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If Self Assured lives up to the mega hype in tonight’s $110,000 PETstock Ballarat Pacing Cup his owner, Jean Feiss, will celebrate by doing her favourite thing – she will get up tomorrow morning to inspect yearlings. That won’t be a matter of just popping down the road; the 69-year-old retired Victorian horse trainer will fly to New Zealand to look at yearlings. By herself. That dedication, that love of the young horse, is one reason Feiss is one of the most successful owners in harness racing. The other is an association that started more than a decade ago. Trainer Mark Purdon was looking for a farm to base his horses at in Victoria. He visited the property owned by Feiss and her husband, Bill, which was being used by son Matt. Purdon liked the property and liked the people. Next time Purdon bought a horse at the sales Bill and Jean wanted in and a remarkable association begun. As Feiss got out of training – “we had some success but not many horses people would know that well” – her and Bill upped their yearling buying. And when you can’t beat them, join them, so Purdon and partner Natalie Rasmussen became their trainers and the winners flowed. She has owned a champion in Vincent, who was hot favourite for the Ballarat Cup two years ago until he suffered a career-ending injury. Spanish Armada was another favourite, while she owns New Zealand’s best filly this season in Amazing Dream. And, of course, last-start Auckland Cup winner Self Assured and huge Victoria Derby chance Smooth Deal. So how does a former trainer from Victoria find the needles in the yearling sales haystack? “I usually start with the page (breeding) and then I look at the horses myself,” she said. “That is why I will fly to New Zealand on Sunday morning. I’ll go to all the farms I want to see and I like to go by myself, not as part of a tour. “Then I can see the horses and compare them a month later when they go for sale.” Once Feiss makes her list she cross-references that with Purdon and Rasmussen and the list becomes shorter. Feiss rarely misses the ones on the short list. “I think the gap between New Zealand yearlings and the Australian ones has closed a lot but I like buying there and I love racing there. “I like the travelling, even though Bill can’t come that often these days because he has dodgy knees. The group racing in New Zealand is very strong and the industry has a lot of enthusiasm.” So what does Feiss’ magic eye look for? “Never just one thing, it’s the whole package. I think most of us look at the same things, we just interpret them differently.” What is not open for interpretation is that Self Assured is exceptional. Feiss took a risk on him as he was an embryo transfer foal, which some buyers shy away from. The only two times he has been beaten is when missing away from standing starts, but tonight he faces the biggest test of his career, drawn inside the second line in a star-studded Ballarat Cup. “He is very good, we don’t know how good yet,” Feiss said. If he gets clear air at Ballarat tonight we should all find out.   Michael Guerin

Belle Of Montana may have given punters a blood nose last start but the good news is the glamour mare escaped unharmed. So it is all system go for phase two of her season which should begin with a win at Alexandra Park tonight. The brilliant mare had a rollercoaster December, winning the Group One Queen of Hearts at Alexandra Park but exploding into a wild gallop as a $1.20 favourite in a free-for-all on New Years Eve. That was caused by a hopple shortener coming loose at full speed going into the first bend as Belle Of Montana was contesting the lead. She recovered but galloped again later. Punters didn’t. But while money won or lost on the tote comes and goes the most important thing is the exceptional mare is fine, which is never a given when a horse gallops at that speed. “She was good as gold after the race, didn’t harm herself at all,” says trainer Barry Purdon. Knowing the reason for the incident is at least a positive, because it shouldn’t affect how punters assess her in tonight’s 2200m mobile. Belle Of Montana is using the race to prepare for the A$100,000 Ladyship Cup at Melton on February 1 before she returns home to get ready for the A$200,000 Ladyship Mile in Sydney on March 7. She meets not only some of her talented mare stablemates tonight but Interdom contenders Star Galleria and Solid Gold, the latter now trained by Tony Herlihy after being purchased by a North American owner. Solid Gold has been good enough, especially over sprint trips at Alexandra Park, to suggest he can at least test Belle Of Montana and Herlihy is not concerned by his lack of a recent workout. He took the speedster across the road to Stonewall Stud on Monday, the facility where Steve Telfer trains which has one of the best training tracks in the country. “He worked well there so he should go well this week, but Belle Of Montana will obviously be hard to beat,” says Herlihy. That chances of Solid Gold’s lowering Belle Of Montana’s colours may come down to where they settle in relation to one another and how hard Solid Gold has to work if Herlihy chooses to push the button early. But for sheer class and aided by the small field Belle Of Montana deserves to be about a $1.80 chance. Purdon’s assault on the Victorian riches starts tomorrow night where he has Bad To The Bone in an incredibly strong heat of the Victoria Derby at Ballarat. He has a second line draw against the two favourite's for next week’s Derby final in Smooth Deal and local star Be Happy Mach. “It is a shame they are all in the same heat, I thought they would be spread around more,” said Purdon. Having to finish top four to make the Final, Bad To The Bone will at least be added by the huge diet of high class racing New Zealand’s three-year-old pacers have digested by this stage of the season whereas many of the Australian stars are only resuming. With Be Happy Mach also drawing the second line and fresh up since winning the Breeders Crown in August, if he can beat the Kiwis tomorrow night he is something else and would be a ready-made Derby favourite. But there has already been some big bets on Smooth Deal since the market opened on Tuesday and driver Mark Purdon is likely to try and stay in front of the other favourite's to make them work hard. Michael Guerin

