Australasian Grand Circuit
Stories: Pacers 2001/2002 Season
Mark was a younger member of the famous Purdon family. His father Roy and brother Barry had earlier been co-trainers of the most successful stable in the country, dominating the training premierships from their base near Auckland in the North Isle. This was at a time when the South Island was still regarded by many as the stronger of the two islands when it came to breeding and racing standardbreds. This had not stopped the Purdon stable from helping to keep Auckland’s Alexander Park as a mecca for some of the great harness horses of the past 20 years. The North Island continues to take a back-seat to thoroughbred racing in that part of the world. Down south in the district of Canterbury (Christchurch), this region has for many years been stronger for pacers and trotters than thoroughbreds, and is why big crowds flock to Addington Raceway for its carnival.
Until seven years earlier, Purdon had worked for the joint stables of brother Barry and their father Roy. When their father was retiring with Barry to take over the stable, Mark thought it time for him to branch out on his own as a trainer-driver. He and his wife Vicki then set up stables at nearby Clevedon. It was from here that he raced the likes of NZ Cup winner Il Vicolo NZ and Grand Circuit winner Brabham NZ, and the Inter Dominion Champion trotters Pride Of Petite USA and Diamond Field NZ.
Mid-way through this latest season the youngest of three Purdon brothers dropped a bombshell when he announced how he and Vicki would sell up their property and stables at Clevedon and move to the South Island opening stables near Christchurch. Vicki Purdon explained the move was entirely racing orientated. “It is sad to leave all our friends,” she had said at the time. “But there wasn’t much more to accomplish where we were. We thought it would be nice to give ourselves another challenge.”
Moving to Christchurch that April meant the weather would be their first major hurdle to contend with. The district of Canterbury during the warmer months of the year does provide good weather, but come winter, it is colder, wetter and has far more frosts than is the case up around Auckland. Leading up to this latest carnival at Addington Raceway, their first since making the move, Mrs Purdon explained how she and Mark managed to get through their first winter there, often wearing a second set of clothes and gloves to keep out the cold when working the horses.
Mark had trained for numerous South Island-based owners when up north, including Il Vicolo NZ. The move to Christchurch had other owners quick to offer him horses. That carnival in 2001 would provide a total of 25 races. Mark Purdon would capture no fewer than eight of these, including the important Firestone Firehawk Free-For-All on NZ Cup Day with Young Rufus NZ.
What makes this Free-For-All on Cup Day so important is that it attracts the best four-year-olds in New Zealand. This was the race several years earlier that Australian visitors witnessing Iraklis NZ win the race, went home claiming they had seen the most promising pacer of the modern era. The follow year they would say much the same about the then four-year-old Christian Cullen NZ, while a year later this race produced another great prospect when Yulestar NZ was successful.
When Purdon won this latest FFA on Cup Day with Young Rufus NZ, trotsgoers were again shaking their head in disbelief. Forced wide from the start, Young Rufus NZ was three-wide without cover for the entire race and even had the cheek to change gear and race clear turning for home. When deciding to back-up his horse three days later for its first start against the ‘big boys’, Purdon said how he always held this pacer in high regard. “He is really coming of age now. I know Friday is his biggest test, but the way he won on Tuesday, I believe he is ready for it,” he said.
Holmes D G NZ was the favourite in the pre-post betting on the FFA, as its effort on Tuesday had been impressive and brave. Back behind the mobile would also be a real plus for the Barry Purdon-trained and driven veteran pacer. “I think being left without cover cost him more than what missing the start did,” he said. “If Makati Galahad (NZ) had not broken, then Annie’s Boy (NZ) would have carted me right to the turn, and I think Holmes D G NZ would have won the Cup,” he added.
Most importantly about backing up three days later was that Holmes D G NZ had recovered extremely well from its tough run. “He looks like he’s just getting ready to race, not like he has been around in a tough two-miler,” suggested one part-owner. Holmes D G NZ had won this FFA two years earlier, just before winning the first of its two Miracle Miles in Sydney. Barry Purdon would love to have another crack at the Sydney sprint, and a big showing on Friday would surely have the NSW Harness Racing Club ready to extend another invite.
