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Barry Purdon has gone to the bench and called in a super-sub for Friday night's Group I New Zealand Derby at Addington. One of the most successful horseman in Derby history, Purdon has enlisted champion reinsman Ricky May to drive his charge Sky Major in the $175,000 event. Initially the North Island horseman came south with a view to driving the Group I winner himself, but May's availability proved too good to pass up on. "I want to give the horse the best possible opportunity," Purdon said yesterday. "Ricky is one of the best in the business, it makes sense to use him. "He knows all the opposition and their racing styles and he's one of our best in the big races." Purdon's record in the Derby is exemplary, although he hasn't started a horse in New Zealand's greatest three-year-old race since The Cavalier (11th), who he trained in partnership with Scott Phelan, ran in the 2008 edition, and then you have to go back to 2004 to find his next starters; High Calibre (9th) and Derek Bromac (11th). Purdon's five winners came during the 90s, including a golden period where he and his father Roy won four consecutive editions of the race with Kiwi Scooter (1992), Mark Roy (1993), Ginger Man (1994) and Il Vicolo (1995). He was successful on his own accord with Holmes DG in 1998. For May, the race hasn't been quite so kind. He's yet to claim a victory in 22 attempts with just three placings on Spring Alot (2004), Colonel Anvil (1999) and Happy Patron (1986) all he has to show for his efforts - a remarkable statistic considering some of the three-year-olds he has driven in his career. A brave fifth placing in last week's Flying Stakes gives Sky Major more than an outside chance of beating some of his talented opposition, although an outside barrier draw hasn't exactly helped. "We haven't had a great run of barrier draws with him," Purdon said. "But it could turn out to be a good one if there is plenty of speed in the race, Ricky's patient driving style could work right in our favour. He was super last week I thought, he just had to do too much work, but he has come through that run really well. "Now we just need that luck to fall our way." While one Purdon had to scratch his head at yet another average barrier draw, another was smiling after some good fortune. Purdon's brother Mark will line up four horses in the race as he shoots for his third consecutive victory and his 12th victory overall as either a trainer or a driver. And all four have drawn inside the first five marbles with Messini going from barrier one, Aldo Rossi barrier two, Isaiah barrier four and Alleluia barrier five. Gun three-year-olds Locharburn and Tiger Tara had mixed results in the draw stakes with Locharburn drawing six and Tiger Tara one on the second line. By Matt Markham (Courtesy of THE PRESS)              

A superb drive from one of New Zealand's most promising reinsmen ensured victory for second favourite Democrat Party in tonight's Group Two $80,000 Gotta Go Cullen Young Guns Delightful Lady Classic (1700m mobile) for 2-year-old fillies. Zac Butcher might have started from barrier six with the daughter of American Ideal but soon after found himself in the one-one. "She started real well and it was just a matter of luck really," a modest Butcher said. "She was always travelling well and at the top of the straight I thought she would be hard to beat. She doesn't like to let anything get past her once she hits the front," he added. Democrat Party paced the 1700m mobile in a slick 2:02.77. Mile rate: 1:56.2 and final 800m and 400m sectionals in 58 flat and 29.2 seconds. "She's a lovely filly, but still a bit green with a lot of improving to do. She has a really bright future," Butcher said. Democrat Party is trained by Butcher's boss and Hall-Of-Fame conditioner Barry Purdon. He is owned by her breeders F. J. and Mrs K. V. Price. The bay filly has now won two of her three starts and banked $52,400. Past winners (and times) of the Group Two Delightful Lady Classic for 2yo fillies have been: 2013: Angelina Jolie (David Butcher) 2:04.0; 2012: La Norvic De Milo (James Stormont) 2:04.9; 2011: Precious Rose (Zac Butcher) 2:06.5; 2010: Collectable (Nicole Molander) 2:04.9; 2009: Sixpence (Steve Reid) 2:06.1; 2008: World Of Dreams (Maurice McKendry) 2:05.4; 2007: So Deep (Graeme Harris) 2:06.4. By Duane Ranger (Friday March 7, 2014)    

