Australasian Grand Circuit
Stories:  Pacers 2002/2003 Season
Leg 14:  Carlton Draught AG Hunter Cup   2002/2003Results   Points
               22/02/2003  Moonee Valley, Melbourne, Vic  3050m  Standing Start  $400,000
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This event has long been the major staying race on the Australian calendar. The major Kiwi stables love it, their Aussie counterparts see it as such a gruelling handicap so close to an Inter Dominion Carnival that they think long and hard about sending their Group One horses around in it.

Brian Hancock, often referred to as ‘Mr Inter Dominion’, is one who will drive in the race, but for 10 years had not started one of his top horses. Our Sir Vancelot NZ, winner of three Inter Dominion Grand Finals, was just one of numerous Hancock stars to avoid this big two-miler to be saved for an Inter Dominion campaign. Hancock this time would make an exception for the not so well known Kiwi horse Country Ways NZ.

This Melbourne two-miler event is the ultimate test of endurance and stamina on the Australian scene. What makes it different from New Zealand’s two Grand Circuit races over the same distance is that handicaps for the Hunter Cup can have the best horses starting off handicaps much further behind than is the case across the Tasman.

No horse has ever won the Moonee Valley double – the Victoria and Hunter Cups. Records are made to be broken, and many winners of the first leg have tried. The outstanding allrounder of the mid 1990s, Golden Reign, came the closest in 1995. After winning the Victoria Cup, he was a fighting second to Blossom Lady NZ. The mare had come off a backmark of 30m having won the race the previous year from 20m. New Zealand stables are accustomed to racing over two miles. Mark Purdon was not only keen to send Young Rufus NZ around again, but was confident his young entire would be given no more than a 20m handicap. “I think he can overcome such a handicap,” he said, following his Victoria Cup victory.

Other trainers had other ideas about their horses. Harry Martin even before the Victoria Cup had ruled out starting Double Identity in the big two-miler, returning his horse to its NSW stables. Tough Sydney stayer Jofess, cleared from a serious leg injury that had caused it to be a late scratching from the Victoria Cup, was another to return home. “The vet agreed with our early thoughts that the horse simply must have knuckled over and jarred up,” said Darren Hancock. “The swelling has gone down and he seems to be quite okay again.” The trainer said he would not risk taking his horse to the Christchurch Inter Dominion if there was the slightest question-mark over the fitness of Jofess. He added how unlikely it was for it to start again before the Inter Dominion series.


The decision of Harry Martin to forsake the Hunter Cup in favour of the Inter Dominion had earlier surprised and disappointed Harness Racing Victoria officials. They had hoped this proven Group One winner would have started in Victoria’s major race. “Something has to give somewhere,” Martin had said. “It’s time I worked out a racing plan for the horse, and now I am not sure when his next race will be. I would like to give him an easy time before going across to New Zealand with a fresh horse,” added the trainer.

The Victorian Handicapper placed three horses off the back-mark of 20 metres – Young Rufus NZ, the defending Grand Circuit Champion Smooth Satin and Shakamaker. That week Laurie Paton, owner of Smooth Satin, announced his horse would be scratched from the Inter Dominion Championship, but would be left in the A.G. Hunter Cup. “I can’t see why people have been quick to say the scratching is a shock. That really surprises me, as the horse’s latest form does not warrant a trip to New Zealand. Horses that are not considered up to racing well in an the Inter Dominion have been beating him this season, and anyone can see he is not racing anything like his best.” Paton said he made the early announcement for the sake of punters who get involved in early fixed-odds betting.

Owner of Shakamaker, John Wolfe, that week gave notice his horse would be having its last start at a Moonee Valley meeting in the Hunter Cup. He had come to accept his stallion was racing below its best. “I was devastated when told he had been handicapped off 20m for this race, along with Young Rufus NZ and Smooth Satin. He was not able to win the past two Hunter Cups off the same mark when racing at his top, so I can’t see him winning this time when he has struggled for anything like his best.” Shakamaker had finished third to Another Party NZ and Sailors Corner NZ in 2001, and the following year was just beaten in a close finish by stablemate Safe And Sound.

