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By Jonny Turner Majestic Man was crowned Otago Horse Of The Year on Saturday night following his breakout season in the open trotting ranks. The Phil Williamson-trained squaregaiter was crowned 4yr-old male trotter of the year before claiming the top prize at the Otago Harness Racing Awards at Forbury Park. Williamson took home a boot-load of trophies, including trainer of the year. Liberty Stride, (3yr-old trotting filly), Kenny's Dream (4yr-old trotting mare), and Jen Jaccka (aged trotting mare) each won their categories for the Oamaru trainer. Williamson stables drivers and fiances, Matthew Williamson and Charlotte Purvis, won driver of the year and junior driver of the year, respectively. Williamson was denied another win by his son, Brad, when Cracker Hill edged out Ultimate Stride in the 2yr-old trotting category. Three stalwarts of the Otago harness racing industry were recognised with significant contribution awards on Saturday night. Graeme Mee was acknowledged for his lengthy service as clerk of the course at several of the province's harness tracks. North Taieri trainer-driver Craig Buchan also took home a significant contribution award for his nearly 40-year contribution to the Otago industry. Popular Central Otago horseman Bryan "Ginger" Woodhouse was recognised for his 60 years as a trainer, driver, owner, breeder and administrator. Ultimate Sniper beat out a star-studded line-up to win best Otago-owned horse of the year. The two-time Derby winner beat racetrack stars Eamon Maguire, Havtime, Majestic Man, Princess Tiffany and Speeding Spur. Foreal knocked off an equally impressive line-up to win the broodmare excellence award. The dam of Australasia's fastest ever pacer, Field Marshal, won the category over Bethany, Fleet's Pocket and One Over Kenny. Roxburgh trainers Geoff and Jude Knight enjoyed a successful evening at Saturday night's awards. Their pacers The Ideal Touch (2yr-old male pacer), Candidasa (4yr-old male pacer) and Sounds Bettor (aged pacing mare) collected titles. One of the most popular victories of the night came when Waikouaiti warhorse Alexy won the aged male pacer of the year. Forbury Park trainer, Darryn Simpson, who trained Alexy to one of his three wins last season, was crowned Otago's strike rate trainer of the year. Other category winners included Motu Top Mach (3yr-old male pacer), Tango Dancer (3yr-old pacing filly) and Count Eyre (3yr-old male trotter). Thoroughbred training great Dave O'Sullivan was warmly received as the guest speaker at the awards evening. The 12-time national champion trainer gave Saturday night's crowd an insight into his own career and those of his sons, Paul and Lance. O'Sullivan also reminisced and spoke about the careers of former top line gallopers Horlicks, Mr Tiz and Waverly Star.   Full winners list  2yr-old male pacers The Ideal Touch.   2yr-old male trotters Cracker Hill   3yr-old male pacers Motu Top Mach   3yr-old pacing fillies Tango Dancer   3yr-old male trotters Count Eyre   3yr-old trotting fillies Liberty Stride   4yr-old male pacers Candidasa   4yr-old pacing mares Kotare Elite   4yr-old male trotters Majestic Man   4yr-old trotting mares Kenny's Dream   5yr-old and older male pacers Alexy   5yr-old and older pacing mares Sounds Bettor,.   5yr-old and older trotter. Monty Python   5yr-old and older trotting mares Jen Jaccka   Letty Ferguson Memorial Award for most improved mare Sounds Bettor    Best Otago Owned Horse Ultimate Sniper.   Broodmare Excellence Award Foreal.   Breeders Of The Year Lex and Heather Williams   Trainer of the year Phil Williamson   Strike rate trainer of the year Darryn Simpson   Driver of the year  Matthew Williamson   Junior driver of the year Charlotte Purvis   Significant contribution to Otago Harness Racing Graeme Mee Craig Buchan Ginger Woodhouse   Otago Horse Of The Year Majestic Man

By Jonny Turner Chase Auckland announced himself as a New Zealand Cup contender when sprinting to victory in the New Brighton Cup at Addington on Friday night.   The Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen trained 5yr-old put a frustrating past season behind him when scoring a front running victory in the group 3 feature. After being dogged by a muscle injury and a run of frustrating luck on the track last term, Chase Auckland could not have started his new season in more contrasting fashion. The Auckland Reactor gelding began brilliantly in his first standing start attempt, before taking the lead early for driver Tim Williams. Williams set a sedate tempo, that effectively won Chase Auckland the race with a lap to run. The 5yr-old gave his rivals little chance of making ground when sprinting his last 800m in 54.4sec and final 400m in 26.2sec to win. Spankem ran even faster sectional times when coming three wide on the home bend to run second.  The 5yr-old’s effort was good enough to see him maintain New Zealand Cup favouritism at $4.20 odds. Ultimate Sniper and A G’s Whitesocks trailed the quinella makers home. Hail Christian disappointed when running fifth. Classie Brigade took no part in the race when galloping badly at the start. Chase Auckland The road to the Dominion heated up when Sundees Son and Oscar Bonavena trotted to sizzling wins at Addington on Friday night. Sundees Son scorched away from his rivals when winning the group 3 Ordeal Trotting Cup by almost five lengths. The win was the Robert Dunn trained 5yr-old’s fifth consecutive victory and confirmed his Dominion favouritism. Driver John Dunn settled Sundees Son off a strong speed set up by Habibi Inta. Once Dunn asked his charge for a three wide bid at the 700m, the trotter charged around the field to score comprehensively. Destiny Jones ran home well out of the pack to grab second ahead of Habibi Inta, who held third. Sundees Son Earlier, Oscar Bonavena started his Dominion campaign in brilliant style when rattling off sizzling final sectionals to win. The Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen trained 4yr-old ran his last 800m in 56.4sec and final 400m in 27.5sec to win in intermediate company. The Purdon-Rasmussen stable forwent a tilt at the rich Australasian Breeders Crown with the trotter and that looks to have paid off with the way the horse returned from a short winter spell on Friday night. Oscar Bonavena Oscar Bonavena moved in to a $2.70 win price for the Dominion, following last night’s racing. Sundees Sun heads the market at $2.30.  Reprinted with permission of HRNZ