It was appropriate that Sean Grayling drove his first winner on the Pukekohe grass yesterday. After all he grew up with horses at his father’s Pukekohe stable, and learnt to drive at Counties Kidz Kartz just across the road at the Franklin track. It was also a just reward for the 18-year-old who on October 10 last year broke his wrist in a race-fall at Cambridge Raceway. He was rushed to Waikato Hospital and was out of action until December 29. That was just his sixth race-day drive. He’s now had 19 drives for one win, two seconds and a third. Grayling, last year’s North Island Cadet Rising Star Award winner, won behind the Tony Grayling (Dad) trained Brookby Prince. The Monarchy bay gelding was the sixth favourite and paid $14.90 to win the $5,500 Tony and Anne Parker Trot. He got the 5-year-old away quickly from his 30m handicap and was fifth in the running line early before lobbing into the one-one. They then loomed up three-wide on the turn to win by 1-3/4 lengths from the favourite Handoverdakash and Tony Herlihy (MNZM). Roughie It’s Big Time (Phil Butcher) was 2-3/4 lengths back in third. It was Brookby Prince’s second win from 32 starts. She trotted the 2300m stand in 3:08.1. Mile rate: 2:11.5. Last 800m: 64.4 and final 400m in 32.6. “He was going real strong at the top of the straight. That’s when I thought this could be my first win. It was a great feeling all right,” said Grayling who is sponsored by JGH Chartered Accountants. Grayling dedicated the win to his late mother Anne, who passed away on July 24, 2012. He also thanked his father and employer Barry Purdon for everything he has learnt in the sulky. “I’m sure Mum would have been watching down on me. She encouraged my driving. I really miss her. I also want to thank Dad and Barry. They have been so supportive,” Grayling said. “I’d also like to thank the owners Steve and Karen Dunn for having the faith in me to drive Brookby Prince the whole time,” he added. He said he loved harness racing especially being employed by Hall-Of-Famer, Purdon. “I’ve learnt so much working here. In fact you never stop learning. It’s not hard to see why Barry is a master trainer. He’s a legend. “Zac (Butcher) also works here so I’m working alongside the best people and the best horses,” he said. Grayling was born in Pukekohe and left Pukekohe High School at the end of Year 11 to join the Purdon barn in December 2011. “It was such a great feeling to win. Super in fact! It might have come a lot earlier had I not been out for 10 weeks,” said Grayling who is also a loose forward in rugby, and brilliant cricket fielder and lower order batsman. Grayling said his goal for the remainder of the season was to land a “couple” more winners and then one day to try and one day qualify for the New Zealand Junior Driving Championships, and then ultimately the Australasian Junior Finals. “I’ve got a long way to go yet, but I’m really enjoying what I do. I have wanted to be a harness racing driver for as long as I can remember. I’m leaving my dream,” Grayling said. By Duane Ranger (Harness Racing New Zealand)

Pembrook absolutely loves racing at Alexandra Park. The 9-year-old son of Courage Under Fire won his 16th race on the tack when easily winning tonight’s Group Two $50,000 Auckland Co-op Taxis City Of Auckland Free-For-All. All up ‘Benny’ has now won 22 of his 90 starts and $867,982. Driven by Zac Butcher the bay gelding was always going to be a tough nit to crack after trailing last year’s race winner, Easy On The Eye. The Barry Purdon trained gelding paced the 2200m mobile in 2:40.60 with final 800m and 400m sectionals in 57.6 and 29.4. Mile rate: 1:57.4. Easy On The Eye (Peter Ferguson) and Besotted (Simon Lawson) finished second and third some two lengths and 1-1/4 lengths back. Butcher said he would be even stronger come next week’s Group One Auckland Cup. “He hasn’t done much since coming back from Australia and he did it real easy tonight. He can only be improved by the run. I’d love to win that race so much,” said Butcher. Pembrook Benny is owned by his trainer, Terry Henderson, J. C. Higgins, K. G. Parry, Dave Sixton, and former All Black coach John Hart. He was bred by W. D. Power and Mrs G. L. Power. The past winners (with drivers and times have been): 2013: Easy On The Eye (Peter Ferguson) 2:42.8. 2012: Sir Lincoln (Maurice McKendry) 2:40.3. 2011: Power Of Tara (Brent Mangos) 2:41.3. 2010: Big Dog (Scott Phelan) 2:45.7. 2009: Monkey King (Ricky May) 2:41.8. 2008: Classic Cullen (Mark Purdon) 2:43.1. 2007: Classic Cullen (Mark Purdon) 2:39.0. 2006: Mainland Banner (Ricky May) 2:44.7. 2005: Elsu (David Butcher) 2:40.4. 2004: Sly Flyin (Tony Herlihy) 2:43.0. By Duane Ranger (Harness Racing New Zealand)