Boom Kiwi and favourite for Saturday night's feature, Self Assured, is facing a very tricky return to Australia. The outstanding pacer, who many rate the most talented pacer in Australasia, drew the inside of the second line in the PETstock Ballarat Pacing Cup, the one draw co-trainer Mark Purdon didn’t want for the 2710m mobile Group 1. “That makes it tricky and we will have to look at our options at the start,” Purdon said. Those options look limited as Self Assured follows out two stablemates from the Emma Stewart team in Tam Major and The Storm Inside and if Purdon, driving Self Assured, elects to try his luck sticking to the inside early he isn’t likely to get many favours. So the punters who take the short odds are probably betting on him going back to near last to get into the running line. That could potentially leave him vulnerable to rivals who may not be as good, including his own stablemate Chase Auckland, but could get more economical trips. Chase Auckland has drawn barrier four (after emergencies) with fellow Kiwi pacer A G’s White Socks at barrier three and the three New Zealanders dominate the market. “Chase Auckland has come through last Friday (Cambridge) really well but Self Assured would still be our best chance this Saturday,” says Purdon. Former New Zealand Cup winner Thefixer has been allowed to miss this week’s race after casting a shoe in the Flying Mile and will instead target the Casey Classic on Saturday week as his lead-up to the Hunter Cup on February 1. South Auckland pacer Triple Eight is now also set to cross the Tasman to contest those same two races. Purdon’s Victoria Derby hope Smooth Deal has an awkward draw but will still start favourite in Saturday’s strongest heat of the Victoria Derby, where he meets Bad To The Bone and Line Up as well as last season’s Aussie juvenile star Be Happy Mach. They all need a top four finish to qualify for the final at Melton the following Saturday. Purdon is now also the caretaker trainer for Stylish Memphis who contests a Victoria Oaks heat this Saturday night. Oscar Bonavena was the only trotter from the All Stars stable to make the trip across the Tasman and races at Melton the following two Saturdays.   by Michael Guerin

Mach Shard is ready to stand up to the big boys in the $50,000 Flying Mile at Cambridge tonight. And while trainer Barry Purdon says driving tactics will be left up to Zachary Butcher it looks a good bet the vastly-improved pacer will be trying for an all-the-way win in the group two sprint. Mach Shard was one of the unheralded stars of the Inter Dominions at Alexandra Park last month, finishing a close second to Ultimate Sniper in the final after racing him in every heat. The series showed he has blazing gate speed and the ability to run with the best pacers in Australasia, so much so Purdon is now eying the Hunter Cup at Melton on February 1. But while Butcher was happy to take trails with Mach Shard during the Inters tonight’s dash around Cambridge should be a different proposition. The Flying Mile has been extremely kind to leaders over a long period of time, horses who have been able to lead and control the race. Star Galleria did just that to beat Heaven Rocks two years ago and Pembrook Benny did the same to down Christen Me. With his gate speed Mach Shard should be first of the favourites to the markers tonight and as good as Thefixer and Chase Auckland are, they are not as scary as their stablemates like Ultimate Sniper and Self Assured. So while Purdon wouldn’t come out and declare it, he is confident Mach Shard can stand up to be counted. “The final driving tactics will be up to Zac but he did, after all, work early and still run a close second in the Inter Dominion Final. “So he would definitely be hard to beat in front.”
 If Mach Shard does lead as expected he would easily pace a 1:52.5 mile on peak performance should tonight provide good conditions and that would mean horses coming wider on the track, as the favourites may have to do, will need to be good to beat him. Thefixer and even Chase Auckland may simply still be a length better than Mach Shard and either one sitting in the one-one, if Mach Shard, leads might grab him. But the history of tonight’s race suggests Mach Shard is a great each way bet. While leading might be enough to give Mach Shard a huge chance in the pacing feature, it might not be enough for Oscar Bonavena’s rivals to down him in tonight’s $30,00 Trotting Mile. He was beaten in the National Trot at Alexandra Park last start when forced to sit parked, an expensive reminder than as talented as he is this is his first summer in the big time. Rivals likes Tickle Me Pink and Massive Metro may fancy their chances of staying in front of Oscar Bonavena and stablemate Winterfell tonight but Oscar may still be too sharp if he can get handy. Still, punters might struggle to take the $1.30 fixed odds about him as the one-one might be his only economical path to victory. Winterfell is a hard one for punters to asses as he has to rated our best trotter on performances in the last month but there are usually question marks about him left-handed and if he wins tonight he may have to do it the hard way. Still, he keeps rising to the challenge and another victory tonight would take him even closer to the Trotter of the Year title. Meanwhile, former Dominion winner Marcoola has returned to Canterbury and trainer Ken Ford after his rollercoaster short stay with Barry Purdon over the Inter Dominions. And the Purdon pair of Bad To The Bone (Vic Derby) and Belle Of Montana (Ladyship Mile) are on target for Victorian campaigns in coming weeks.   Michael Guerin