By Jonny Turner The news for the connections of Spankem’s big race rivals is all bad ahead of the pacer’s season opener at Addington on Friday night. The Miracle Mile winner will take his first race day step towards the New Zealand Cup when lining up in the New Brighton Cup. The Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen trained 5yr-old returns following his stunning 4yr-old term, in which he went from total obscurity to Grand Circuit star in just a matter of months. The scary news for the connections of his New Zealand Cup and Interdominion rivals in that last season did not just establish Spankem as one of Australasia’s best open class pacers. Mark Purdon has declared that last term’s racing, which came after the horse went off the radar for ten months with an injury, has made Spankem a better horse. “He is thriving and I think last season made him,” Purdon said. “He seems a little bit stronger this time around.” Spankem returns in Friday night’s 2600m free-for-all standing start alongside his stablemates Ultimate Sniper and Chase Auckland. The trio had the only public prep run ahead of their return when they trialled at Ashburton, last week. Spankem dashed home to win impressively, with Ultimate Sniper running third after carting the winner around the home turn. Chase Auckland also trialled well when putting in an eye catching finish behind the leaders. Purdon said all three come in to tonight’s race in similar order. Though if he had to single out one as his best winning chance, it would be Spankem. “They are pretty much on a level playing field, but if I had to favour one it would be Spankem.” “He is a horse that has raced well fresh, so you would probably lean towards him.” Both Ultimate Sniper and Chase Auckland will have their first standing starts in the New Brighton Cup. They stepped safely in last week’s trial and are expected to handle lining up behind the tapes, on Friday.   Ultimate Sniper will start for the first time since having minor knee surgery after winning the New Zealand Derby in April. The horse has put the problem completely behind him since returning to work. “His preparation has been faultless and he has been no setbacks through it and everything has gone smoothly,” Purdon said. Ultimate Sniper had panels on his 3yr-old opponents, last season, and Purdon is expecting that form mean the horse will measure up in open company. “He was probably the best of the 3yr-old of his year and the best one can generally come out and foot it with the open company horses.” “And I think he has got everything he needs to be able to do it.” Chase Auckland returns to racing much earlier than he did last season. A muscle complaint and a mixed run of luck on the track and with draws when he finally made the races meant the 5yr-old did not get to realise his potential, last term.  Purdon said the pacer may need racing before he shows his best, this season.   “He is probably going to need the run a little bit.” "But, I am sure Chase Auckland will go a good race.” The Purdon-Rasmussen trio will clash with two of trainer Robert Dunn’s team in Classie Brigade and Henry Hubert. Henry Hubert has had two trials be readied for his 5yr-old season’s return. The Greg and Nina Hope trained A G’s White Socks and Paul Court’s Hail Christian also contest Friday night’s group 3 feature. Reprinted with permission of HRNZ

By Jonny Turner Dunedin’s tiny band of harness racing trainers has been boosted by the arrival of Chris Butt. The dual code trainer has recently moved south from Canterbury and established a stable at Westwood Beach. Butt has five horses in work and is enjoying the switch from conventional trackwork to beach training.   “I am just working them up now, most of them had a few weeks off before I came down,” the trainer said. The horseman hopes his move will help continue the progress his stable star Theodosia made last season. The 6yr-old hit career best form in the autumn, notching two wins and adding third and fourth placings in Group 3 and listed events to her future breeding resume. Theodosia's good form came after Butt discovered less is more when it comes to applying head gear to the trotter. “She was panicking in the field and the more gear we tried the worse she got,” he said. “So, we just had to go back to basics and take everything off her.” Theodosia had a short winter break as Butt did not want the Muscle Mass mare to lose too much of the good momentum she had built at the end of last season. “She only had a month off - I didn’t want to give her too long off since she was going good.” “She improved a lot last season and the beach should help her a lot.” Theodosia holds a nomination for the Group 1 Dominion and could start in the race if she is able to improve her ranking to qualify for the race. Her good efforts in black-type races last season has Butt hopeful his mare can measure up in open company this spring. “Apart from Sundees Son and a couple of the others, she is probably up to the rest of them.” “She showed last seasons she was not far off Valoria and Winterfell and you would think they are going to be the ones chasing Sundees Son.” Butt said he plans to trial Theodosia at Forbury Park on Saturday, before lining her up on Hannon Memorial day at Oamaru, later this month. Theodisa’s good form helped Butt enjoy his best season in New Zealand, last term, with five training wins. Reprinted with permission of HRNZ