Barry Purdon signed the dockets for both Lot 162 and Lot 167 at Karaka in 2012 and two years later the pair produced the quinella in the A$200,000 Victoria Derby. Along the way Maxim has won the $150,000 NZ Sires’ Stakes 2YO Final and Sky Major took out the overall title of NZ Two-Year-Old of the Year. Maxim  purchased from the Woodlands Stud draft for $35,000 was bred by none other than Charlie Roberts, who else. A $50,000 purchase,  Sky Major  was offered by Brian and Heather Hedger from  Clevedon and Greg Sweeney of Auckland. The Sales have been a happy hunting ground for Barry Purdon in the past few years with Cheer The Lady(NZ Oaks and Breeders Crown), Five Card Draw(also NZ 2YO of the Year), Precious Rose and Bettor Offer all coming out of either Auckland or Christchurch Yearling Sales. Six NZ breds won on Derby night at Melton,  including Padrisimo, Inky Cullen and Chilli Palmer  from the Yearling Sales as well as Lysenko and Our Blackbird.

It was a brilliant Barry Purdon quinella that marked the 100th year since the first ever running of the harness racing Victorian Derby. In a tactically brilliant move Craig Demmler switch Our Sky Major - a noted leader - off the pegs in the opening stages to take the lead off his stablemate - a noted sit sprinter. From there the McCarthy army enforced the pace through the middle stages with Bling It On finding the chair and Lettucrockthem in the one by one. But a lack of mid-race pressure told the story of the race as Our Maxim was produced along the sprint lane to claim the $200,000 classic in gritty fashion. A winner of over $340,000 in prizemoney now, Barry Purdon has never been willing to split his two rising stable stars and the VHRSC Victoria Derby proved just why. Our Sky Major clung on for second in a mile rate of 1:56.0 with the last half coming in 54.2 seconds while Yayas Hot Spot shot along the pegs to claim third to complete an all New Zealand bred trifecta. by Blake Redden Harness Racing Victoria

Australia’s leading trainer admits two Kiwi stablemates hold all the aces in the $A200,000 Victoria Derby at Melton tomorrow night. Our Maxim and Our Sky Major, who have already quinellaed two group one races in their careers, are drawn to potentially lead and trail in the classic over 2240m. And once that draw came out superstar Sydney trainer Luke McCarthy knew he was in trouble. McCarthy trains the Australian equivalent of the Barry Purdon-trained pair, having pre-draw favourites Bling It On and Lettucerockthem, who also quinealled group one races last season. But tonight they have both drawn wide and McCarthy says that gives the New Zealand three-year-olds a huge advantage. “The Kiwis are both good horses, I know that from chasing them home in the Sires’ Stakes and Harness Jewels last season with Allblack Stride,” says McCarthy. “Then they came over here and my pair beat them in the Breeders Crown because we led and trailed and they simply couldn’t make enough ground over the last 800m. “And I can see the reverse happening this week. I am pretty sure they have the speed to lead and trail and if we have to come around them we might not be good enough. “So they are definitely the ones to beat.”
 The irony is the Kiwi pair would probably be more potent with Our Sky Major drawn to lead and Our Maxim on his back, rather than the other way around. Purdon has always rated Our Maxim the speedster and Our Sky Major the stayer of the pair but with the Derby likely to have at least some pressure, both should get their chance. Still, with Our Sky Major double the fixed odds price of Our Maxim, he is clearly the better value option. Our Maxim’s driver Zac Butcher has one of the key drives at Alexandra Park tonight before he heads back to Melbourne tomorrow. He will partner former Southland trotter Cool Cobber in race seven, where he faces a 30m handicap and talented four-year-olds Revenue Maker and Wingsonhai in the best race of the night. By Michael Guerin (Harness Racing New Zealand)