Ricky May can now laugh at the fact he died on live television last week. He can't laugh too hard though, because of the broken ribs he got from the guardian angel horsewoman who probably saved his live. And even after one of the most shocking incidents in harness racing history, the champion harness racing driver is adamant he will return to the sulky. May stunned the racing world last Thursday when he collapsed mid-race and fell to the track when driving A G's White Socks in the $30,000 Central Otago Cup at Omakau. His heart had stopped and thousands watching live and on television feared the worst. Initially, they were right. Ricky May was dead. "The doctor in Dunedin Hospital told me later that I was gone," May told the Herald from his Christchurch Hospital bed on Thursday. "I don't know how long for. They reckon it could have been 10 minutes. I don't remember anything. "I remember driving a winner earlier (two hours before the incident) and then the next thing I remember was waking up in hospital with all my family there and that was two days later." From what the doctors at the hospital and those first to him on track have told him, May knows he had no heart beat when fellow driver Ellie Barron rushed to his side. Barron, a trained physiotherapist, performed CPR on him, working so hard to keep his heart pumping she broke his ribs. She may also have saved his life. "I spoke to Ellie yesterday and when she got to me I had no heart beat.   "She just took over 'til the medics got there and used the paddles (defibrillators) on me. To be honest, I think Ellie was my saviour." First, one helicopter came, then another; the second was needed because it was equipped with the GPS to navigate through the fog to get the 61-year-old to Dunedin Hospital. He was stabilised there and before being flown to Christchurch Hospital a few days later where he had surgery to have a cardioverter defibrillator implanted in his chest on Thursday. The device delivers a shock through a wire which runs into a chamber of the heart and May will have it in his chest for the rest of his life in case his heart stops suddenly again. May's heart stopped without warning, and his official diagnosis was hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy. If you don't know what that is you are not alone - May doesn't really either. It is a sometimes genetic condition that can see the heart muscles thicken even though the heart itself is healthy, even affecting young athletes at the peak of their physical prowess. May was in shape and very active. He had no warning of what could happen and seconds before the incident was talking normally. "The doctors told me there was nothing actually wrong with my heart and I didn't have an cardiac arrest. They actually said I am too fit and the muscles around that area too strong. "But to honest I don't know a lot about it. I'm still learning." What May knows is that he is alive to enjoy life with his wife Judy and his three children. "I have a lot of people to thank. Ellie of course, the medics there and the helicopter people, all the staff at the two hospitals and the people who flew me from Dunedin to here. "So many people have contacted us it is quite overwhelming. And Judy has been a rock. "But now it is done I want to get back to the farm, even though I won't be able to work for a while. The boys are taking care of that at the moment." The farm at Methven may be home but the sulky is May's domain, a throne from which he has driven a record seven New Zealand Cup wins among his 2949 winners in New Zealand alone. He wants that get that number to 3000, maybe more. "Yeah, I want to drive again," he says. "I didn't think I would want to after the initial shock of it all but now I have had a chance to think about it I don't want that to be my last race drive. "So maybe I will travel less, maybe stay a little closer to home but I will go back to driving." Less than a week after his heart stopped mid-race and a nation of racing fans held their breath, May can laugh now. The nervous laugh of a man who has been given a second chance. The laugh of the lucky. "I suppose one day I will want to see the race, to see what happened. But not yet." But while he is a husband, father, farmer and friend, May is also inherently a race driver. That can't be scared out of him. "You know, I am sure I would have won that race once he (A G's White Socks) led," he says wistfully. In one sentence Ricky May confirms he will be back. You can bet on it.   Michael Guerin Courtesy of The New Zealand Herald

Trainer Michelle Wallis isn’t shying away from Oscar Bonavena with either of her stable trotting stars.  And she and driver Todd Mitchell are hoping to thrown down the gauntlet to the All Stars trotters at Cambridge on Friday. Wallis and husband Bernie Hackett train Massive Metro and Temporale, two of the stars of the recent Inter Dominion trotting series even though they were both luckless in the final. Their performances there encouraged the couple to take them to Victoria for the A$250,000 Great Southern Star on February 1, with the Dullard Cup on January 25 as a lead-up race. But before then Massive Metro will tackle both Oscar Bonavena, who he will meet in Australia, and Interdom champ Winterfell in the $30,000 Flying Stakes at Cambridge and Wallis says it is the perfect opportunity to try and teach Massive Metro a new trick. He has been a horse driver Todd Mitchell has tended to look after off the mobile gate to be safe rather than sorry but Mitchell’s confidence in Massive Metro’s gait grew as the Inters progressed, he just didn’t get the draw to put that to good use. But they a better draw this Friday with Massive Metro to start inside both Oscar Bonavena and Winterfell and Wallis wants to see how quickly he can begin. “We are taking him to Cambridge to get him used to left-handed racing again but also, now we have the draw, to see how he goes off the gate. “If he gets a good draw he is going to need to be able to use it in Australia so we might as well find out this week.” While his best performances, winning a National Trot and his booming third in the Inter Final, were both over 2700m, if Massive Metro could find the front around Cambridge over a mile he would make life difficult for the Purdon-Rasmussen trained favourites. Temporale, who loves Cambridge and won this race last year, will be allowed to miss Friday. “He had a very busy December with five races and the first Inter heat just a few days before that so he is having an easier week,” says Wallis. “But at this stage they are both still definitely heading to Victoria. Todd is confirmed for Massive Metro and I presume Tony will come to drive Temporale.” Wallis says as tough as the two races in Melbourne will be there is simply no feature trotting races available here so it is either fly there or head to the paddock. The trip will be the first time Wallis has campaigned horses at Melton although she has, of course, won an Inter Dominion Final in Victoria, Delft winning at Moonee Valley in 2006. They still stay with former Kiwi trainer Brent Lilley. Massive Metro has opened the $10 third favourite for Friday’s mile, with Oscar Bonavena at $1.30 and Winterfell reverting to left-handed racing at $3.20.   Michael Guerin

Cambridge’s biggest harness meeting has been gifted a trotting bonus this Friday as the New Zealand assault on Victoria’s biggest races becomes clearer. Both Inter Dominion champion Winterfell and excitement machine Oscar Bonavena are surprise entries for the $30,000 Les Harrison Transport Flying Stakes at Cambridge on Friday while New Zealand Cup winner Thefixer will headline the $50,000 McMillans Feeds Flying Mile for the pacers. The latter’s clash with Chase Auckland, Mach Shard and past winner Star Galleria isn’t unexpected but the two standout trotters in the country heading to Friday’s meeting is. Oscar Bonavena was expected to head straight to Australia after his Auckland campaign while Winterfell could have been spelled after his win in the National Trot last start because he has been a vastly superior version of himself right-handed at Alexandra Park. But trainer Mark Purdon has opted to run him left-handed before he returns to Canterbury with Oscar Bonavena the stable’s sole rep for the A$250,000 Great Southern Star on February 1. Open class stablemates Enhance Your Calm and Winterfell are not scheduled to head to Australia.  Purdon has decided this season’s NZ Cup winner Cruz Bromac will miss Victoria and instead be aimed at the Miracle Mile in Sydney, with Auckland Cup winner Self Assured heading to Melton but only for the Bonanza on January 25, missing the Hunter Cup.  That leaves Thefixer and Chase Auckland as stable’s only hopes in the Hunter Cup on February 1, while Smooth Deal will contest the Victoria Derby before heading to Sydney for the NSW Derby. The stable has no plans to bring Amazing Dream to Australia for the Oaks while Princess Tiffany is another staying closer to home. While other trainers sort out of their likely Australia teams the most likely traveller is Belle Of Montana coming to Melton for the Ladyship Mile there before returning home and being set for another Ladyship Mile in Sydney.   Michael Guerin

