Australasian Grand Circuit
Stories:  Pacers 2001/2002 Season
Leg 14:   Carlton Draught AG Hunter Cup 2001/2002Results   Points
                16/02/2002  Moonee Valley, Melbourne, Vic  3050m  Standing Start  $400,000
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The race named after a one-time owner of the immortal Globe Derby and the first chairman of the Victorian Trotting Control Board, has long been recognised as the ultimate in discretionary handicaps in Australia. After Melbourne officials had begun tinkering with the race in 1986, bringing the event in distance to 2380m for seven years, its return to the marathon of 3200 metres had seen New Zealand’s best stayers completely dominate the race.

This is probably largely due to Kiwi horses being conditioned better for such distances with clubs there programming significantly more two-mile races in a year than occurs this side of the Tasman. Handicapping is also carried out differently. In the New Zealand Cup for example, it is usual for just the best performed pacer to be behind the front. In an A G Hunter Cup you can expect half the field to be off a handicap!

It is extremely rare for a top performer to bypass the Victoria Cup to concentrate on the Hunter Cup as Perth’s The Falcon Strike NZ had done. But it is not so rare for a horse to bypass the gut-busting Hunter Cup knowing your pacer would be handicapped behind the front. NSW horseman Brian Hancock NEVER starts one of his pacers in the big two-miler. He is of the belief the race is too close to the opening of the Inter Dominion Championship.

Despite the big stakemoney the Hunter Cup has offered in the 1990s, Hancock’s decision seems to have paid dividends for him. He has captured a record five Inter Dominion Championships since 1990. There was never any thought of him starting Courage Under Fire NZ in the big race.

Steve Turnbull also had made it clear several weeks earlier that Smooth Satin would be returning to Bathurst after the Victoria Cup to be prepared for the Inter Dominion. This was a decision later confirmed by owner Laurie Paton when he pointed out how he and the trainer considered the timing of 13 days between the world’s richest handicap race and the opening of the Inter Dominion in Sydney was too close. “Because the Inter this season is in our backyard, we may never get another chance like this.”


Safe And Sound

Another to depart Melbourne after the Victoria Cup was Holmes D G NZ. It had beaten only three home in the Victoria Cup. Barry Purdon had won the Hunter Cup in 1996 with Vics Vance NZ and the following year with Surprise Package NZ. With Holmes D G NZ likely to be off the back-mark with the likes of Shakamaker and Yulestar NZ (the winner in 2000), he did not see much point in starting the veteran and winner of 13 Group 1 races from a stand start.

Conditions for this biggest of all discretionary handicap events allowed for a field of 14 to start. Horses to have missed out on the Victoria Cup and now accepted for the Hunter Cup were last year’s winner Another Party NZ from Perth, Sydney’s Bar Ron Boy, Jonells Son, and from New Zealand Pic Me Pockets NZ to be driven by Tony Herlihy, the brother-in-law of Barry Purdon. The Dennis Wilson stable would have three starters. Atitagain NZ was an acceptor, with stablemate Seelster Sam NZ again to be driven by Graham Innes, and Greg Bennett to do the steering on Bar Ron Boy.

When carrying out discretionary handicapping, it is always advisable to determine the back-mark first and then work forward. Melbourne’s handicapping panel placed Shakamaker, Yulestar NZ and Atitagain NZ off 20 metres behind. The 10-metre markers would be Safe And Sound, The Falcon Strike NZ and Another Party NZ. The win of Jofess in the previous Saturday night’s Cup led to it being re-handicapped to 10 metres. This meant the other seven of the field would start from the front line.

Discretionary handicapping is one of those areas when you can never expect to please everyone. Usually there are stables who, if not happy with their own mark, find fault with the handicap allotted to some rival. For once, the silence on handicapping this A.G. Hunter Cup field remained strangely free of criticism.