If there has been one horse post-draw punters have been willing to discard totalling it would be the horse from the far west of the state – Paua Fella. Trained by Kevin Brough at Heywood, the Artistic Fella gelding continues to defy the odds and will line up in his first Group 1 ever in the VHRSC Victoria Derby. And when he has to take on the big guns in the form of Barry Purdon and Belinda and Luke McCarthy, there is little wonder why the South Australian Derby winner has drifted from $41 to $61 with TAB fixed odds. But Brough won’t be giving up hope just yet, even if thinks didn’t quite pan out his way with the barriers. “We were very happy with the way he went in the heat, from the draw we didn’t think he would get in, we thought he might have to do too much work but the way it panned out I was really happy,” Brough said. “He just seems to be one of those horses that keep improving with every run and he is just taking the next step each time which helps when you start to get into this sort of class.  “We could have done with a better barrier but we’ll just be hoping to slot in somewhere with a nice run. We are just happy to be there, if he gets the right run into things we’ll be hoping he can run into it.” Underrated at every turn, Paua Fella has started at $37, $17 and $20 in his last three starts with his worst effort a fast-finishing second behind Motor Smoken in last week’s heat. It might not be the last punters see of the three-year-old either with Brough weighing up his options following the race. “He’s always shown a bit at home but he’s been a bit headstrong, he pulls really hard at home but now at the races he is starting to settle down a bit which is helping him,” he said. “We’re debating on giving him a bit of a let up and then aim him at the Vicbred and the Breeders Crown; he’s eligible for both so we will see how he goes this weekend. “He’s still not filled out properly; he’s a very tall horse so I’d say after another spell he will turn into a really nice horse.” The VHRSC Victoria Derby will be run at 10pm as the last leg of the Quaddie and Race 8 on the card. by Blake Redden Harness Racing Victoria

Champion reinsman David Butcher is likely to miss six months in the sulky after the worst possible diagnosis following a trackwork injury. Butcher has pulled his pectoral muscle away from the bone and will require surgery to reattach it and then a lengthy healing period before he can drive in races again. So the Cambridge horseman has basically written the rest of the season off. He suffered the injury while jogging two horses at home last week, one in the sulky, the other on a lead rope. "The leader pulled back and then stopped in his tracks and I didn't let go of him fast enough," said Butcher. "I knew straight away something pretty bad had happened but hoped it was only a tear and that I'd be back in a month. "But it has come away from the bone and while I can keep driving, it won't heal without an operation and I won't be able to do any lifting or heaps of the other things I do around the stables.   "So I will bite the bullet and get the operation done as soon as possible." While disappointed to be facing such a long stint on the sidelines, Butcher admits it could have been worse. A similar injury at almost any other time in the past decade could have cost him career-defining wins behind the likes of Elsu, Changeover or De Lovely, to mention just a few of the champions he has partnered to group one success on both sides of the Tasman. "But at the moment I am not driving too many big-race winning chances, it is just the way it has fallen. "And last year I was lucky enough to represent New Zealand at the World champs in France, and I would have hated to miss that. "But I'm still not looking forward to being away from racing for so long, especially because it is not my choice." Butcher isn't the only New Zealand harness star out for the season, with top trotting mare Habibti off to the paddock and set to miss over $900,000 worth of races in the next three months. A group one winner this season after dominating her age group on both sides of the Tasman last term, Habibti trotted below her best in defeat at Addington last Friday. That has convinced co-trainer David Butt to spell the 4-year-old and turn down his invitation to the A$200,000 Glenferrie Farm Challenge in Sydney on March 2 as well as the A$350,000 Great Southern Star at Melton three weeks later. However, New Zealand will have two big chances in another Melton classic this Saturday, with Our Maxim and Our Sky Major in the A$200,000 Victoria Derby. The Barry Purdon-trained pair drew perfectly in the classic, Our Maxim at barrier one and his stablemate on his back and possibly set to get the perfect trail. And the race pans out even better for the Auckland pair as pre-draw hot favourite Bling It On has drawn the outside of the front line. Courtesy of Michael Guerin and the New Zealand Herald

The ball is now in the court of the Barry Purdon trained three-year-olds Maxim and Sky Major, after the star pair draw one and one on the second line in today's Victoria Derby barrier draw Of the main Australian contenders, star three-year-old Bling It On draw the outside of the gate, while his capable stablemate Lettucerockthem drew more favourably in barrier five. *Video footage of the Victoria Derby barrier draw is available on the left hand-side fo your screen next to the picture

