Australasian Grand Circuit
Stories:  Pacers 2002/2003 Season
Leg 2Canterbury Draught New Zealand Cup   2002/2003Results   Points
             12/11/2002  Addington, Christchurch, NZ  3200m  Standing Start  $NZ349,934
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For most of us who indulge in the fields of dreams, and there is always a great deal of dreaming being done around the racing of horses, there are certain races that usually capture the ultimate dream.

In Australia, the open class racing for dreamers can be narrowed down to three -- the Inter Dominion Championship, the A.G. Hunter Cup, or the Miracle Mile. For New Zealanders, it all comes down to the one event – the New Zealand Cup. This is a day that outshines the biggest thoroughbred events in that country. It is the only Kiwi day where the crowds turn it into a carnival, like a mini-Melbourne Cup Day.

There was a time many years ago when the leading Australian pacers would cross the Tasman to contest New Zealand’s biggest race. On many an occasion an Aussie performer would bring back the bacon. The situation changed down through the years as more and more rich events were added to the Australian racing calendar. Double Identity was a last-minute nomination. Connections were toying with the idea of seeing how it handled the first time in a plane with the Inter Dominion the following March in mind. The gelding did not make the trip to Christchurch.

It is extremely difficult for clubs to program major events without there being some clashing of dates. This situation has improved considerably since the Grand Circuit came into being. Australia’s major provincial race, the 3200m Kilmore Cup, has traditionally been held in the last week of October, making it difficult for one outstanding stayer to contest it and then go across for the New Zealand Cup.

Dennis Wilson, a horseman with a passion for contesting both races, has done it with two talented pacers. With the retirement of Atitagain NZ with whom he campaigned in the Kiwi’s biggest annual race, Wilson preferred to concentrate on the Kilmore Cup with the stable’s new No 1 pacer – Seelster Sam NZ. This stable had won the Kilmore Cup in 1991 with Generator, then Zyuganov Leis in 2000. Seelster Sam NZ might not have had the depth of Atitagain NZ, but the horse had finished third in the previous two-mile A.G. Hunter Cup behind Safe And Sound and Shakamaker, form not to be sneezed at. 


Gracious Knight NZ

Wilson, and the several other interstate stables contesting this latest Kilmore Cup, failed to have a major say in the distribution of the $70,000. The day belonged to popular Terang horseman Neville Clarke, steering Western Light to a good win. The previous biggest victory by this pacer was the previous season’s Queensland Winter Cup when a broken wrist had cost the trainer the winning drive. Clarke had handed the reins to Matthew Gath, son of Brian, who did not let him down. Immediately after his Kilmore Cup win, Clarke said he would use some of his winnings to take Western Light across to Christchurch for the Inter Dominion in March.

Australians have much respect for the leading Kiwi trainers, the Purdon brothers, Barry and Mark. Both have won numerous major events in Sydney and Melbourne. This latest season it had earlier been expected that Mark would dominate major races as few horsemen ever have in New Zealand.

An extraordinary run of bad luck would rock the Mark Purdon stables. The previous season’s top Kiwi youngsters, Light And Sound NZ and Jack Cade NZ, suffered injuries that sent them to the spelling paddocks for some months. When selecting which of his two outstanding hopes to drive in the New Zealand Cup, Mark plugged for Cool Hand Luke NZ ahead of the highly promising Young Rufus NZ. Anthony Butt was made a firm engagement to drive Young Rufus NZ in the Group One races there. Soon after this, Cool Hand Luke NZ broke down so badly that the horse was retired. (Further bad news was waiting down the track for the younger Purdon. After winning the trot on New Zealand Cup Day with the Melbourne-owned Waihemo Hanger NZ, this horse would also break down.)