With a proven record of finishing in the money in Hunter Cups, Shakamaker’s trainer-driver John Justice believed Young Rufus NZ was entitled to be favourite, but would find it very difficult to win off 20 metres. “The handicaps have opened up the race for the frontline pacers.” Another to agree was highly successful Victorian reinsman Chris Alford. “With the way Young Rufus NZ is going, he is the one to beat, but he cannot afford to make an early mistake.” Alford said his horse Mont Denver Gold was just the type to take advantage of any mistakes the favoured horses might make. The Barry Alford-trained pacer was the lightest assessed Hunter Cup starter, a fact not lost on its driver. “For him to win, he would have to be the best M1 victory ever in a Hunter Cup,” said Alford.

Before the release of the handicaps, Harry Manolitsis, manager of the Young Rufus syndicate, was quoted in newspapers saying any talk of their horse being placed off 20 metres was quite unacceptable. At the time he claimed he was prepared to scratch the five-year-old if it was given an ‘inch’ more than what he considered to be a reasonable handicap. Later, after talking with Mark Purdon, Manolitsis then had a change of mind by saying how he believed the horse’s 20m handicap as being “fair enough.”

The horse many now seemed to be overlooking was Perth’s Baltic Eagle NZ. Victorians over the years have seen many an interstate pacer come to Moonee Valley with enormous raps about it. For every one that lived up to these dizzy claims, there was a dozen and more than had fallen by the wayside. Melbournians were far from convinced about the credentials of this dual winner of two Perth Group One races over the past few months.

Baltic Eagle NZ was not an easy horse to handicap for this race, as all of its wins for the past year had been in Perth, It was difficult to take a line on this form racing against the same rivals in all events. The Handicapper now placed it off 10m, the only horse to be given such a mark. With 11 horses handicapped off the front (seven on the front line including one emergency, and a further four front-markers off the second line), Baltic Eagle NZ off 10m would be on a third row at the standing-start barriers.

The field in barrier order was: 1-Seelster Sam NZ. 2-Jay Bees Flush NZ. 3- The Fall Guy. 4-Country Ways NZ. 5-Western Light NZ emerg. 6- Pass The Mustard. 7- Mont Denver Gold. 2nd line: 8-Unique Icon. 9- Wally Walton. 10-Hearts Legend. 11-Facta Non Verba NZ. 10m: 12 Baltic Eagle NZ. 13-Smooth Satin. 14- Young Rufus NZ15- Shakamaker.  Of all the 14 horses that would start in this race, only one had never previously competed in a standing start race. This was Mont Denver Gold, drawn to start on the outside of the front line. Half of the field had been bred in New Zealand, though only three of these were from Kiwi stables.

In the pre-post betting, Young Rufus NZ was the warm favourite at a general quote of 7/4. Bookmakers were not taking risks with Baltic Eagle NZ keeping it tight at 5/1, from Facta Non Verba NZ 6/1, then out to 12/1 for Shakamaker and Mont Denver Gold, both drawn to start from awkward barriers. At the Saturday morning deadline, emergency Western Light NZ was an automatic withdrawal.

Seelster Sam NZ, third in the previous Hunter Cup, and having the good fortune to draw the pole in several major races this season, would be the villain of the piece this time in the big field of 14 starters. Usually a quick beginner, Seelster Sam NZ broke up at the start, checking other horses. Facta Non Verba NZ was another that went away badly, also interfering with rivals, before tailing out last. The most badly interfered with appeared to be Wally Walton, Shakamaker, Hearts Legend and Country Ways NZ.