It was claimed in the media that whether New Zealand Cup winner Kyms Girl NZ started in the FFA actually depended on officials from Harold Park offering a Miracle Mile invitation beforehand. Connections of the mare were keen to make the rushed trip to Sydney, and at that stage preferred going to Sydney than starting on Friday. Sydney officials, as usual on such matters, were keeping their cards close to their chest, and no decision would be made until after that Free-For-All. Because of this, Kyms Girl NZ would race that Friday.
Peter Jones, the new driver on Yulestar NZ, believed this horse should have won the Cup. Having had little luck before finishing on strongly, connections of Yulestar NZ who had 12 months earlier stated they were not interested in Australia’s major sprint event, now indicated they were likely to accept an invite if their horse won on Friday.
When Kyms Girl NZ months before had won the nation’s leading race for mares (NZ Standardbred Breeders’ Stakes) for the second time, she had dashed to the lead and given nothing else a chance. Drawn barrier two in the FFA, Colin De Filippi elected to ease her off the pace soon after the start when tightened between Annie’s Boy (NZ) and Young Rufus NZ. It was Young Rufus NZ that was first to muster great speed, quickly taking up the lead. Despite being chased by the best pacers in the land, none could catch the four-year-old in its debut effort on the Grand Circuit.
Young Rufus NZ was timed to sprint the last quarter in 27.3. Kyms Girl NZ did storm home to be second, recording a fast 55.3 for her last 800m. De Filippi was the first to suggest his mare could not have beaten the winner, but with a clear run through at the start, she would have narrowed the winning margin. Mataki Galahad finished a nice third, with both Yulestar NZ and Holmes D G NZ well beaten, finishing back in the ruck, the latter having become pocketed at a crucial stage in running.
The NSW HRC Directors make it a point to discuss the Miracle Mile with connections of horses they are keen to entice to Harold Park. Only when it is clear that a horse in their sights is available do they officially issue an invitation. Immediately following the win of Young Rufus NZ they were waiting anxiously for a decision by Mark Purdon. When he decided it was not just right to be rushing his four-year-old there, he did explain to them how the horse’s connections at this stage were more interested in travelling to Harold Park later in the season for the Chariots Of Fire. Sydney officials then moved swiftly, with connections of Kyms Girl NZ and Holmes D G NZ both accepting invitations to represent New Zealand in the Miracle Mile.
As has become the accepted practice in recent years, these two Kiwi pacers were the first into the list of six for a start in the big mile. There seemed little doubt that the first two Aussie pacers that would gain inclusion in several days time would be Courage Under Fire NZ and Shakamaker, leaving just two positions to be filled. On the very night of Young Rufus NZ gaining its first points on the Grand Circuit, drama was unfolding at Harold Park.
Bathurst trainer-driver Steve Turnbull was greatly deflated with himself, believing a poor drive on his part had cost Smooth Satin its chance for an invite to the Miracle Mile. Turnbull rated this pacer to be the best ever in his stable. He had purposely kept it away from the early Grand Circuit races to have his horse fresh for the big mile. He had gambled on a big win that night. Being beaten by Leftrightout, even though the mile rate was a slick 1:55.8, now left an invite from the club in doubt, and Turnbull left the track that night feeling depressed with himself.
In some years the NZ Free-For-All is decided just one week before the Miracle Mile. This leaves an extremely rushed trip ahead for the two Kiwi pacers accepting invitations, having to firstly travel from Christchurch up to Auckland, then catching a flight to Sydney. This season Kyms Girl NZ and Holmes D G NZ had two weeks to make it to Sydney, with the Miracle Mile not scheduled until November 30. In the meantime, Sydney officials would break with tradition, with a late invitation to a third New Zealand pacer. Yulestar NZ might not have set the world afire with its latest form, but a Yulestar NZ at its best with a winning record of 1:55.6 and earnings of $NZ1,089,238 would be a chance in anything it contested.
|1977-1991 known as Australian Grand Circuit. 1992 New Zealand included, and Circuit renamed Australasian Grand Circuit.|