More than two weeks before the New Zealand Cup, veteran writer Frank Marrion in the NZ Harness Racing Weekly wrote how there would not be a problem for officials finding a full field. (Field selection is based on horses having won a certain number of races.)  “There are some 20 legitimate winning chances on their day, and most of these could be described as qualified having won 10 races or more. What could be a problem for some is gaining sufficiently good recent form to secure a start, and trainers will not want to leave their run too late. The ranks of class acts were boosted further last week at Addington when Pocket Me NZ and Australian Derby winner City Rogue NZ resumed with smart efforts after lengthy lay-offs.”

As the big day drew closer, Mike Grainger, the respected editor of the NZ Harness Racing Weekly, believed there were five pacers that then stood out. In order of them being named, these were Young Rufus NZ, Panky’s Pacer (NZ), Holmes D G NZ, Stars And Stripes NZ and Gracious Knight (NZ). Three of the five were well known to Australians – Young Rufus NZ, Holmes D G NZ and Stars And Stripes NZ – all winners of major events in Melbourne or Sydney.

Barry Purdon accepted with three pacers – the veteran Holmes D G NZ, winner of more Grand Circuit races than any other horse racing, Pic Me Pockets NZ and Franco Heir NZ. Mark Purdon is obviously a man whose word is all important to him. Having engaged Anthony Butt to drive what had been then his No 2 horse in the Cup, Purdon insisted remaining with this arrangement even though Cool Hand Luke NZ had now been forced into premature retirement. Mark Purdon would watch this New Zealand Cup from the grandstand, despite Young Rufus NZ emerging the clear-cut favourite in the pre-race fixed odds on the New Zealand tote.

Having already won $1.8 million in stakemoney, it seemed a case of Holmes D G NZ not wanting to be retired. Only days before taking his team down to Christchurch, Barry Purdon explained: “I knew at the start of this latest campaign it was going to be hard for him. Then he came out at Alexander Park last Friday night and won the North Shore City Stakes for the fourth consecutive year, rating 2:01.6 from the backmark of 20m. He has been working super, and seems as good as ever,” he added.

Franco Heir NZ had carted Holmes D G NZ into the race and it was only in the final stages that this much younger stablemate hung on valiantly to hold down second from Gracious King (NZ) and Pic Me Pockets NZ. This big disappointment of the race was proven Grand Circuit performer Yulestar NZ. It lost ground up the straight, with driver Peter Jones perplexed with the effort. Its failure led to Yulestar NZ easing in the early fixed-odds betting to an $8 chance in the Cup. Because Yulestar NZ in its previous two campaigns had raced like a horse not fully fit when first resuming, connections this time returned it to racing several weeks earlier than previously. The move at first appeared to have paid off when it won the $20,000 Spring Cup at Auckland’s Alexandra Park. That had been its first win in 22 months.

The Ashburton Club, less than an hour’s drive south of Christchurch, programs an interesting meeting a week or so before New Zealand Cup Day, enabling some of the Cup hopefuls to have their final hit-out. Barry Purdon was stunned when Franco Heir NZ turned in a shocker, finishing tailed-off in an intermediate grade race. Blood tests were to show the horse had a minor lung infection. To the experienced eye of the trainer, he believed there was more to it than that. “He wasn’t happy, and was not eating as well as he can.” Purdon then demonstrated he was not backward in trying something different, and right up to the Cup he trained Franco Heir NZ out of the paddock at his brother Mark’s stables.

Five days before the Cup, the fixed-odds tote betting on the race had Young Rufus NZ a $3 favourite, from $6 for Stars And Stripes. Interestingly, Young Rufus NZ had raced against the four-year-old City Rogue NZ eight times, with this pacer having beaten the pre-race favourite in five of these. Now, City Rogue NZ was at $22 in the betting. This was due to an injury. After winning the Australian Derby, City Rogue NZ had cracked its pelvis, spending weeks in recuperation. The horse had been driven in all of his seven New Zealand wins by David Butt, son of trainer Robin, who had won the New Zealand Cup 18 years earlier with Camelot. “I can feel City Rogue NZ improving with every run,” Robin Butt told the media several days before the Cup.