In the mix-up at the start, which Paul Courts of Harness Racing Weekly described as a ‘fiasco’, the talented tactical reinsman Chris Alford not only had Mont Denver Gold away safely from out wide, but within the first lap he had this lightly assessed pacer three back on the pegs. Again he was driving for luck (and judgement) by allowing his horse as easy a run as possible over this long distance. Young Rufus NZ appeared to miss most of the early interference and was in the first half of the field and poised to strike at the business end of the race. The promising Unique Icon had secured the one-out and one-back in the run, while Baltic Eagle NZ was positioned to get into the race at the right time.

Two laps out Mark Purdon went forward three wide with the favourite. At this point, Mont Denver Gold was hopelessly pocketed and not expected to take a hand in the finish. Coming to the home-turn the final time, Young Rufus NZ was not finishing its race off like it had previously. But weaving its way through the first few horses was Mont Denver Gold. With the aid of a little ‘pushing out’ to get a clearer passage, Alford shot his pacer to the front inside the 100m mark. It was left to Smooth Satin when finally getting clear of the pack, to come sailing home to finish within a half-neck of Mont Denver Gold on the line, with Unique Icon two metres away third.

In just six weeks, Mont Denver Gold had gone from a handy pacer to one having its first Metropolitan win, then grabbing a fast-finishing third in the Victoria Cup before now being hailed a truly fine stayer having won the most gruelling race in Australia. Trainer Barry Alford was over the moon with the performance. “I have been saying for months how this horse had what it takes to become a Grand Circuit performer. He is clearly the best pacer I have ever trained, though the trotter Noopy Kiosk still has to be counted the best horse.”

Stewards did not take kindly to the desperate reinsmanship of Chris Alford as the field negotiated the final stages of the race, and fined him rather than suspend him. This would be the first of four visits to the Stewards’ room over that fortnight all leading to fines totalling $3400. (One of these would be for an interview he would give on radio in which he mentioned that he had spoken to Gavin Lang during a race.)

Raced by Jason and Narelle Kennedy and builder Romeo Montebruno, this son of Classic Garry (usually noted for their speed) had now advanced its record to 14 wins and 17 placings from 47 starts. Its earnings had climbed to $380,587. Kennedy, 39, operated a printing business in Melbourne. As a hobby breeder, some years earlier he had purchased the mare Promises from Adelaide’s Rex Norman (son of Bob Norman) after seeing her advertised for sale in Harness Racing Weekly. By Happy Talk USA, she was a winner of eight races. The first three foals from Promises did not make it to the racetrack. The fourth foal was Mont Denver Gold.

Immediately after winning the Hunter Cup, Barry Alford declared a trip to New Zealand for the Inter Dominion was very much on. “That’s it for now,” said the trainer. “He will have a couple of easy weeks, and we will be flying out on March 15.” Plans were already being formulated for the horse to stay at the stables of Dave Anderson, not far from Christchurch. Such was the confidence Chris Alford had in this horseman that he now suggested to his father how Anderson could work the horse while he fly back and forth to Victoria for him to fulfil his driving commitments here.

For Barry Alford, now 58, this win held a special meaning because of constant health problems. This had meant a lot of the work around his stables was carried out by wife Lyn and Chris. “I found out I was a diabetic about twenty years ago, and over the past few years the effects of the disease have taken their toll. Firstly it was my kidneys, and then my eyesight. I hardly have much sight left. I did go down to the rail to watch Mont Denver Gold, but it was all a blur. I really have to follow the race with the racecaller.” His wife three years earlier donated one of her kidneys which has since proven most helpful to the trainer.

Two interesting points to emerge from this Hunter Cup was how Australian-bred pacers had filled all three placings. It had been a long time since this had occurred, with Kiwi pacers having dominated this race in the past decade. The second point was that Unique Icon was driven by young Heath Redwood, a grand-son of the late Hugh Redwood, the trainer and owner of trotters whose name is given to Australia’s most prestigious race for two-year-old trotters. Heath, along with his older cousin Darren Redwood, are both fourth generation names in our harness racing since Dick Redwood first became involved with trotters in the late 1890s. 


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

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