Australasian Grand Circuit
Stories:  Pacers 2001/2002 Season
Leg 13:   Eat Well Live Well Victoria Cup 2001/2002Results   Points
                2/02/2002  Moonee Valley, Melbourne, Vic  2570m  Mobile Start  $250,000
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Victoria might well be the smallest of the mainland states being tucked away in the south-east corner of the continent. When it comes to matters pertaining to the breeding of pacers and trotters, it is the strongest state by far. Over the years it has achieved widespread recognition for the strength of its harness racing despite Melbourne being the only mainland metropolitan city never to have owned a racetrack for harness racing.

In the past one hundred years the industry in Victoria has raced only on tracks the sport leased. There was Richmond, then Ascot, after World War 2 the Melbourne Showgrounds, and in the modern era, Moonee Valley, paying rent at the latter to the Moonee Valley Racing Club (thoroughbreds). In the early years when racing at the tracks owned by John Wren – Richmond and Ascot – the rent was little more than a token gesture. At the Melbourne Showgrounds it not only became a little more substantial, but all monies the industry spent on facilities there became the property of the Royal Agricultural Society. Facilities at Moonee Valley have been excellent, but it was here that an annual rental first topped a half million dollars.

The Victoria Cup has a history dating back only to 1974. However, this race has emerged to be extremely important on the Grand Circuit as it brings together the greatest depth of talent of any of the annual mobile races in the country. The nation’s premier sprint, the Miracle Mile, starts just six selected pacers. The Victoria Cup has a field of 12. One has to have exceptional recent form to secure a place in the field.

Following the two Group 1 victories in Perth, connections of The Falcon Strike NZ were offered almost $400,000 for the horse by a wealthy American. Senior part-owner Mike van Rens turned the offer down with only a minimum amount of thought. “To tell the truth,” he told the Perth press, “I don’t think I would let him go for even twice that amount. He’s been such a good horse to us already, and who knows how far he can go? We plan on racing him in the east where we have the option of the Melbourne Carnival, or the $200,000 Chariots Of Fire against his own age group at Harold Park.”

Trainer Gary Hall confirmed a two-state raid was on the cards because The Falcon Strike NZ had taken no harm from his hard run in the WA Pacing Cup when nailing Lombo Rapida right on the line. The four-year-old was booked to stay in Melbourne at the stables of John Caldow at Melton, with young Gary Hall retaining the drive. The trainer explained how he had been monitoring the horse’s condition after each run and he was happy to keep him going because it had either held its weight, or even put some on. “We will stop the moment he shows he has had enough,” he said.



As part of its preparation for the trip to Melbourne, The Falcon Strike NZ started at Gloucester Park on February 8 in a $5,000 country penalty race. The horse was allowed to race three wide mid-race before going on to win rating 1:58.8 for the 2100m. It was decided to bypass the Victoria Cup for the Hunter Cup.

Atitagain NZ, the forgotten horse of the Grand Circuit since that ill-fated New Zealand Cup campaign in November, returned to racing in dazzling style at Harold Park the same night as the WA Cup was held. Atitagain NZ won the $27,000 Golden Mile, upstaging the rising stars Seelster Sam NZ and Jofess. After the victory, trainer Dennis Wilson said he would now float the horse down to Melbourne for the Victoria Cup. In the back of his mind he was tossing up an option that it might not be a bad idea to wait a fortnight and keep his Grand Circuit Champion fresh for the two-mile A.G. Hunter Cup.

With the best horses traditionally available for the first of Melbourne’s two Group 1 races, it is never easy for officials to select the best 12, plus an emergency. This latest Cup was no exception. Yulestar NZ and Holmes D G NZ were over from New Zealand seeking starts, as was Barrie Rattray’s recent Tasmanian Championship winner Prodigious. Brian Hancock reported that Courage Under Fire NZ was raring to go, as were Shakamaker, Smooth Satin, Safe And Sound, Wally Walton and the classy mare Tailamade Lombo. These were all proven Grand Circuit performers.

The two promising Sydney pacers still to convince some Victorians of their bona fides at this level, Jofess and Seelster Sam NZ, were also in town seeking a start. Regulars to Harold Park who had seen them go through the classes rated both as being not far behind Miracle Mile winner Smooth Satin. This pair were probably the last to be given the nod by Victorian officials ahead of Lombo Rapida. This tough mare was made emergency in a field of 13 that went into the barrier draw.

The barrier draw was carried out at the Caduceus Luncheon on the Tuesday prior to Saturday night’s Cup. The draw was: Wally Walton, Tailamade Lombo, Safe And Sound, Courage Under Fire NZ, Holmes D G NZ, Seelster Sam NZ and Prodigious fr. Second line Jofess, Shakamaker, Lombo Rapida (emerg.), Yulestar NZ, Atitagain NZ and Smooth Satin. Coincidently, both Shakamaker and Atitagain NZ had drawn the exact barriers they had in this race the previous year.