Former New Zealand two-year-old of the year Five Card Draw is now a Queenslander. Negotiations were completed last Friday after a deal was struck earlier in the week through well-known agent Paul Davies before being purchased by Dean Shannon. The Bettors Delight gelding will join the stables of Fernvale based trainer/driver Darrel Graham after being previously prepared by legendary horseman Barry Purdon. Graham has enjoyed immense success this season with another former Kiwi pacer in Major Sam, a winner of six of his last seven starts including four $20,000 events – two Seymour Rising Stars Championships and two Seymour Dash For Cash Finals at Albion Park. Amazingly, Five Card Draw will arrive on Australian soil assessed as a CO/RO/MO. “Given his credentials, he’s a nice horse to have in the stables and his assessment was too good to be true. That was the key component for us.” Graham said. Five Card Draw was simply brilliant during his rookie term winning five of his seven starts including two Group One features. His haul included the $NZ100,000 Cardigan Bay Stakes at Alexandra Park and the $NZ150,000 Harness Jewels Emerald Final at Cambridge while he also claimed the Listed $NZ243,000 PGG Wrightson NZ Yearling Sales Open Final at Addington. Five Card Draw was an obvious choice for 2yo Colt/Gelding Pacer of the Year. As a three-year-old, Five Card Draw won twice from eight starts but battled niggling injuries along the way which forced him out of many classics during the season. Since returning as a four-year-old, Five Card Draw has gone winless in nine starts while showing glimpses of his best form including a third placing in the Gr.2 $NZ51,000 Waikato Flying Mile at Cambridge behind Pembrook Benny and Christen Me in a time of 1;54.4. “His overall record is very impressive and he vetted well last week so we’re hopeful he can do a good job here in Brisbane, coming over as a maiden gives us plenty of breathing space. “Given our current structure with the weekly Seymour sponsored races plus the new metro system, we have a very good opportunity to make a good earn out of him. Hopefully, we can take him to Sydney and cash in on their good prizemoney. “Another bonus with this horse, he is also eligible for the Australasian Breeders Crown series at the end of the season if his form holds up.” FIVE CARD DRAW FACT FILE; 24 Starts 7 Wins 7 Placing’s Prizemoney - $347,316 Best Time – 1;55.1  By Chris Barsby (Courtesy of Harness Racing Australia)

When Harnesslink spoke to Craig Judd of Benstud Standardbreds early last week he was in ore of an Art Major colt out of 10 win mare Morgan Abby. As it turns out, the buyers at the sale a few days later were too. The stunning colt topped the strong 190 lot sale and was sold for $120,000 to the bid of big spending harness racing owners Emilio and Maria Rosati. “Last season I thought that All Eyes On Us was the nicest horse we had ever put through the sale, but this fella was equally as good,” Judd explained. “He is a tremendous colt with a bit of the X-Factor,” he added. Others out of the Benstud Standardbreds draft to sell well included a Mach Three full-sister to Fly Like An Eagle, who was sold to Peter Oshea for $85,000, and a Rock N Roll Heaven colt out of 17 win mare Mendelico, who will head to New Zealand after being purchased by Phil & Glenys Kennard for $60,000. Other yearlings destined for New Zealand shores are a Major In Art – Seel A Corka colt, $11,000 (Neil Piltcher), a Sportswriter colt out of Ultra Trendy Lombo, $30,000 (Barry Purdon), a Major In Art colt out of Bolton Lady, $24,000 (Kennard Bloodstock), a Somebeachsomewhere colt out of Cyclone Betty, $50,000 (Neil Piltcher)  a Mach Three colt out of Giveusachance, $27,000 (Mark Purdon), and last but not least, a Art Major full-brother to Restrepo (Cran Dalgety) The second highest lot of the day was an Art Major filly out of Localize (3/4 to Sushi Sushi), who was slammed down to the bid of mammoth owners Merv & Meg Butterworth for $101,000, while others to fetch good money included a Rock N Roll Heaven – Miss Brazilian colt ($85,000), a Rocknroll Heaven colt out smart mare Top Tempo ($66,000), and an Art Major colt out of Valero ($66,000). 2014 Clearance Rate – 77.53% 2014 Sale Average - $23,550 2013 Clearance Rate – 78.70% 2013 Sales Average - $21,789 To view the full results of the Melbourne APG Sale click here. By Mitchell Robertson

