil’s Star was second, Brabham third andrise Master Musician further back. While Lordship won a free for all as a three year old it was in the autumn. No horse of that age ever looked like winning an all aged free for all in November. To be truthful none had ever tried Christian Cullen did. A week after he won the Sires Stakes final So perhaps no surprise his grandson who will have had fewer starts by FFA day could add another record. It was Christian Cullen’s 12th start the night he made history. Self Assured can top that in one respect if he can win on Show Day More of the same only better could be coming up!   Courtesy of All Stars Racing Stables

Sorting out the Ashburton Flying Stakes on Monday is a challenge. Even for the All Stars stable drivers. An unprecedented seven runners in the race, not an ideal for the stable, means a lot of questions and not so many answers. Spankem being restored to the front line; Chase Auckland going on to the unruly; Ultimate Sniper’s standing start record and the exciting potential of Self Assured are just a few of the talking points around the race. So what do the team think ? Nobody knows for sure. Mark says he still favours Spankem. “Being back on the front and with his starting manners it does help his chances” Natalie is aware of Ultimate Sniper’s recent hesitation of standing starts but feels she has the answer. She was very pleased with his final workout on Saturday though Tony Herlihy takes the reins on Monday. “He is a horse who likes to pace in a race with a low head carriage but it doesn’t help him at the start. I’ve made a little adjustment there and I think it will do the trick. “It is not as if he is making big errors. He comes down after a few strides. But he could be better and I think he will be” “I can’t really say how it will turn out. Much will depend on the start of course. It wasn’t the race we were thinking about before the fields were decided” Tim is wary of Chase Auckland having to start from the unruly but fully supports the decision made for the longer term. “Natalie and Mark discussed it with me and their logic is right. It will not help him in this race but looking ahead to the New Zealand Cup it is the right move” “There is a bit more excitement on Cup Day and if he draws two or three for example and starts to get on the toe the chance of him making a clean start are not great. At Methven he showed that standing on his own helps his chances. He can do it from anywhere when all is right but you don’t want to lose your Cup chance right at the start and this will help him Self Assured of course is the horse everyone is talking about. He has only had the one run back but it was a cracking effort and Blair, unexpectedly, gets a second crack. “He is good enough to win and he is a laid back guy who doesn’t worry about too much” Mark says. However he says speculation about a possible NZ Cup tilt if he won was just that. “There are no plans to make a late entry for the Cup”he said. As always Thefixer is the apple cart upsetter. He worked strongly on Saturday and while he goes on from this race given his spring setbacks, he is so competitive and such a complete racehorse he is always a threat. Natalie remains loyal and that in itself is a pointer to a big race. Another Masterpiece, Matthew Williamson’s drive, could cause some concern to rivals too. He caught the eye with his first up run and while he will obviously improve again he could easily fill a hole in a talented field like this. Of the other runners on the day Mark feels the draw gives Pur Dan the edge over Roll The Dice whose latest run was a much improved effort. “Pur Dan went a good race last time and I feel he has the advantage here” Mark is confident about Oscar Bonavena as might be expected but not sure about how Winterfell will go in the Flying Mile. “He can be an unpredictable horse at any time. Some days he will work around here like a star and then then next time he goes out he doesn’t feel the same horse. I have worked him on the straight track today for that reason. He is certainly competitive if he turns up with his best game but he can be a little hard to read at times"   Courtesy of All Stars Racing Stables

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