One of those top five fancies of the NZ Harness Racing Weekly for the Cup unknown in Australia was Panky’s Pacer (NZ), a much improved performer in recent months. For those who follow breeding, to say this one was from a daughter of the great broodmare sire Garrison Hanover USA would startle more than a few. Though dead now for many years, Garrison Hanover USA, a son of Billy Direct (US), sired the mare Almeda (NZ) in 1972 when the stallion was 24. Almeda (NZ) in turn produced Panky’s Pacer (NZ) when she was 24 years old! Americans will tell you how the Billy Direct (US) sire line has long been dead and buried. But this is not quite so Down Under. Garrison Hanover USA’s grandson Classic Garry was No 1 sire in Australia at the time of its premature death, and who knows what its son Chandon might still leave.

For some years the father-son combination of Roy and Barry Purdon topped the premiership in New Zealand, operating from the one stable. Two of the pacers to start in this New Zealand Cup were trained by co-trainers, even though their stables were more than an hour’s drive apart. The horses were Facta Non Verba NZ and Gracious Knight (NZ). The former was personally trained by Mike Berger, with Gracious Knight (NZ) very much the ‘baby’ of the Cup field for Warren Rich. Both horsemen were listed as co-trainers. Berger had become a successful trainer on his own in the 1990s. In the season before going into partnership with Rich in 1998/99, he had harnessed up 35 winners.

Back in the days when he was still at school, Berger showed enough interest in horses that his parents warned him against thinking about a career with standardbreds. On leaving school, for the sake of his parents, he began learning a trade – upholstery and car polishing. His heart was never in it. The first real opportunity that presented itself,  he packed his bags and, in his own words, “did a runner.” He undertook an interesting “apprenticeship” in harness racing, working firstly for Herbie Moase, then Doug Grantham and Mike Stormont, before moving to Sydney to work for the successful Bill Picken. Then followed 14 months in Canada before returning to New Zealand to work for Roy and Barry Purdon. “I went there holding both the Purdons on a high pedestal. But I soon found they were both down there working with the boys around the stables,” he said. When later branching out on his own, he became private trainer for Graham Mackie. “It was then a life ambition for me to win a race at Addington.”

His partner Warren Rich had also been around horses when still at school, working for the legendary Australian-born George Noble. Years before Noble had gone to New Zealand to become private trainer for leading owner, Sir John McKenzie, founder of the famous Roydon Lodge, near Christchurch, who brought the super sire U Scott USA and Light Brigade USA to New Zealand. When the Rich family moved north, the son went to work for trainer Mike Nicholas. He too spent time later working for the Purdon stables – five years in fact, then followed a stint with Jeff Crouch and then ‘Bunty’ Hughes, until teaming up with Mike Berger. When their two horses left for Christchurch to contest the New Zealand Cup, Warren Rich had 20 horses in work, mostly for the Happy Valley Syndicate.

The stables of Warren Rich were at Pukekohe. His trip back to Christchurch where he had grown up, would be a proud moment to be back with a starter in the NZ Cup. It would not be the first time Rich had raced Gracious Knight (NZ) over two miles at Christchurch. The now six-year-old had won the previous season’s Easter Cup at Addington.

His preparation of Gracious Knight (NZ) for this race was by far the biggest challenge he had ever undertaken as a trainer. “I remember when working for the Purdons I could see how Roy and Barry set their horses for the big races. But it’s all very well watching,” said Rich. “Now it is my turn, and I admit that it makes me a little nervous because of the pressure being on.”

Facta Non Verba NZ had campaigned in Australia, racing in Queensland and Victoria. While handy, many Aussies might have been inclined to have passed him off as not being a true Grand Circuit performer. It would seem, however, his best form was virtually restricted to when racing in New Zealand. As with Facta Non Verba NZ, Gracious Knight (NZ) had also been sired by Tuapeka Knight NZ. The pair would go into the big race the only two in the field of 15 not to have been sired by a stallion imported from the USA.