Following Shakamaker’s sixth in the Victoria Cup, an effort John Justice then described as “the worst run of his career,” the trainer had called in his veterinarian where it was found the stallion’s blood had been “off’. Justice said he had since done everything possible to correct this so he might have the six-year-old stallion back to something like its best for the big two-miler.

There was certainly nothing wrong with the health of Safe And Sound. However, Justice found he had to contend with a problem that had come from a most unexpected direction. After the Victoria Cup, Perth horseman Lindsay Harper made an offer to the trainer of $200,000 for Safe And Sound on behalf of clients in the west. Managing owner of the horse was Carol Watson, along with partners John O’Neill, Kurt Unterlechner and Kasia Sass.

“I don’t want to sound ungrateful because Safe And Sound has been a wonderful horse to us, but, gee he has been frustrating at times running so many seconds in big races,” Mrs Watson said. A quick look at the stats would confirm the stallion had been very much a ‘bridesmaid’, being beaten in nine feature races by a total of just 5.1 metres. The difference in stakemoney for the nine races totalled some $800,000.

Carol Watson later explained the offer meant selling the horse before the Hunter Cup. She discussed the $200,000 offer with the trainer. It was agreed they would not sell Safe And Sound at that time, as first place in the Hunter Cup was worth more than this amount. The horse had won the two-mile Kilmore Cup, and seemed a real chance that Saturday night.

Having been beaten in narrowly in nine feature races on the face of it might suggest the horse to have lacked that stern stuff top horses usually have. No one who had ever watched Safe And Sound in its races would challenge its lack of courage. Because of the high opinion the trainer had of its staying ability, there were numerous occasions when the critics believed the horse had been driven much too aggressively for its own good, using up too much gas in running. There were many who believed if saved for a late run, this son of Safely Kept USA could be a real chance in the Hunter Cup.

Yulestar NZ had still to win this season. It had been an awkward time for reinsman Peter Jones to have taken over the reins. The distance would be right up its alley having already won a NZ Cup and an A.G. Hunter Cup. To build on its record in staying races now required the horse to be back to its best.

It was not that the back-mark of 20 metres was seen as a major hurdle for Yulestar NZ, Shakamaker or Atitagain NZ. Master Musician NZ had won this race from 40 metres, before the tough mare Blossom Lady NZ won the first of her double from 20 metres, and repeated the dose the next year from 30 metres.

Unlike Victorian thoroughbred racing when numerous winners of the Caulfield Cup have gone on to also capture the highly-prized Melbourne Cup, no pacer had ever won the feature Victoria and Hunter Cups in the same season. If Jofess was the stayer its trainer-driver Darren Hancock believed it was, then the Sydney five-year-old had to be in with a real chance of collecting the sought-after feature double. “I guess he had to get 10 metres,” said Hancock, “and I don’t see it as being a problem. He is indeed a good stayer and will love the two miles. In fact, the further the better for him.”

All 14 starters in the race had been sired by a stallion imported from the USA. Dennis Wilson’s Bar Ron Boy was one that did not fit the usual pattern. It was sired by Stature USA, purchased at the USA Yearling Sales by big-spending Australian owner-breeder Jack Honan. Stature USA had raced frequently for him at Harold Park, and later stood at his Killarney Stud, less than a half-hour drive from Bathurst before moving on to Golden Gait Stud. At one time this veteran owner had more than 100 horses on his books that he had purchased in North America. No one would begrudge Stature USA siring a big-race winner with the amount of money Honan had invested in harness racing over the years. Certainly not the bookies. Bar Ron Boy was a rank outsider in the race.

Perth’s Another Party NZ had landed some big bets when Mark Reed had driven it to victory in the previous Hunter Cup. Its form since in feature races had left a lot to be desired. Still, it would be right at home over the distance. Tailamade Lombo often saved its best for racing at Moonee Valley. She was now only a few weeks away from retirement, and it would give owner Mick Lombardo a great thrill if his mare could finish in the placings. 