By Jonny Turner One of saddest tales around this year’s New Zealand Cup has played out more than two months before the running of the country’s greatest race. Ashburton owners Stuart and Liz Leadley will not be represented in the event after their top class pacer Alta Maestro had to be euthanised, recently. The Robert Dunn trained 5yr-old was struck down with a crippling knee injury over winter. Vets told his connections their only realistic option was to put Alta Maestro down. “He was diagnosed with real bad arthritis – it was so bad they said you’ve got no option but to put him down,” Stuart Leadley said. “They said he would never make any kind of trekking horse or riding horse.” “There was no option, he was going to be a cripple.” Alta Maestro won nine of his 32 starts and banked over $195,000 in stakes. The Art Major pacer holds the New Zealand 2yr-old male pacers record for 1700m with his 1-59.7 win in March of 2017. Alta Maestro began his career and a head strong and free rolling front runner. Most recently, the Dunn stable transformed the horse in to a relaxed staying type and it was paying dividends. Alta Maestro raced admirably in open class last season and scored his best win in the group 3 Teltrac Communications Ltd Free-For-All at Addington in March. This year’s New Zealand Cup was to be on the horse’s agenda before tragedy struck. “We had some pretty big and realistic plans this year,” Leadley said. “We genuinely thought he was good enough to be doing some pretty good things and it was a dreadful shock.” Leadley rated Alta Maestro as the best horse among the smart types he has raced. Good performers, Alta Las Vegas and Franco Cristiano, are also among his winners.   “We have owned 19 in total over about the last 16 years, he has certainly won us the most money.” “We have had a total of 53 wins, so we have done pretty well with the horses we have had.” The Leadleys are no strangers to tragically losing horses. The couple raced talented pacer Welsey Silcox, who won eight of his 12 starts in 2014 and 2015. The Courage Under Fire pacer died as the result of a freak accident. “Lightening hit a tree and crushed him.” “You wouldn’t believe some of the problems we have had with horses,” Leadley said. Alta Maestro’s demise comes at a time when the Canterbury couple’s time as owners is nearing its end. Leadley is unable to attend racemeetings due to a lung illness. “I am on oxygen tubes and morphine now and it is a problem to get to the races.” “Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with serious breathing issues and they said it will only every get worse.” “Nowadays I am confined to a wheelchair.” The owner reflects fondly on his 16-year involvement in horse ownership. “The real thing about the races was the people that we met,” Leadley said. “There are some really great people there and if we didn’t have those horses we never would have met them.” Leadley remains in the ownership of three horses in the Dunn stable. They include the unbeaten 3yr-old Down To The Bone. Reprinted with permission of HRNZ  

By Jonny Turner The task Southland sensation U May Cullect faces in his first step towards the New Zealand Cup at Winton on Sunday would be daunting for any ordinary horse. But, one thing is certain ahead of the unbeaten pacer’s resumption – he is no ordinary horse. U May Cullect will give four of his fellow New Zealand Cup nominees a head start when he begins from the 50m back mark in a 2400m handicap. It is clear the start of the event will be crucial for the Kirstin Barclay and Paul ‘Tank’ Ellis trained 6yr-old.   “The handicap over a mile and a half will be pretty tough,” Barclay said. “As long as he steps away, that is the main concern.” “We are just trying to make sure that when he lines up on even terms with a field he will step away nicely.” Barclay plans to drive U May Cullect for one run after she asks him to step away from the 50m mark. Part of that tactic is help the horse gain more race experience and tractability among horses, before the New Zealand Cup. In his last start at Addington, U May Cullect’s greenness meant he hesitatated when asked to take the passing lane and it could have cost him the race. “As you saw at Addington he was quite unsure about taking the passing lane and going inside a horse,” Barclay said. “So, Tank and I have been talking about it and we want to drive him with a sit take those inside runs.” “He is pretty green, he has had only had seven starts and he has either led or come around them.” “It is all about education, really, and getting him more tractable in the field.” U May Cullect has not made a public appearance at the trials or workouts ahead of his return to racing. However, he had done enough work in training to be highly competitive on Sunday. “He wintered up really well, he had three weeks off and he put on a stack of condition.” “We are really happy with him, and he has been working well.” New Zealand Cup nominees Franco Santino (20m), Robyns Playboy (20m), Sagwitch (30m) and Airpark Flyer (40m) each get a head start on U May Cullect on Sunday. Franco Santino, who beat an inferior field at Gore in his last start, is the only of the five cup contenders to go in Sunday with the benefit of recent racing. Airpark Flyer has had one trial and workout ahead of his resumption. In the first of those, the Trent Yesberg trained pacer finished just a neck behind Maurice Holmes Vase winner, Classie Brigade. Robyns Playboy goes in to the race after running second in a sedate Gore workout. Sagwitch has not stepped out at the trials or workouts ahead of his resumption. The feature trot at the Winton meeting, which will also be run over 2400m and under handicap conditions, feature the return of talented squaregaiter Picketts Ridge. The 6yr-old, who has had two workouts ahead of his return, will start from 30m in his first start since November, last year. Picketts Ridge clashes with Davey Mac (front), Rydgemont Son (10m), Imran Khan (20m) and Wee Man Trouble (40m).  Reprinted with permission of HRNZ