By Michael Guerin Self Assured’s only worry became one of his most potent weapons on his way to an effortless victory in last night’s $250,000 Trillian Trust Auckland Cup. The exceptional four-year-old blasted straight to the front from the standing start and 3200m later added his name to the list of Cup legends, strolling clear of stablemate Thefixer and Triple Eight to complete his ascension to the top of the pacing ranks. Pre race trainer-driver Mark Purdon had warned that Self Assured could be vulnerable from the standing start, as had been the case in his only two career defeats when he was slow away. Those doubts and a wave of money for Thefixer stunningly saw Self Assured actually start second favourite last night and those who were on him at the eventual $2.80 odds would have been beaming when he stepped not only safely but fast. That enabled him to hold the inside line over another fast beginner Classie Brigade to the first bend and while there were movers the leader and trailer were always going to dominate. The most surprising aspect of the finish was just how easily Self Assured strode clear of a New Zealand Cup winner in Thefixer, suggesting with recent Inter Dominion winner Ultimate Sniper injured, Self Assured will be favourite for any major race he is set for. The first of those races will be the Chariots Of Fire for four-year-olds in Sydney in February, with Melbourne getting a taste of Self Assured’s talents first in another four-year-old race, the Bonanza at Melton as he heads there to qualify for the Sydney group one. “He won’t go to the Hunter Cup though,” said Purdon. Safely through the Bonanza and into the Chariots Of Fire he will be aimed at his next major open class target the A$1million Miracle Mile also at Menangle. The pacing world looks his oyster, with speed and his growing manners. Self Assured Earlier in the night the All Stars seemingly unstoppable domination continued with Winterfell, One Change and Amazing Dream taking the other features. Winterfell’s professional victory in the $100,000 National Trot could hardly be deemed a total shock coming just 17 days after he won the Inter Dominion Trotting Final but last night’s win was a step up. He had to be more controlled in trailing Majestic Man and then not only outsprint him but his hot favourite stablemate Oscar Bonavena. The latter was forced to sit parked for the last lap and found that too tough against the absolute best and was beaten into third, with Majestic Man fighting back for the bravest of seconds. But Winterfell proved once again that at Alexandra Park he is a vastly superior horse to the one who can gallop so often left-handed. Just six weeks ago he was the punter’s enemy, now he has won four of his five starts since coming north and his win last night has to take him a long way toward the Trotter of the Year title. Just as professional last night but using the passing lane to win from the trail was One Change, who justified his favouritism in the $200,000 PGG Wrightson Sales Series Pace for three-year-olds. The former sales reject who was passed in for $30,000 has now won both Sales Series Paces, the Sires Stakes at two and three and a Harness Jewel for almost $500,000 in stakes with so much of his career still lying ahead. He sprinted past a very brave Bad To The Bone, who was excellent in second in a race marred by the second favourite Smooth Deal being checked early and losing 40m in a gallop. His recovery to finish fifth was massive. And Amazing Dream overcame one on the second line courtesy of a beautiful Natalie Rasmussen drive to complete the clean sweep, overpowering Stylish Memphis in the Alabar Fillies’ Championship. Reprinted with permission of HRNZ