The Hunter Cup is traditionally one of the best betting races on the Grand Circuit because the discretionary handicapping of the 14 starters makes it perhaps the most open. It is an occasion when a number of horses are solidly supported in betting. It had become a race where some big bets have been won and lost in recent years.

At the start that night, it was Wally Walton that came out best to beat the other six off the front line for the early lead. The three back-markers had also been joined by Safe And Sound at the rear. It had not made the most of its 10 metre advantage at the handicaps. With almost two miles to pace, there would be plenty of time for these four to try and improve their position or be saved for a last-lap charge.

When The Falcon Strike NZ took over the lead at the 1800 metres, back in the field Shakamaker was ahead of its stablemate Safe And Sound, with Lance Justice seemingly content to follow on the back of his brother John. Seelster Sam NZ was not having a great deal of luck. It had been flushed out three wide and would be trapped there for the last mile.

The Tasmanian Prodigious and Bar Ron Boy were securing good runs just off the pace, with Atitagain NZ and Yulestar NZ always with a lot of work to do if they were to figure in the finish. As the field thundered into the home-turn for the last time tightly packed up front, the crowd began sensing a home-town victory. Shakamaker was making up ground four wide and was closing on the leaders on turning for home.  Seelster Sam NZ and The Falcon Strike NZ were still there, with Wally Walton wacking away in the hope of causing an upset.

Safe And Sound, which had been right on the back of Shakamaker going into the final turn, was given a bump from the horse on its inside as drivers were not prepared to give an inch now they were at the business end of the race. The slight interference saw Safe And Sound drop back a length or two. With the horse having done little work during the race, Lance Justice now asked it to give everything it could. Slowly but surely they began reeling in Shakamaker, which in turn had been getting to the two leaders on its inside. In a great finish, Safe And Sound nosed out its stablemate right on the line, with the heads of Seelster Sam NZ, Wally Walton and The Falcon Strike NZ all making it into the photo to decide all placings.

For Lance Justice it was the biggest win of his life. For his brother John, he had trained the quinella of no less a race than the prestigious A.G. Hunter Cup. For the part-owners of the winner who had just days before knocked back an offer of $200,000 for the stallion, they were now to be collecting a cheque for a lot more than that.  Safe And Sound had now won several Group 1 races for earnings of $981,006. Not bad when considering how close it had been when losing some of those earlier races on Grand Circuits.

Included in the disappointments in the race were several that had been expected to be well suited by the distance and the conditions of the big race. Jofess, which had good support to be the first to capture the Victoria-Hunter Cups double, actually came in last, just behind three proven stayers in Another Party NZ, Atitagain NZ and Yulestar NZ. Seelster Sam NZ had turned in a great staying effort for its third after being three wide for the entire last mile, while Wally Walton again had to accept a minor cheque for another handy finish.

No one seemed more over-the-moon at the presentation ceremony than Mrs Josie Justice, mother of the Justice brothers. She had raised the two boys on her own. She could remember Lance and John having always been competitive, each possessing a desire to outdo the other. “They had to beat each other at everything. If one did something, the other had to do it better, but at the same time they were always the best of mates.” A proud mother explained than when John had moved across to open stables in Victoria and began churning out winner after winner, she knew it was only a matter of time before Lance followed this pathway.

Having herself once held a trainer’s licence, Josie Justice that night had the final say on the brothers finishing first and second in the 2002 Hunter Cup. “I guess I might now have to be considered for Broodmare of the Year,” she chuckled. “I’ve had just the two colts, and they are both Classic winners this season.”

The Hunter Cup is a race tailor-made for a horse like Yulestar NZ. That it had finished second last, having failed to finish off the race when asked by Peter Jones, had immediately raised the concerns of connections. A thorough veterinary examination would later reveal the gelding had bled internally. Plans for the Inter Dominion were immediately scrapped, and this well performed pacer at Grand Circuit level would be treated and returned home to be given a long spell.


1977-1991 known as Australian Grand Circuit.  1992 New Zealand included, and Circuit renamed Australasian Grand Circuit.

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