By Jonny Turner  Sundees Son’s sensational return to racing provided owner Colin Hair with the second of two harness racing highlights in less than a week. The Robert Dunn trained trotter signalled he was set for a big spring campaign when he unleashed a powerful finish to win his first start of the new season. Though Hair does not want to get ahead of himself, the breeder-owner admitted its hard not to get excited about what could be in store for Sundees Son. “You don’t want to get ahead you yourself, but it is a bit scary to think about what is coming up.” A strong early pace set up by The Dominator had Sundees Son well back in a strung out field. After tacking on to the field from his 25m handicap, the 5yr-old still had a big task ahead of him with lap to run, when third last. Driver John Dunn found a three-wide cart in to the race before the turn for Sundees Son and the trotter let down with a brilliant finish to reel in the game pacemaker, The Dominator, by three-quarters of a length at the line. Sundees Sun looks set to return an even better prospect that he was when he ended his sensational 4yr-old with a hat-trick of group 1 wins. Hair said his horse had thrived during his short winter break. “He did do well when he was out, he has never been an overly big horse, but he has come back looking a bit bigger and a bit stronger.” Hair was to have a two-pronged attack on Friday night’s 2600m feature. Woodstone, who trialled well behind Sundees Son recently, had to be scratched from the race. The trotter is expected to be back at the races next week, Hair said. It was a case of two out of three ain’t bad for the Canterbury owner, this week. Woodstone’s scratching was one negative beside two positives - Sundees Son’s win and Hair’s re-election to the Harness Racing New Zealand board. Hair received the most votes of any of the nine people who stood in the recent election, which came as a pleasant surprise. “I was quite surprised – I didn’t realise I would get so much support because I am not affiliated to a particular club.” Friday night’s race provided contrasting fortunes for its Dominion bound trotters. Habibi Inta hit the line strongly after only finding clear running on the passing lane in the last 50m of the event. Destiny Jones and Monkeys Way went sound races, finishing fourth and sixth, respectively. Madeline Stowe, who is not nominated for the Dominion went a bold race to run fifth in her toughest career test. Comeback trotters Monbet and Enghien were not able to show their best on a wet Addington track. Monbet lost touch with the leaders before the turn and battled in to ninth placing. Driver Ricky May reported to stewards the horse felt lethargic throughout the race and it could have been due to the wet state of the track. A post-race veterinary examination showed Monbet had recovered poorly and had an elevated heart rate. Enghien broke briefly on two occasions in the running, before tiring at the finish to run seventh.   Reprinted with permission of HRNZ

By Jonny Turner Junior driver Ben Hope will have notched a career highlight before the tapes fly for a star-studded line up of trotters at Addington on Friday night.  Hope will drive Enghien, who clashes with his stablemate Monbet and Rowe Cup winner, Sundees Son, in a blockbuster 2600m handicap. The rookie reinsman admitted just being entrusted with the drive on the 6yr-old, who is trained by his parents, Greg and Nina Hope, is a massive thrill. Enghien will be having his first start in more than 15 months when Hope lines him up from the 15m mark.  The former Harness Jewels winner did not look like a horse that had had a long stretch away from the track when winning his first public appearance since his battle with a minor leg injury, last month. Enghien could not back up that performance in a subsequent workout on the same track a week later, but there were genuine excuses for his fourth placing.  “The first trial everything went to plan, he trotted super and he did everything we asked of him,” Hope said.  “The second workout didn’t really go to plan – earlier in the race he lost a shoe.  “We have changed a couple of little things from his trials and he has been great.” Trotting fans will remember Enghien as much for his less than perfect gait as they will for his eight listed and group race wins. Hope said though the horse’s well known action has improved as he has matured, it will never be perfect.  “His gait probably has improved a bit.” “He is the sort of horse – being a typical Love You – that he is a nice rolling type that likes to get in to his groove a bit.” “I think he is always going to be little bit funny and his gait.” Monbet will combine with driver Ricky May for just his second start in nearly three years on Friday night. The 23-race winner has had three trial and workout runs at Rangiora to prepare him for his latest comeback bid. Monbet beat lower grade trotters in the first of those, before effectively following Enghien around in his trial win. In his latest public appearance, Monbet beat pacers to win the same workout in which Enghien suffered his shoe problem. “We were really happy with his trial and Ricky jumped off and was ecstatic to get the feel of him again,” Hope said.  Few would expect Monbet to be at his best on Friday night after spending much of the past three years on the sideline. The champion trotter is simply as fit as he can be without the having the benefit of recent racing.  “He is probably going to need the run, Enghien is probably a little bit more forward than him at the moment, but after a couple of runs it could be a different story,” Hope said.  “He is the sort of horse that I think with the more races and hit outs he gets, the more he will improve.” The Hope trained pairing of Enghien and Monbet face the daunting task of facing the New Zealand’s newly crowned trotting king Sundees Son. The Robert Dunn trained 5yr-old has had one trial leading in to his resumption and produced an impressive effort.  Sundees Son beat his stablemate Woodstone, who is scratched from Friday night’s race, as well as race rivals Harriet Of Mot, Monkey’s Way and Destiny Jones in a 2600m free-for-all event at Rangiora. Sundees Son, who clearly looks the horse to beat in Friday night’s event, will start from the 25m mark alongside Monbet and Harriet of Mot. Enghien, Monkey’s Way and Habibi Inta start from 15m.  Reprinted with permission of HRNZ