On that occasion John Justice had caused a sensation when getting off Shakamaker to drive stablemate Safe And Sound. Brian Gath took the drive behind ‘Shaka” and in a close finish had got up to edge out Safe And Sound, providing the stable with the quinella. Despite his horse having won, an unhappy owner took Justice to task over having driven the stablemate. A firm agreement was then made with Justice promising never to drive another stable horse in preference to Shakamaker in any race. In its nine starts since, Justice had partnered Victoria’s top pacer in all nine.

The following are the pre-post odds along with comments of the trainers (or drivers) of each acceptor made shortly after the barrier draw was announced:

Wally Walton $12. Brian Gath: “I’ve never had this horse better. The lead-up runs have been excellent, and he trialled well last weekend. He has a perfect draw, and should be hard to beat.

Tailamade Lombo $26, driver Chris Alford: She is a champion mare and has a habit of bobbing up when people doubt her ability. Barrier two is a big help and it would be no surprise if she ran a huge race.”

Safe And Sound $14. John Justice:  “He will be good value, as he likes to race up forward and this draw gives him that chance. Don’t let him get under your guard.”

Courage Under Fire NZ $5.50. Brian Hancock: “Race fitness is the only query because he has not raced for almost two months. But he has had plenty of work at home. His chances have definitely improved from the draw.”

Holmes D G NZ $8.50. Barry Purdon: “It looks a tricky draw, but I am happy with the horse. I have freshened him up for this race after two terrific wins. The trial he had in Auckland last Saturday has topped him off nicely.”

Seelster Sam NZ $51. Dennis Wilson: “He’s got the job ahead from this draw. But I am happy with the way he has been racing, though he will need all the right luck in this very strong field.”

Prodigious $101. Barrie Rattray: “He really has come a long way this season, but the barrier could not be worse for him. It is a big ask in this company.”

Jofess $21. Darren Hancock: “He has already shown he can be very competitive in big races this season, and the draw looks okay from inside the second row. He will be right there if the race is run to suit.”

Shakamaker $3 fav. John Justice. “Everything is falling into place. His lead-up form has been excellent. He has been working well, and the draw looks good. He is going to be hard to beat.”

Lombo Rapida (emerg.) $71. Peter Manning: “She has not been back from Perth long, but she is such a tough mare I feel sure it won’t bother her if she sneaks into the field. You can never count her out.”

Yulestar NZ $10. Lorraine Nolan: “His run of bad luck this season continued with the barrier draw, but I’m trying not to worry about that. He is over a back problem he had and I am thrilled with his trackwork.”

Atitagain NZ $10. Dennis Wilson: “I am ecstatic with the horse in recent weeks, but nowhere near as happy with the draw. He could not win it last year from this draw, but I know how good he is and he has to be rated highly.”

Smooth Satin $7. Steve Turnbull: “His win last Saturday night at Moonee Valley showed he is spot on, but the draw will be hard to overcome in such a good field. I am thrilled to be in a race like this, and I do have a fit and in-form horse.”

Since making its Grand Circuit debut more than two years before, Shakamaker had been the idol of local fans at Moonee Valley. Having won this race the previous season from a similar draw, there seemed little reason not to expect another big effort from the strongly built favourite. John Justice believed their draw from the second row provided him with options. “We can follow through at the start and put him in the race early, or I can wait back near the tail and see how the field settles. The horse has shown that he does not have to be driven to one set plan, and can be used more than once in a race. This means he can come from any position to win."  Justice gave his stablemate Safe And Sound (Lance Justice) a great chance to finish in the placings, but rated Smooth Satin as the horse ‘Shaka’ had to beat.

Smooth Satin had looked great winning the Miracle Mile and than the Ben Hur, both at Harold Park. Trainer-driver Steve Turnbull floated him to Victoria nice and early to enable the horse to contest the Ballarat Cup. From a poor second-line draw, Smooth Satin had circled the field with a gusty effort to finish second behind Shakamaker. It had backed up the previous Saturday night to beat Safe And Sound at Moonee Valley.

The well respected trainer from Bathurst was not impressed with yet another awkward barrier draw for his pacer. “Yes, the draw is a stress,” he said. “But I guess it could have been worse. If drawn wide on the front line, then I would have been expected to go forward early and use him a lot. This way I have more options.” Turnbull rated Shakamaker the one to beat.

A victory for Shakamaker would take its earnings beyond $2 million, becoming only the fourth pacer in the southern hemisphere to achieve this success. The others had been Village Kid, Westburn Grant and Our Sir Vancelot NZ. The Kiwi Master Musician NZ, winner of the Victoria Cup in 1993, had retired after a long career having banking $1.8 million in earnings. However, as a two-year-old, it did win a $500,000 bonus that for stake earnings is not included in the records.