By Michael Guerin The promise that is Self Assured against the proven reality of Thefixer and Cruz Bromac. That may be the story of tonight’s $250,000 Trillian Trust Auckland Cup at Alexandra Park. And for all the talent of the trio of stablemates, and their eight other opponents in the 3200m group one, it may be manners that decide the last great race of 2019. Self Assured is a special horse, maybe the best horse in waiting in tonight’s classic. He only started racing seven months ago, has barely raced in New Zealand at all and yet is the $1.70 favourite tonight over two New Zealand Cup winners. The reason is simple. He is all x-factor, his sole two open class starts both leaving no doubt he has the motor for the big time after just nine career starts. If he steps and behaves himself the four-year-old may have too much speed for his older, more established rivals who have been through a fortnight in the furnace of the Inter Dominions. But for all his promise, the fact he is the Miracle Mile favourite and his dazzling sectionals, there is one jarring reason to be careful about taking odds-on for Self Assured tonight. He had two standing starts against the big boys in the spring and missed away slightly in both. Tonight slightly could be costly. “That is the worry for him,” admits champion trainer and Self Assured’s driver tonight Mark Purdon. “He has been slow in his two standing starts and while he wasn’t bad away, against these horses it could be the difference. “He is a really good horse and might still win but if he is slow away and has to give horses like Thefixer a start then it is going to be hard for him. “So the start will be crucial. He could actually begin well but horses like Thefixer and Cruz Bromac are far more proven than him.” Both Thefixer and Cruz Bromac were excellent in the Inter Dominion pacing final two weeks ago and if they can work toward the lead and get on the marker pegs a 3:55 time for 3200m is within their capabilities every day of the week. Whereas Self Assured could pace the same time but might have to do it coming wide. Maybe he can, maybe not yet. But there is no value in taking $1.70 to find out. Purdon is warming to Thefixer after his luckless but very brave Interdom campaign and he has worked well since while there is no reason Cruz Bromac can’t add this Cup to last month’s New Zealand Cup as he ticks almost all the boxes. Others like Classie Brigade, Mach Shard and even Chase Auckland could place but winning would surprise. Purdon is beaming about the work of Oscar Bonavena but realise the young trotter may have to sit parked or be driven off the speed to win tonight’s $100,000 National Trot. “But it doesn’t bother me driving him with a sit, especially over 2700m. “He is our best chance and while Winterfell is good his manners haven’t been perfect recently.” The stables rates One Change as the better chance over Smooth Deal because of the draw in tonight’s $200,000 Sales Series Pace. Dunn has confidence with his two fillies By Michael Guerin Trainer Robert Dunn doesn’t have to search far to find confidence his fillies can beat red hot favourite Amazing Dream in tonight’s $150,000 Alabar Sires’ Stakes at Alexandra Park. Because they did it two starts ago under almost identical circumstances to tonight’s Group One. While the market suggested Amazing Dream is all but a good thing in the 2200m event it almost seems to have amnesia about how the race panned out two starts ago. Back then on December 6 the Dunn-trained pair of Spellbound and Need You Now led and trailed respectively and held off Amazing Dream after she had to sit parked the last lap. The trio met again a week later and on that occasion, after Need You Now was forced to work too hard early and Spellbound settled back, with Amazing Dream too strong for them before holding out the late run of Stylish Memphis. While there is no doubting Amazing Dream is the best of this filly crop tonight’s Group One shapes far more like the race two starts ago when she was beaten. She might have been a bit soft that night and clearly improved off it but she is anything but a certainty tonight. “She is very good Amazing Dream, we all know that,” said Dunn. “But we think we have two fillies who can beat her again. “It looks like our two will lead trail again and I suppose under those circumstances Need You Now would be our best winning chance.” Need You Now should cross to the lead from barrier two and then hand up to Spellbound (three) while Amazing Dream will probably need to pull back from one on the second line to get off the markers and then make her mid-race move. That means she could be giving the Dunn fillies a 10 length start. Spellbound may actually be the more athletic of the two Dunn-trained fillies but if she leads there is nothing surer than Amazing Dream will come looking before the 800m and probably put the pressure on. So that could aid Need You Now and if the sectionals get really serious then a swooper like Stylish Memphis comes into play as she stormed home last start. In all reality Amazing Dream might be good enough to come sit parked and crush her rivals and if you were getting $2 you would take it all day. But at the $1.70 on offer with so much going against her. Dunn and his son John, who have been one of the most defiant training-driving combinations against the wave of All Stars success, also have hopes in the other three black type races today. They will need more than luck with Down To The Bone and Mighty Looee in the $200,000 Sales Series Pace but Valloria was so good when fourth in the Inter Dominion Trotting Final he could have a role to play in the $100,000 National Trot. “He has really improved since coming north,” says Dunn. “He has toughened up to open class racing quicker than I thought and while he might not win he can get some good money.” Classie Brigade returns to standing start racing in the $250,000 Auckland Cup after a luckless Inter Dominions and if he can begin quickly and get on the markers he can place, as he did in the New Zealand Cup last month. “Back to the stand really suits him and he has come through the Inters great. He still has one of the fastest 3200m times in the race.”

By: Michael Guerin The horses in tomorrow's $250,000 Auckland Trotting Cup at Alexandra Park might be some of the best on the planet but they won't be the stars of the show. Because for many in the crowd the real darlings of the day are in the other Auckland cup. The Auckland Kidz Kartz Cup is worth more than money, which is just as well because it doesn't have any winning stake. At almost every major harness race meeting, there is a pony trot to complement the serious adult stuff on the track. Tiny ponies with drivers sometimes as young as 10, but decked out in the same racing colours as their adult heroes, race over 800m. Often, drivers and even the ponies come from round the country, sometimes Australia. And as cute as they are, don't think pony trots are just a bit of fun. Little horses are big business and to the 10-16-year-olds involved this is the real deal. The ponies have specially made sulkies and harness, their drivers operate under proper Harness Racing New Zealand rules. They can even get suspended because Kidz Kartz is all about teaching youngsters how racing works. "We have four clubs in the North Island alone," says Kidz Kartz co-ordinator Gayleen MacKinnon. "The kids can go along once or twice a week to drive the horses and learn how to take care of them. "Some families have their own ponies, others don't and the ponies are kept in racing condition for us and then their drivers are drawn by lot for the big races. "It teaches the youngsters how to look after their ponies, themselves, and how to be responsible." The ponies, some of which are shorter than your average german shepherd, race over 800m tomorrow and because of their varying sizes and the experience levels of the drivers they have handicap races. The ponies have a parade before they race and the crowds love it, especially the children, and there is no doubting the most Instagrammed horses at Alexandra Park's twilight meeting will be the ones under a metre tall. "People just love them and we make sure we present them and the drivers properly," says MacKinnon. The Kidz Kartz has also been a gateway for youngsters looking to one day have a career in the racing industry. One of its star graduates is champion older driver Zac Butcher who drives in the real Auckland Cup at 8.08pm tomorrow. The meeting is one of the biggest of the harness racing season, with four major races and an earlier-than-usual finish to the racing to be followed by a fireworks display at 9.30pm. Reprinted with permission of The New Zealand Herald