By Jonny Turner Oamaru reinswoman Charlotte Purvis is eyeing a return to race driving in the coming weeks. She showed she has not lost her winning touch, after being away from the races for more than ten months, when saluting twice in trials at her home track, earlier this week. Purvis stepped out of the sulky in October, as she and fiancé Matthew Williamson prepared for the birth of their daughter Sadie, in June.   Purvis and her daughter have both been doing well as Sadie approaches four months of age. That has allowed the horsewoman to eye a return to race driving. Purvis admitted her priorities may be a little different to her fellow junior drivers, ahead of her return. “Sadie is my number one focus, but as far as driving goes it would be great to get back out there and get a win.” Purvis has been back at work at the stables of her future father-in-law, Phil Williamson, for about a month. How much track work she has been able to drive each week has depended on whether Sadie’s grandmother – Bev Williamson – has been available for babysitting duties. Though Purvis has clearly not lost any of the skill that has helped her bag 17 career wins, she will not rush back in to race driving. When the time is right she hopes her brother, Matt, could provide her with an opportunity from his stable to help her get back out on the race track. “I just want to rebuild a bit of my strength back up first.” “Then, hopefully Matt might be able to help me with for my first drive back and we could aim for a juniors race.” Purvis had two wins and a second placing from three drives at the Oamaru trials. After playing down that successful first step towards her comeback, the reinswoman admitted it felt great to be back out on the track. “The trials went super, but I had nice horses to drive.” “It felt so good to be back out there.” The Oamaru Harness Racing Club was greeted with good news on Tuesday when trainers Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen revealed they would aim Spankem at this month’s Hannon Memorial. The pacer pulled up so well the morning after winning at the Ashburton trials, the trainers are considering nominating Spankem and his stablemates, Chase Auckland and Ultimate Sniper for next week’s Addington meeting. Purdon said a decision on whether the trio would race at Addington or Oamaru, or at both meetings, would be made next week. Reprinted with permission of HRNZ

By Jonny Turner Trainers Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen have chosen Oamaru as the starting point for Miracle Mile winner Spankem’s New Zealand Cup campaign. The 5yr-old, who looked sharp winning his first public appearance of the new season at Tuesday’s Ashburton trials, will be set for the Hannon Memorial on September 22. Spankem unleashed an eye-catching burst of speed to outsprint his Hannon-bound stablemates, Ultimate Sniper and Chase Auckland, in their 2400m handicap.  Purdon said he has been delighted with the way his Miracle Mile winner has returned from his winter spell. “He has come back really well, we are very happy with him,” the trainer-driver said.  Ultimate Sniper, was far from disgraced when overhauled by Spankem and runner-up, Clasina Maria, in the last 100m of Tuesday’s event.  The 4yr-old a half a length and a neck behind the first two in his first public appearance since winning the New Zealand Derby in April. Ultimate Sniper has returned in excellent following his battler with the knee problem, which required surgery, that ended his brilliant 3yr-old season.  Purdon said the 4yr-old and fourth placegetter, Chase Auckland, had also pleased him since returning to training.  “Ultimate Sniper had a little bit longer out than the other two.” “But, I have been very happy with the three of them, they have all been training well at home.” “And I was happy with their efforts in the trial.” Spankem and his two stablemates will trail again, next week, before heading to Oamaru for the Hannon Memorial. “We will trial them again next week and then we will look to kick them off in the Hannon,” Purdon said.  Purdon and Rasmussen’s remaining two New Zealand Cup nominees –Thefixer and Ashley Locaz – could also head to the trails this week. Defending New Zealand Cup champion, Thefixer, could not trial this week as his fitness has slipped behind his three stablemates that stepped out on Tuesday.  The pacer had to be given a few easy days to recover from a hoof issue, recently. Purdon confirmed it was the same issue that dogged the 6yr-old ahead of his epic home straight duel with Tiger Tara in last year’s New Zealand Cup.   “He has just had a slight setback, but he is over that now and he should be at the trials next week – all going well.” “It’s the same hoof problem, but we are a bit more advanced with our knowledge now, so we were on to it straight away.” Purdon said Thefixer’s hoof issue was one that was unlikely to go away.  “He is just one of those horses - we are just going to have to monitor it and keep on top of it.”  Classy trotter Oscar Bonavena looked sharp in winning the fast class trot at Tuesday’s trials.  Purdon and Rasmussen gave the 4yr-old a month off over winter, rather than sending him to the Breeders Crown. That plan could pay big race dividends at the New Zealand Cup carnival.  “We gave him those last couple of runs for the Breeders Crown, but there are probably bigger things in store for him,” Purdon said.  Oscar Bonavena powered to the line showing no signs that the knee issue that ruined his 3yr-old season was still affecting him. Purdon said the Dominion would be the major target for the lightly raced squaregaiter.  “We are rapt with him, hopefully he will be there at Cup week in the big ones.” The All Stars stable have just two Dominion nominees with Winterfell in contention for the 3200m feature, as well. Reprinted with permission of HRNZ