Not even the bravest win of his career in the Hunter Cup has been enough to save Christen Me’s Inter Dominion campaign. The New Zealand pacing sensation will be officially withdrawn today from Inter Dominion series which culminates in a A$750,000 final in Sydney on March 2. That was even after he sat parked and fought off many of Australasia’s best pacers in the A$400,000 Hunter Cup at Melton on Saturday night. The Canterbury five-year-old was magnificent holding out Caribbean Blaster to break an eight-race drought and silence doubts about his will to win a decent group one scrap. But the victory took its toll. “He was a very tired horse today,” said trainer Cran Dalgety last night. “He has had a long, hard summer and to be honest he is about 25kgs below what I would like him to be because it is hard to put on weight while you are in full training. “So we are pulling the pin on the Interdoms, even though some people might find that strange because it is for such big money. “He will come home and go straight for an eight-week spell and then be set for the Grand Circuit again next season, when I am sure he will be bigger and stronger.” Dalgety said while it appeared Christen Me was sore soon after he crossed the line, he was sound yesterday and that in no way contributed to his connection’s decision. “He simply gave 101 per cent and you can only ask them to do that so many times. “And you have horses like Beautide, who was awesome at Menangle on Saturday night, Smolda and For A Reason who are going to be a lot fresher and harder to beat. “So our decision is made and is final.” Dalgety, who missed Saturday’s race because of a leg injury suffered on a jet ski, said Christen Me’s constant companion Murray Howard deserved much of the praise for Saturday’s group one victory.
 “Murray deserves so much of the credit,” says Dalgety. “I have been back and forth to Aussie and Auckland with this horse but Murray is the hands-on man. “And he is the perfect man for the job, he has a great attention to detail and loves this horse.” Those sentiments were echoed by driver Dexter Dunn, whose own attention to detail probably won the Hunter for Christen Me. He let him settle early before pressing on to sit parked, as he has in most big races this season, but instead of going for home once he had the leader beaten, Dunn sat up until the 180m mark. That kept key rival Restrepo pocketed but also meant he didn’t need to use the whip much on Christen Me, a key factor has he seems to resent more than most horses. “I was just a little patient and it was a fine line but it is still a big win, sitting parked to win a Hunter Cup.” Caribbean Blaster was a brave second on Saturday but had his chance while Auckland-owned The Gold Ace was similar in third, both being realistic Interdom contenders. First-time open class contending Kiwi four-year-old Franco Nelson was an eyecatching fourth and will contest at Inter Dom heat in two weeks before his connections decide on that series or the Chariots of Fire the same day. Fellow New Zealand-trained pacers Pembrook Benny, Mah Sish and Easy On The Eye finished well back the former not helped by an early break. But his trainer Barry Purdon tasted success earlier in night when Our Maxim won his heat of the Victoria Derby after a beautiful Zac Butcher drive. Butcher will partner him in this Saturday’s Derby, in which Purdon will also have Our Sky Major, who was a brave third in his heat behind a supersonic Bling It On. By Michael Guerin (Courtesy of Harness Racing New Zealand)

The Kiwi’s struck their first blow on harness racing's Hunter Cup night with Our Maxim in the third and final Victoria Derby heat. Barry Purdon and Zac Butcher combined to upstage favourite Lettucerockthem via the passing lane. It turned into a race of tactics with Our Maxim utilising his front row draw as he kept working forward to eventually find the top but Luke McCarthy and Lettucerockthem came with to take the front mid-race. Rather than allowing a speed battle to develop, Butcher eventually relented, handing over the lead to the favourite who was working through a sizzling 28.2sec second quarter of the last mile. That mid-race pressure might have proved the difference as Our Maxim just pegged back the favourite in the straight to run a mile rate of 1:55.9. The official margin was a neck by 5.6 metres with Vicbred Super Series winner Major Secret sitting parked for the last lap and putting in a brave performance to make it into the final. Our Maxim has now taking his earnings to in excess of $215,000 from his 18 starts in what was his fourth win. by Blake Redden Harness Racing Victoria