By: Michael Guerin A horse who hasn't won a race in New Zealand for 13 months is emerging as the danger to the favourite in Tuesday's $250,000 Auckland Trotting Cup. But if Thefixer is to break his domestic duck in Alexandra Park's greatest race he is going to have to down the latest new big thing of the pacing ranks in Self Assured. Thefixer is set to be the big shortener in the Trillian Trust-sponsored Cup after drawing barrier one from where he should be able to use his standing start manners to settle handy or even lead. That could give him a big tactical advantage over hot favourite Self Assured who, while he has drawn well at barrier three, doesn't yet have the proven standing start manners of his stablemate. Self Assured has been all the rage in the Auckland Cup market since it was announced he would be allowed to miss the recent Inter Dominions to concentrate on this and other features later in the summer. He emerged late in his 3-year-old season last June during a stunning Queensland campaign and while he has limited open class experience he oozes class. Self Assured reminded everybody of his enormous ability when thrashing intermediate grade horses on Interdom Grand Final night and if Tuesday night's race comes down to raw speed he might simply be too good for his older, more battle-hardened rivals. "He is going to be hard to beat, especially the way he is working," said Matt Bowden, the travelling foreman for the All Stars stable. "He is working like a very, very good horse still on the way up but he still has a bit to learn and doesn't have a lot of standing start experience. "I think if he steps he might actually step really quickly but I suppose he isn't as proven from a stand as some of our other ones." Any manners concerns for Self Assured, be they real or presumed, could be another reason Thefixer is the market mover. Those not keen on the odds-on for Self Assured will go hunting for one of his stablemates to back against him and the ace draw could make Thefixer their favoured target. He was a big improver during the Inter Dominion series and did a huge job to finish third in the final behind his now-injured stablemate Ultimate Sniper. Thefixer hasn't won a race in New Zealand since his New Zealand Cup success of 13 months ago and at times this spring it looked questionable whether he would find his best form again as he battled hoof issues. But since coming to Auckland he has looked a happier horse and his Interdom Final performance suggested he is almost back to his New Zealand Cup best of last year. If he can use his standing start manners to lead or trail early and then not have to cover any extra ground it would take a very good version of Self Assured to give him much of a start and a beating. Senior co-trainer Mark Purdon is likely to drive Self Assured while Natalie Rasmussen will work Thefixer this morning and looks set to partner him which could see Blair Orange re-united with Cruz Bromac, who he drove to win last month's New Zealand Cup. They are three of five the all-conquering Purdon-Rasmussen stable have in the 3200m Cup and they will dominate the market, with Chase Auckland the one least-suited by the standing start conditions as he has to start in the unruly. The Cup will run at 8.08pm at the twilight meeting that kicks off with a 4.06pm start. Earlier in the programme Inter Dominion Trot champ Winterfell is likely to need a new driver in the $100,000 National Trot even though he has drawn the ace. Purdon, who drove him in the Inter Final, looks set to stick with stablemate Oscar Bonavena, who has been stunning at times this season and jogged to victory in the Flying Mile at Cambridge last Tuesday. Oscar Bonavena faces the toughest test of his career on Tuesday as he is likely to settle off the speed against Winterfell (barrier one), Majestic Mac (2), and Enhance Your Calm (5) in a race which also contains Temporale, Massive Metro, Marcoola and Paramount King, making it the strongest trotting race in New Zealand in the last three years. One Change has drawn to continue his outstanding big-race record in the $200,000 PGG Wrightson Sales Series Pace, with barrier two ensuring he will start a hot favourite, especially as his last-start conqueror Copy That is not a sales horse and therefore ineligible. But the All Stars won't get things all their own way in the $150,000 Alabar Sires' Stakes Fillies Championship, with red hot pre-draw favourite Amazing Dream to start from the inside of the second line. Auckland Cup night • Where: Alexandra Park • When: Tuesday, first race at 4.06pm • What: Auckland's biggest harness racing meeting. The fields for the two open-age Group Ones at Alexandra Park's twilight Auckland Cup meeting on Tuesday are. Race 7, 7.06pm: Sim Pacific Metals National Trot, $100,000, 2700m mobile. 1: Winterfell 2: Majestic Man 3: Valloria 4: Destiny Jones 5: Enhance Your Calm 6: Oscar Bonavena 7: Marcoola 8: Massive Metro 9: Temporale 10: Paramount King 11: Woodstone (ur) Race 9, 8.08pm: Trillian Trust Auckland Cup, $250,000, 3200m. 1: Thefixer 2: Another Masterpiece 3: Self Assured 4: Check In 5: Cruz Bromac 6: Classie Brigade 7: Star Galleria 8: On The Cards 9: Mach Shard 10: Triple Eight 11: Chase Auckland (ur) Reprinted with permission of The New Zealand Herald

A game of musical chairs among his rival drivers is unlikely to change the outcome for Oscar Bonavena in the $50,000 Flying Mile at Cambridge today. The heir to the trotting throne is long odds-on in the highlight of today’s traditional Christmas Eve twilight fixture, with barrier two perhaps giving him the opportunity to lead, which would almost certainly be game over. While it may be business as usual for the young trotting star who is favourite for every race he is entered in over the next month, several of his key rivals are having driver changes for today. Zachary Butcher will have his first sit behind Inter Dominion failure Marcoola, Brent Mangos will sit in as a catch driver on Enhance Your Calm and Maurice McKendry will keep the sulky seat warm on Interdom runner-up Majestic Man. All three changes come about because their regular drivers have commitments in the South Island, with Ashburton also racing today and they also probably all think if they made the trip to Cambridge they might be running for second. That is the kind of grip Oscar Bonavena has over this crop. So dazzling have been his best performances that he is already being spoken about as world class even though he has never won a race worth more than $25,000. It is the ease with which he runs away from good horses and even when he won a support race on Inter Dominion Final night 10 days ago most were adamant he would have beaten Winterfell and co in the Trotting Final itself. The hype is understandable, with Purdon already saying he wants to take him to North America next year and having staked him for the best races. But the next eights days here and then the Great Southern Star at Melton on February 1 will tell us whether Oscar can live up to the hype in the group one arena. Purdon has no doubts. “He is a funny horse in that he is actually a better trotter the faster he goes,” he offers. “He has been trotting very smoothly at home so I am confident he will handle the pressure of the start and show gate speed. “But the best he trots is when you let him run.” Purdon has tried to half hold on to Oscar Bonavena and educate him in his mobile start races so far and  that is why he may not simply stroll to the front and into the winner’s circle today. He has barrier two but trainer Barry Purdon is keen to see Marcoola driven positively today while both Temporale and Majestic Man out wide have gate speed. Initially you think their drivers may go back at the start but either could easily cross most of those inside them and give themselves a decent shot at getting across Oscar Bonavena so the early tactics may decide whether this is a painless watch for those who take the $1.25 about the favourite or there are a few more twists in the tale. The reality is if Oscar Bonavena trots throughout it probably won’t matter what his rivals drivers do, he will still win. But this race has produced some bizarre upsets in the past and has been brutal on those getting back of midfield. So whether grown up Oscar turns up at Cambridge and continues his seemingly unstoppable march to greatness will be fascinating.   Michael Guerin