By Jonny Turner Exciting 3-year-old Spirit Of St Louis faces a stern test early in his career at Forbury Park on Sunday.  The Graeme Anderson trained pacer impressed when beating a field of up and comers when debuting at Gore last weekend. His front running effort got a big tick of approval from his driver, Matthew Williamson. “It was very impressive,” the reinsman said.  “His run was super and he rattled off a really nice [last 800m] and he showed good gate speed, too.” Spirit Of St Louis looked slightly vulnerable at early in the run home, before he found another gear and dashed away from his opposition to score. Williamson said it was a case of the horse bringing a very laid back attitude to the track. “He is just quite laid back is what I would say.” “That is why his trials have just looked ok and then he sharpened up on race day when he was asked for it.” “I would say with a few more starts he will sharpen up even more.” Spirit Of St Louis faces an almighty leap in race conditions in his second career start on Sunday.  The inexperienced pacer will square off with rugged veterans Aveross Rustler and Four Starzz Shiraz, as well as new season performer Arden Roanake. Though he concedes a lot of experience to his rivals, Spirit Of St Louis will have a draw advantage over his main rivals when he starts from barrier 3. Williamson hopes that good draw and the 3-year-old’s class can help him beat out his more seasoned rivals. “Because he has got a bit of class he can probably still win it,” the reinsman said.  “With the draw of course -  which is the only thing in his favour – if he gets his own way or a couple of cheap sectionals they won’t make any ground from behind him if he rattles off a 56sec [final 800m] again.” Aveross Rustler looks the best placed of Spirit Of St Louis’ main rivals to land near the speed from barrier 7. Four Starzz Shirazz starts from the outside of the front line in barrier 8 and Arden Roanoake will start from the inside of the second row in barrier 9. The Cran Dalgety and Nathan Purdon trained Arden Roanoake will give Spirit Of St Louis plenty of competition, and driver Matt Anderson can work the 4-year-old in to clear running. The pacer is shooting for a hat-trick of wins following his brilliant last to first victory at Oamaru, last weekend. Williamson also drives With The Stars in race 3 for the Anderson stable. The reinsman rated Hannity in race 7 alongside Spirit Of St Louis in race 9 as one of his best drives at Forbury Park on Sunday. The Colin Harrison trained pacer gets in to the race well as a rating 55 horse competing against horses rated between 40 and 55. “The start will be the only thing with him, he has been a good beginner, but he missed away last start.,” Williamson said. “If he got away on terms, to be honest I would be disappointed if he got beaten in that field.” “He has dropped back a long way in grade.” Williamson also drives Huckabee, who he described as a place chance in race 4 for the Harrison stable.   The Oamaru driver also combines with Cuddly Trouble in race 1, Maldito in race 2 and Solsbury Hill in race 8. Williamson rated Cuddly Trouble, who starts from a 30m handicap, the best of chance among that trio. “If she could step away and make up that 30m I definitely think she is an each-way chance,” he said.   Reprinted with permission of HRNZ

By Jonny Turner Classie Brigade put a frustrating season behind him on Friday night when he dashed along the Addington passing lane to win the Maurice Holmes Vase and book his ticket to the New Zealand Cup. The one-time arch nemesis of Lazarus outsprinted the leader, Hail Christian, and held off a late dive from A G’s White Socks to win the Group 3 New Zealand Cup qualifier.  Classie Brigade enjoyed a fruitful 4-year-old season following his epic 3-year-old battles with Lazarus, but was not able to step on the track more than eight times in the next two years.  Thankfully for his owners Grant and Colin Eynon and Mark McKinnon, the stars look to be aligning for their pacer’s 7-year-old year. There is no Lazarus to contend with anymore, now he has settled in to his stud duties and Classie Brigade is fighting fit and ready for a title shot at the New Zealand Cup.   “Anytime when they go AWOL, you wonder if they are ever going to be anything like they used to be,” Grant Eynon said.  “We were thrilled with him as a 3-year-old, he ran second to Lazarus a few times and we wondered why we can’t beat that horse and we found no one else could either.” Classie Brigade’s resurgence has come following his move to the Woodend Beach stable of Robert Dunn, which is headed by his son John.  “He’s loving it at the beach,” Eynon said. “We can’t believe it – for him to come back from injury – we are just thrilled with the horse and thrilled with Robert and John for all the hard work they have done.” Though Classie Brigade has moved on from former trainer Nigel McGrath’s barn it does not mean the Eynon's can not combine with McGrath to take out the great race. The father and son pairing of Grant and Colin have their McGrath trained pacer Gran Chico nominated for the New Zealand Cup. Gran Chico has not made a public appearance this season, but is expected to trial later in the spring.  The Maurice Holmes Vase was run at a sedate pace for much of its 2600m.  Classie Brigade and driver John Dunn followed Hail Christian and Blair Orange, who led throughout.  The slow early speed set up Classie Brigade’s fast closing sectionals of 54.3sec (800m) and 26.7sec (400m). The winner wore down third placed Hail Christian early in the straight, before holding out the flying finish of runner-up A G’s White Socks.  Classie Brigade’s win saw him move to $17 in the New Zealand Cup market. A G’s White Socks was at $12 and Hail Christian at $31 on the reopening of betting following the Maurice Holmes Vase. Reprinted with permission of HRNZ