In Melbourne.--- A startling declaration from trainer Tim Butt could set up Saturday night’s $400,000 Hunter Cup for his fellow Kiwis. Butt is the undoubted king of Australia’s richest standing start race, having trained the winner five times while his brother Anthony has driven seven Hunter Cup winners. Tonight they have defending champion Mah Sish in the 3280m epic and their confidence has been boosted by a long overdue return to form in a support race on last Saturday’s Ballarat Cup card. Mah Sish seems to have lost all his speed but ground his opponents into the Ballarat track last week so Butt has declared he will adopt similar tactics this week, even if that means going to war with Australian pacing legend Smoken Up. Smoken Up has been greatly boosted by the Hunter race reverting from a handicap to a free-for-all and after drawing barrier four is expected by most to press on toward the lead, with many rival trainers happy to trail him. Not Butt though, who says he wants Mah Sish in front and if he gets there he won’t hand over to Smoken Up, and would even attack him if the latter leads. “I don’t think he (Smoken Up) is going as well as he can and the last couple of times he has lead he has gone too slow,” says Butt. “So we will race him for the lead if we get away well enough. “I know my horse has been struggling for a while before last week but he is back on the improve and he will be a better horse that last week.”
 The very real possibility of an early war in the Hunter plays into the hooves of the speedsters who are able to follow a hot speed, and two of the best of those are fellow New Zealand pacers Pembrook Benny and Christen Me. Christen Me was brave but still unable to win the Ballarat Cup last Saturday and after his New Zealand Cup third in November there are some doubts over whether 3200m really suits him. The best way around that is for him to be given plenty of time to find his feet and then swoop in the race later, which is how most sons of Christian Cullen perform at their optimum. Butt’s early attack promise suggests that could become reality. The fact Pembrook Benny is favoured in a Hunter Cup is one of the more unlikely stories of the harness racing season after he returned home from a Sydney campaign last season looking a spent force. But training genius Barry Purdon has the nine-year-old in the best form of his career and sitting just off the speed he only has to race up to his New Zealand Cup fourth to be a huge hope for young gun driver Zac Butcher, who didn’t even have a licence when Pembrook Benny started racing. Add in the enormously improved Franco Nelson and the surprise addition of Easy On The Eye and New Zealand has five chances in the race on the Australian Grand Circuit that has been kindest to our pacers in the last decade. But the horse to beat is still local star Restrepo, who was outstanding winning the Ballarat Cup after being three wide the last lap. The Ballarat Cup has been far and away the best guide to the Hunter Cup in recent years and Restrepo is a good standing start exponent with a top trainer and Australasia’s most successful ever reinsman Gavin Lang in the sulky. He may have drawn the second line but along with fellow Victorian hero Caribbean Blaster he is a better follower than leader over long distances so his draw only serves to increases his odds without greatly decreasing his chances. Earlier in the night Purdon’s pair of Our Sky Major (race one) and Our Maxim (race three) face tough draws in heats of the Victoria Derby set to dominated by Sydney’s all-conquering Team McCarthy. Courtesy of Michael Guerin and The New Zealand Herald

HAMILTON-trained colt The Fat Man will start from the pole in the third heat of the Nicola Victoria Derby  tomorrow night at Melton’s Tabcorp Park, and driver Matthew Craven is hoping the son of American Ideal can extend his two-win streak. Craven said the up-and-comer from the David Lewis stable had impressed in both his wins this time in, including a last-start triumph at Hamilton on Wednesday from a wide draw. “He won’t have taken any harm from the two runs that’s for sure,” Craven said. “He’s gone well both times. Obviously this is a step up in class but he should get a good run from the draw.” The Fat Man took out the Terang Silver Vase at Melton two starts back by over 9m before Wednesday’s workmanlike performance at his home track. Highly rated Bettors Delight gelding Our Maxim, from the Barry Purdon barn in Auckland, impressive last-start Mt Gambier Derby winner Major Secret from the Emma Stewart team, and outstanding New South Wales Art Major three-year-old Lettucerockthem are The Fat Man’s stiffest competition in the third heat. Lettucerockthem is from the in-form Belinda McCarthy yard, and the Cobbitty stable must be thrilled with their Derby prospects with Bling It On expected to be hot favourite in the first heat from barrier four. The brilliant Breeders Crown champion from last season blitzed his rivals at Cranbourne last time out by 36.7m in 1:57, coming home in 54.4. And giving the McCarthys an even stronger Derby hand will be Allblack Stride in the second heat, who has drawn barrier two. The last-start Cranbourne winner came home in 55.2 in scoring by 16.9m after running third in the Simpson Memorial behind Iam Mr Brightside and Lettucerockthem in the Simpson Memorial at Menangle two runs back. And astute Heywood trainer Kevin Brough will be hoping to produce the knockout blow with Paua Fella in the second heat, the last-start SA Derby winner to be driven by Craven. The first heat of the Derby kicks off a huge Hunter Cup program tomorrow night at 6.05pm By Cody Winnell (Harness Racing Australia)

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