Inter Dominion champion Ultimate Sniper has had his season ended just days after sweeping the series. The four-year-old pacing superstar has been diagnosed with a small hole in a suspensory, which vets believe could have even happened during last Saturday’s $500,000 grand final victory at Alexandra Park. But co-trainer Natalie Rasmussen is hopeful the brave pacer can make it back to the track for next year’s New Zealand Cup. Ultimate Sniper was diagnosed with the problem after undergoing scintigraphy in Matamata early this week and Rasmussen says the vets are certain the problem only developed last weekend. “The vets told us the hole in his suspensory was very new because the fibres hadn’t even started to re-connect yet,” says Rasmussen. “So they think it either happened in the race or even in the paddock on Sunday. “It is a real shame but we are so glad we sent him for scintigraphy and that they found it. “If we didn’t know and had pressed on with his campaign we could have made it far worse.” The All Stars often send their elite horses for scintigraphy, where a marker drug is run through the body before a scan to hep detect any problem areas, after major races and swear by the results. In this case, it may save Ultimate Sniper from joining his brother Ultimate Machete as an early retiree to stud. “We will be guided by the vets but he is out for the rest of this season,” says Rasmussen. “But we hope he can be back in the stable in say six months and maybe even do some treadmill or water walker before that. So we can’t rule out of the New Zealand Cup yet.” As disappointing as the news is it could have been much worse for punters. Had an injury been detected this time last week the hot favourite would have missed the Inter Dominion and while he will miss the rest of the season the All Stars had already stated he was not going to the Auckland Cup or Victoria summer carnival, so futures' punters haven’t been badly stung.  After the hype of last weekend’s Inter Dominion finals harness racing catches its breath this weekend before Cambridge host their Flying Mile Trot on Christmas Eve and Alexandra Park counts down to their Cup meeting on December 31.   Michael Guerin

Inter Dominion pacing champion Ultimate Sniper won’t be asked to add the Auckland Cup to his summer spoils but plenty of those he beat last Saturday will. And while many punters and harness racing fans are still catching their breath after the huge fortnight at Alexandra Park, most of the plans are now in place for where the elite standardbreds go next. The most important impact on markets will be the news Ultimate Sniper, who was unbeaten during the Inter series, will be allowed to miss the rest of the northern summer, including the Cup at Alexandra Park on December 31. He will instead return to Christchurch and be set for the the Miracle Mile carnival in February where his first main aim will be the Chariots of Fire, victory in which would qualify him for the A$1million Miracle Mile on March 7. He isn’t the only star of the Inter series who will miss the Auckland Cup, with two-time heat winner A G’s White Socks to return to former trainers Greg and Nina Hope while all the Australians who contested both the pacing and trotting series are heading back across the Tasman. But while Ultimate Sniper drops out of the All Stars team for the Cup, last Saturday’s stunning support race winner Self Assured comes into Cup reckoning and joins most of the hardened open class brigade. Many of the trotting grand finalists will head to Cambridge next Tuesday but others will wait for the National Trot on December 31 while one of the biggest surprises is that only one of the top three-year-old pacers will head to the Victoria and NSW Derbys and that is Smooth Deal. Plans for a potential Perth campaign for one of the All Stars open class pacers, to target the Fremantle and West Australia Cups, have also been shelved. Here is a race by race look at the plans for the rich summer of harness racing ahead to assist you with your futures betting. Note, intended programmes can change because of performance.   PACERS Auckland Cup (Dec 31): Self Assured, Chase Auckland, Cruz Bromac, Thefixer, Ashley Locaz, Another Masterpiece (all All Stars); Mach Shard, On The Cards (Barry Purdon); Classie Brigade (Robert Dunn); Triple Eight, Check In (Steve Telfer) Notable absentees: Ultimate Sniper (short break), A G’s White Socks (returning south), Belle Of Montana (free-for-all same night), Henry Hubert, all eight of the Australian Inter Dominion contenders (returned home). Melbourne: Cruz Bromac, Chase Auckland, Thefixer, Ashley Locaz (Ballarat Cup, Casey Classic or Hunter Cup); Self Assured (Bonanza at Melton, Jan 25); Belle Of Montana (Ladyship Mile, February 1). Triple Eight possible for Hunter Cup. Smooth Deal (Vic Derby heat and final). Sydney: Ultimate Sniper (two preludes of Chariots Of Fire, then A$200,000 Chariots Of Fire on Feb 22 and Miracle Mile if qualified); Self Assured (Miracle Mile prelude Feb 29 then Mile on March 7). Mach Shard (possible Miracle Mile preludes and final). Belle Of Montana (Ladyship Mile on March 7, may need to race in prelude if she doesn’t win automatic qualifer at Melton).
Smooth Deal NSW Derby and preludes. Most other Kiwi three-year-olds including carnival star Copy That to stay in New Zealand, some to race in Sales Series at Alexandra Park on Dec 31 then be set for local Derbys, unless sold or exported.     TROTTERS Cambridge, Flying Mile (Dec 24): Oscar Bonavena and Enhance Your Calm (All Stars); Marcoola (Barry Purdon), Temporale (Michelle Wallis and Bernie Hackett), Majestic Man (Phil Williamson). Alex Park, National Trot (Dec 31): Oscar Bonavena, Enhance Your Calm, Winterfell, Temporale, Massive Metro, Paramount King, Majestic Man, Valloria, Woodstone (possible). Tickle Me Pink to race in lower grade race same night. Absentees: Lemond (stress fracture, out for season), Monty Python (returning south), Credit Master (fighting infection, out for summer). Victoria for Dullard Cup and Great Southern Star (Jan 25 and Feb 1): Oscar Bonavena, Enhance Your Calm, Massive Metro, Temporale. Winterfell only 50-50 for Victorian campaign with decision made after the National Trot.   Michael Guerin