By Jonny Turner Spring is setting up as an exciting time for the newly formed father and son training partnership of Ross and Chris Wilson. The granting of Chris’s licence comes just days after Wilson stable star Robyns Playboy was nominated for the New Zealand Cup. The partnership was formed partly as due reward for Chris’s long service and also with an eye to future success of the Wilson’s ‘Robyn’ breed. “For the last 20 years he has been the right hand man, so he needs some recognition,” Ross said. “And hopefully he will carry things on when I am not here.” Chris will continue to juggle his work as a technical field rep for southern farming company Advance Agriculture with his stable duties. An eye to the future helped convince Ross to nominate Robyns Playboy for the New Zealand Cup. “I have only really done it because I am 69 in a couple of months time and I have never had a horse in the cup and this is the best opportunity to have one.” Robyns Playboy will take his first public step towards the New Zealand Cup in modest circumstances when he has a workout at Gore on Saturday. The 4-year-old will head to next week’s Winton meeting, where he is likely to square off with fellow Southland cup contender U May Cullect. The Wilsons will then aim Robyns Playboy at the Hannon Memorial. That race should give his trainers a good line on how their horse will measure up with his fellow New Zealand Cup nominees. “That is the plan – we will try to test the waters, so to speak,” Ross said.  “You don’t really know how he will measure up, you just have to race them to find out.” “When I looked at the nominations I thought there were horses there that we could beat and they think they should be there.” Robyns Playboy proved he was competitive in Group 1 company when third at the Harness Jewels behind Jesse Duke. That performance and his career best 15 wins helped Ross win the Achievement of the Year category at the Southland Harness Racing Awards, recently. Robyns Playboy enjoyed a break following his Harness Jewels effort and has returned to work in good order for a horse that does not carry a huge amount of condition. “He never looks that flash to be honest -  he is a good we eater – but you would never pick him out of a crowd,” Ross said. Robyns Playboy and U May Cullect and two of four Southland pacers nominated for the New Zealand Cup. Sagwitch and Franco Santino have also had their names put forward for the great race.  Reprinted with permission of HRNZ

By Jonny Turner Classie Brigade will take the first step in what trainer Robert Dunn hopes will be a season of making up for lost time when he lines up in the Maurice Holmes Vase at Addington on Friday night.  Dunn is eyeing a big 12 months with the pacer, who missed most of last term through injury. Classie Brigade was not sighted at the races for nearly nine months after his mediocre run in last year’s Maurice Holmes Vase.  The 7-year-old put a series of minor niggles behind him with a victory and hard fighting second to U May Cullect in a three start winter campaign after transferring to the Dunn stable from trainer Nigel McGrath.  Classie Brigade’s mini winter campaign could give him a slight fitness edge over his key rivals in Friday night’s race.  “He has only had a few weeks off because obviously during the course of the last year he had extended time recovering from injury,” Dunn said.  “He trialled up well and he is training super and we are looking forward to his resumption because I think he is going to have a great year.” Though he can not comment on the state of Classie Brigade’s rivals, Dunn knows his horse will be fit and ready to win.  “There will be no excuses,” the trainer said. “He is ready and he has had a couple of trials.” “His first one was a bit quiet and the second one was a bit more strenuous.” Classie Brigade looked sharp when sprinting late to win at the Rangiora trials more than two weeks ago. He beat one of his main rivals, Hail Christian, who was not pulled out and asked to sprint in the straight.  Hail Christian trialled again at Ashburton a week later and impressed when running down Ive Already Told You to win after being asked for a full effort.  A G’s White Socks is the leading New Zealand Cup contender among Friday night’s small field, which has been reduced to five runners with the scratching of the Dunn trained Hayden’s Meddle. However, the Greg And Nina Hope trained pacer could strip in far from his New Zealand Cup condition for the race.  A G’s White Socks goes in to the 2600m standing start without having a trial or workout ahead of his new campaign. The 6-year-old was last sighted when winning the Rangiora Winter Classic in July.  Classie Brigade, Hail Christian and A G’s White Socks look to have a decent class edge on the remaining runners in the Maurice Holmes Vase in Storm Prince and Stick Man. The Dunn stable made significant progress towards the New Zealand Cup carnival ahead of the Addington meeting.  New Zealand Trotter Of The Year contender, Sundees Sun, had his first public appearance of the new season when winning at the Rangiora trials on Wednesday. The 4-year-old held out his stablemate, Woodstone, who also impressed when going down by just a neck.  Dunn also stepped New Zealand Cup hopeful Henry Hubert out at Rangiora. The 5-year-old enjoyed a quiet trial and was not fully tested when running third.   Reprinted with permission of HRNZ