In keeping with what seems to be a tradition in that nation’s biggest race, just one horse was handicapped behind scratch – Holmes D G NZ off 10 metres. The disappointing form of Yulestar NZ since starring on two earlier Grand Circuits was such that no one could have expected the pacer to be anywhere else but off the front. Young Rufus NZ remained the favourite, even though it was still learning about standing start races. The successful sire, In The Pocket USA, would be represented by three of the 15 starters. These would play no part in the final stages of the Cup, with the trio finishing at the back of the field.

Supporters of the favourite received an early set-back when Young Rufus NZ missed the start. Several rivals were quick to get around Anthony Butt early. Panky’s Pacer (NZ) also blew the start, relegating it to a spot buried well back in the field. Stars And Stripes NZ and Yulestar NZ both began well, as did Disprove NZ and Gracious Knight (NZ).

At the post the first time, Pocket Me NZ led from Stars And Stripes NZ, Facta Non Verba NZ and Yulestar NZ. After stepping cleanly, Yulestar NZ was slow to muster early speed, with Shortys Girl (NZ) having to veer around it before tacking onto the back of Eastwood Jaunty NZ. When Yulestar NZ did slip into another gear, he got a run through to be in a good position. For once in its standing start career, back-marker Holmes D G NZ was quick to fill its hopples.

Some 2100m from home, Robbie Holmes took Facta Non Verba NZ to the front, giving Pocket Me NZ a great trail on its back. In the shuffle-up that followed, Barry Purdon was able to grab the one-one spot with Holmes D G NZ in a nice piece of driving.

It was obvious a long way from home that the slow start by Young Rufus NZ had made its task almost impossible with rival reinsmen having taken advantage of this flaw in the pacer’s manners. Several made forward moves out three wide, and a couple were four wide down the back straight the final time. Todd Mitchell was in two minds when Young Rufus NZ came around from well back. He decided to stay where he was well back with Gracious Knight (NZ), then got lucky when Franco Heir NZ was pushed out four wide down the back straight, allowing the son of Tuapeka Knight NZ to improve its position. Yulestar NZ, City Rogue NZ, Eastwood Jaunty NZ along with Stars And Stripes NZ were also in the forward bunch, ideal positions to launch a last-minute attack on the leader.

As the field thundered towards the home-turn the last time, one trainer too nervous to watch with a group of stable supporters, had made his way to the very top of the main public stand to watch the race unfold on his own. This was Mike Berger, co-trainer of Facta Non Verba NZ and Gracious Knight (NZ). Berger was delighted to see the pacer from his stables still in front rounding the turn. Looking back to find the green colours of Todd Mitchell steering Gracious Knight (NZ), Berger was filled with hope for a big finish as he saw this pacer coming into the race at the right time.

Noted for usually finishing its races off with a strong sprint, Gracious Knight (NZ) did run on stoutly to just edge out Facta Non Verba NZ for the main prize. The result was a Cup quinella for the co-trainers, with Shortys Girl (NZ) a handy third. Holmes D G NZ was fourth, with Stars And Stripes NZ fifth.

There were several disappointing efforts from well known candidates. Yulestar NZ had failed to flatter in the run home. After missing the start, Young Rufus NZ had worked hard in the last lap, but was never a winning chance. Panky’s Pacer (NZ) had galloped at the start, with Ricky May later stating: “He never felt good at any stage. I can’t believe it.”  Robin Butt was also greatly disappointed with City Rogue NZ. “We got away good, and into the final lap we got a lovely run three and four wide, but he did not feel good at any part of the race.” There were no real hard-luck stories, other than the favourite blowing its chances at the start.

 Tuapeka Knight NZ, the sire of the two first placings, had earlier been an outstanding juvenile. From that standpoint, who would then have considered the horse to be capable of siring the first two home in the nation’s most famous staying race? Year earlier there had been another quinella of this race. Back in 1928 the full brothers Peter Bingen and Great Bingen – from that fine imported matron Berthabell USA, had grabbed the quinella for different trainers.


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

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