Here is the updated score board from Inter Dominion Grand Final night: Punters 9.5, All Stars 7, Bookmakers 0.5. But the TAB’s head racing bookmaker Thad Taylor says there is a silver lining to the second worst meeting in history of the harness racing book at Alexandra Park on Saturday night. The near complete domination of favourites, headlined by Interdom winners Ultimate Sniper and Winterfell, was only halted when second favourite Havehorsewilltravel won the last of the 10 races. That was the race where the bookies got their gold star for trying but by then the horse hadn’t just bolted, it was already in another post code. Multi bets had left the bookmaking team shell shocked after the favourites refused to lose and the harness book suffered its worst single-meeting loss since the great bookie-bash of May 31, 2008 when the Harness Jewels was a strip out. The TAB never officially commented on just how bad that Black Saturday in 2008 was but estimates range range between $750,000 and $1million went back into punter’s pockets. The truth will never be known. After all, this is not the sort of savaging anybody likes to admit to. Saturday night was not quite as bad because the bookies didn’t get much wrong, they priced most of the favourites closed enough to their closing prices. The problem was they just kept winning. While the night belonged to the All Stars they weren’t the only villains for the odds setters, with Barry Purdon’s magnificent mare Belle Of Montana justifying her red hot favouritism for the $100,000 Queen Of Hearts, watching her made easier for punters by a brilliant Zachary Butcher drive. His father David matched that three races earlier by staying calm when heavily-backed favourite Copy That, trained by Ray Green, galloped early but recovered to win the $50,000 Alabar Classic. The exciting three-year-old was one of several chances for the bookies to stem the flow. Winterfell was rocky at times before outstaying his rivals in the Trotting Final but the baddest beat came when Another Masterpiece overcame losing 30m in an early gallop to win what was effectively the pacing consolation. “That was our real chance to get one of the favourites beaten and when he got up to win we were done,” says Taylor. “Obviously all those All Stars winners didn’t help but the team (bookies) didn’t do much wrong. “It was just one of those nights, a wake up call for us after a good start to the summer for the harness book. “I said to the guys afterwards we have copped it but the good news is the money has been shared around between a lot of punters. Almost everybody got some and we would rather that than say somebody landing $300,000 worth if multis to one person. “So the punters got us but there is plenty of racing coming up so they will have plenty to spend.”Taylor wouldn’t be drawn on how deep the well of red ink ran on Saturday night but a loss of $500,000 perhaps slightly more is realistic, which is a lot for any race meeting in this country. Their under belly was multi bets, which have always been popular with harness punters and even more so now as many of the most successful punters are restricted on how much they are allowed to bet to win. The limits for multi bets are much higher, for the obvious reason fewer of them win, but when the favourites refuse to lose like on Saturday night, the numbers add up. If Another Masterpiece or Copy That had kept galloping, or Winterfell had reverted to the trotter of just four weeks ago, the bookies would have got away with it. But for punters the night was almost as perfect as the entire series was for new pacing champion Ultimate Sniper. No matter what was thrown at him during the series the four-year-old ball of muscle found a way to win, often not my much, but the history books rarely care about margins. Just ask the harness bookies. Winning is winning. But where there are winners there will be losers. On Saturday night the winners were at Alexandra Park. The losers were at TAB head office in Petone.   Michael Guerin

The Inter Dominion became the Inter Domination as New Zealand’s greatest ever harness stable put on a show at Alexandra Park last night. The All Stars, the aptly-named training operation of Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen, won both the $500,000 Inter Dominion Pacing Final with hot favourite Ultimate Sniper and the $150,000 Trotting Final with Winterfell as they unleashed the full force of their stable on harness racing’s biggest stage. Not only did they take home the two Holy Grails but won five of the support races, including another of the group ones in the Peter Breckon Memorial with Amazing Dream. In all they contested eight races last night and won seven, Copy That denying them a clean sweep by winning the Alabar Classic for the three-year-old. But while Ultimate Sniper and Winterfell did the job for punters they were anything but an easy watch as both hard to work harder than those who took the short odds would have liked. Ultimate Sniper was expected to find the front in the IRT Pacing Final but after the Barry Purdon trio showed superior gate speed Ultimate Sniper was left back in the field and had to move to sit parked with a lap to go. He mastered leader A G’s White Socks at the top of the straight and then held out trailer Mach Shard and the booming late finish of Thefixer to complete a faultless series. All this from a horse who was allowed to miss the New Zealand Cup just a month ago and who the stable had initial fears about how he would handle the Alexandra Park right-handed track. “He was out on his feet that last 50m but he kept going like the good horses do,” said Rasmussen after driving her fifth Inter Dominion final winner, having also trained Blacks A Fake to win four before she joined Mark Purdon in partnership. Purdon took the reins behind Winterfell in the Trotting Final and as expert a job as he did the winning of the race may have been the hands-on training he has done with the former problem child of the open class trotting ranks since he came north for this series three weeks ago. Winterfell gave punters some nervous moments when he was crossed early and then when Purdon asked him to work around Majestic Man he took some fancy steps. Once balanced up he got away with an easy lap but copped pressure after from Tough Monarch and then Massive Metro, who headed him at the top of the straight before Winterfell fought back. Even after all that he still had to hold out Majestic Man up the passing lane, with the latter throwing away his chance to win by refusing to go down to the passing lane. But as last night showed, getting to the All Stars horses is one thing, getting past them is quite another.   Michael Guerin

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