Phil Williamson’s trotting genius helped the New Zealand flag fly proudly on Australasian Breeders Crown Finals night at Melton on Saturday. Williamson led the charge for the kiwi contingent by producing blueblood trotters Liberty Stride and Ultimate Stride for emphatic victories. Liberty Stride set the tone for a great night out for the New Zealanders when powering away from her opposition to win the group 1 3yr-old fillies final. Williamson’s renown trotting skill shone through when the filly, who had galloped in two of her three Victorian starts, put in a faultless display to win by almost 20 metres for driver Anthony Butt.  “It is a big thrill for us – massive,” Williamson said.  “We are just so thrilled to come here and win nice races, it is not easy.” “You do have to bring the right horses and if you have a nice horse this is what you can achieve.” Williamson had put the finals night polish on his daughter of Muscle Hill and Jasmyns Gift at the Victorian stable of Brent Lilley and his partner Tracey Cullen. Williamson revealed his Victorian venture had become far more than just a business trip.  “I have been here for six weeks with [Brent], he has been a sensational host.” “His partner Tracy is up at 4.15am feeding the horses and their little son Jack has allowed me in to their family.” “I have just had a fantastic stay.” Little more half an hour after Liberty Stride’s demolition job, Williamson produced Ultimate Stride for an even more emphatic group 1 victory. The son of Love You and millionaire mare One Over Kenny embarrassed his Australian opposition when he ran away with the 2yr-old trotting colt’s and gelding’s final by nearly 40 metres.  Ultimate Stride powered through tough conditions as rain and wind pelted the Melton track during the group 1 event. And though his Australian opposition could not match him, Anthony Butt revealed that he could not get his charge to go any slower.  “The conditions weren’t ideal.” “He was getting pretty keen that first lap – I couldn’t get him going any slower. “ “He just wanted to get on with it, but he was very good, he smashed them.”  The New Zealand contingent added a third Breeders Crown title to their haul in dramatic circumstances when Kratos was crowned the 3yr-old trotting colts and geldings winner in the enquiry room. The John and Joshua Dickie trained squaregaiter was second past the post in a thrilling three-way finish with the winner, All Cashed Up, and third placegetter Majestuoso.  All Cashed Up galloped late in the run home, but it was not just a case of waiting for the horse to be automatically relegated like he would have been under New Zealand rules for breaking over the line. An enquiry was held to decide whether All Cashed Up had either had not gained an advantage or at least was unable to maintain his momentum when galloping. Stewards ruled All Cashed Up had not complied with Australia’s breaking rules and Kratos was crowned the group 1 Breeders Crown champion.  Earlier on the Melton card, star filly Princess Tiffany was defeated in a shock result in 3yr-old pacing fillies final. Sitting parked throughout, and copping some minor interference before the home turn, took its toll on the Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen trained 3yr-old when she was beaten in to third behind upset winner No Win No Feed. Princess Tiffany was caught late by fellow New Zealander, Best Western, who continued her superbly consistent Breeders Crown campaign by finishing second.  The New Zealand pairing of Perfect Stride and Zeuss Bromac could not match brilliant Australian colt Be Happy Mach in the 2yr-old pacing colt’s and gelding’s final. But, the pair still performed admirably and completed a brilliant night for the New Zealand contingent by finishing third and fourth respectively.    By Jonny Turner Reprinted with permission of HRNZ

Recently crowned junior drivers’ premiership winner John Morrison has the chance to kick start his title defence this week. Morrison heads to Addington on Thursday night to seek his first win of the new season and to reunite with promising pacer Only In America. The 5yr-old has impressed by winning two of his three career starts for trainer Mike de Fillipi.  “He has done everything we have asked of him so far - only three starts and he has done a really good job,” Morrison said. “He has got a great gait and great manners -  he is typical of one of Mike DeFilippi’s – he is very well mannered and great to drive.” “He is a very good judge, so it good to be pulling his colours on.” Only In America has shown versatility in his two starts by winning from the trail two starts ago and by leading all of the way in his last win. Despite the horse showing a professional attitude, Morrison is weary of the pacer stepping in up in grade to race seasoned horses in race 8. The only other thing Morrison is concerned about ahead of Thursday night’s 2600m handicap is that Only In America has not raced for over a month. “He hasn’t raced for a month, so he might need the run a wee bit.” “So far he has done everything right and there is no reason he couldn’t [step up in grade]. “He will just get better with racing, I would say.” Rollova heads Only In America’s more seasoned opposition in Thursday night’s rating 50-72 special handicap. Though the David and Catherine Butt trained 4yr-old is a relative newcomer to racing himself, with only seven starts behind him. Rollova impressed in the first run of his campaign, with hitting the line strongly for third behind Flying Mister Ideal at Addington last week. Rollova shares the 10m mark with Only In America and other leading contenders Santanna Mach and Secret Bet. Morrison has two other chances to notch his first win of the new term at Addington. He will reunite with consistent trotter Crusher Collins in race 9. The Lyndon Bond trained 6yr-old has won once and placed six times from behind the mobile. “Crusher Collins has been going really good, she went good at Oamaru on Sunday,” Morrison said. “I got to drive her in the junior championship and she went really good then.” Morrison also drives Tiger Moth, who seeks a maiden win from race 2. The Graham Bond trained 5yr-old ran last in his last start at Ashburton, but he deserved a better fate. “I was really happy with Tiger Moth until he got knocked over at about the 600m – he was going really good.” “His trial form was really good and it wasn’t his fault – I got knocked off my feet. I though he would have been in the money.” Tiger Moth has his first standing start from the unruly in race 2 on Thursday night. If he can not crack a win at Addington, he should be able to be rewarded at short notice, Morrison said. “He would win in the race in the near future, I would think.” Morrison has a strong book of drives at Gore on Sunday. It includes three good chances for trainer Paul Court in Mongolian Marshal, Storm Prince and Stick Man.   By Jonny Turner Reprinted with permission of HRNZ

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