Holmes D G NZ had won the Victoria Cup in 1999, as did Yulestar NZ the following season. The Barry Purdon trained and driven gelded son of Holmes Hanover USA would be the oldest horse in the field. Its recent form suggested it had not lost its ability. The jury was still out concerning Yulestar NZ. After several very ordinary efforts which connections now put down to the horse having had a back problem, Yulestar NZ had been racing much better of late and had pleased its trainer in its trackwork since arriving back in Victoria.

No one would begrudge Wally Walton a win in this big race. Usually driven with cover, so often it ran on gamely when pitted against top class fields. Having the pole here was a bonus. At Tuesday’s barrier draw, driver Matthew Gath had the pleasure of peeling back the sticker that hid the barrier number for ‘Wally’. As he was slowly removing the cover he was the first to see the barrier number. With a squeal of delight, the young Gath cried out: “Come to Momma.” Prior to final acceptances being declared, one bookmaker was quoting Wally Walton at $35. After the barrier draw he had been quick to shorten its price to $13.

For most Melbournians, both Jofess and Seelster Sam NZ were still unknown quantities at this level. Trainer-driver Darren Hancock on more than one occasion had claimed it had more potential than any pacer he had trained. A big statement considering he trained Atitagain NZ before it moved on to Dennis Wilson. Hancock had also trained and driven Kyema Kid, the pacer that had brought to an end the unbeaten record of Courage Under Fire NZ when trying for its 25th successive win.

Perhaps one could excuse Jofess in the Ben Hur on December 14, when the now five-year-old was beaten into fifth place behind Smooth Satin, Bar Ron Boy, Parawanga and Safe And Sound. As John Justice often would do with Safe And Sound that he considered to be an outstanding stayer, Hancock that night elected to take on Smooth Satin with Jofess mid-race. Jofess was given a torrid run before weakening up the home straight. All along Darren Hancock had stated that because this horse was such a grand stayer, it had been set for the A.G. Hunter Cup a fortnight later. Jofess was easing in the betting with Victorian punters for the Victoria Cup.

Because of the late withdrawal of Atitagain NZ, it was a shame for connections of Lombo Rapida that the emergency did not secure a start in the race. As the field of 11 came onto the track, Shakamaker remained favourite. So many of his finest triumphs had been around Moonee Valley, and his many loyal local fans were confident he was definitely the one to beat.

When the field for the Victoria Cup was sent on its way, both Lance Justice (Safe And Sound) and Brian Hancock (Courage Under Fire NZ) served notice they wanted the lead. Courage Under Fire NZ eventually was able to take up the running from the tough staying Safe And Sound, but had certainly used up some petrol in so doing. This early sprint had opened up the field to some extent behind the pair. With Wally Walton being driven for a sit back off the pace, Darren Hancock was able to get Jofess through from having followed out Wally Walton, and this horseman stayed with his pre-race plan to get away from the inside line as soon as an opening presented itself.

With two laps still to travel, Darren Hancock once again demonstrated the faith he had in the staying potential of Jofess. In hindsight, what he did was well thought out. At a time when he feel confident his uncle Brian would dearly love to give Courage Under Fire NZ a breather out in front, Darren stoked up Jofess and went forward in a hurry. The last thing Brian Hancock wanted at that stage of the race was to be engaged in another battle to hold the lead. Jofess crossed and took up the running, with Courage Under Fire NZ now having the trail on the back of the new leader.

It was Jofess that now dictated the tempo of the race, easing back to what then appeared to be little more than a pedestrian pace. “I had a look at the big screen (just inside the track) and when I saw no one making any moves back in the field, I thought then if I was to make them work a little harder going into the back straight, then they would have to work overtime when making their move to run me down.”

With Jofess having a handy lead over its main rivals, this son of Jeremy Lobell USA went its final 800 metres in a blistering 56.1 seconds, taking the wind out of the sails of some of its following rivals. With Shakamaker making what would be a run too late, it was left to Safe And Sound down the outside and Courage Under Fire NZ along the sprint lane to give chase. Both failed by only a head to overhaul Jofess, with this pair dead-heating for second.

After the race the winning trainer-driver said: “I knew the other two were wearing me down in the final 50 metres, but to the credit of Jofess, he never gave up. It’s great to win a big race like this as my horse has been beaten into second place in several feature events. He really deserved this win.” Hancock again confirmed how the Hunter Cup had been his main mission, and picking up the important Victoria Cup was a real bonus.

The disappointments in the race were Miracle Mile winner Smooth Satin, the favourite and Shakamaker, and Holmes D G NZ. Smooth Satin had got lost early from its awkward draw before finishing second last to Prodigious. The effort turned in by Shakamaker was not in keeping with some of those wins by this stallion two years before. “Safe And Sound can never match ‘Shaka’ for speed, yet tonight he went straight past him,” said a puzzled driver. “The horse had simply lost his usual zip.” The trainer was quick to call in his veterinarian and to have a blood sample taken for analysis.


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

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