Anthony Butt and Stunin Cullen claim the 2011 Hunter Cup. Photo copyright Stuart McCormick
Star New Zealand pacer Stunin Cullen produced another brilliant sprint to claim the Gr.1 $425,000 BIG6 Hunter Cup at TABCORP Park, Melton defeating fellow countryman Smiling Shard in a thrilling finish.
Recognised as Australia's premier staying event, the two-mile stand start feature has now been won by champion reinsman Anthony Butt a record five times.
Butt drove Blossom Lady to back to back victories in 1994/95 whilst he also claimed the prize in 2004 aboard Mister DG and again in 2008 with former North American Mr Feelgood before tonight's success.
Fresh from his triumph in last week's Ballarat Cup, Butt drove the perfect race again finding three-wide cover before utilising the brilliant speed of Stunin Cullen to grab a brave Smiling Shard over the concluding stages.
Despite the poor weather conditions in the state over the past twenty-four hours, a massive crowd packed the Melton facility to witness the first ever Hunter Cup to be staged at the new home of harness racing in Victoria.
When the race got under way, in-form gelding Our Chain Of Command found himself in front after a brilliant beginning and driver Chris Alford dictated terms in front whilst the big field jostled for key positions.
The lead time for the 3280m stand start feature was covered in 130.1 seconds.
Our Chain Of Command led the way whilst Power Of Tara raced on his outside, fancied runners Smiling Shard, Stunin Cullen, Villagem and race favourite Im Themightyquinn all sat quietly in the running line.
The first half of the final mile was covered in sections of 29.7 and 31.1 seconds and drivers bided their time to make moves.
Entering the backstraight on the final occasion, Our Chain Of Command still maintained the leading role whilst Power Of Tara moved closer to apply more pressure whilst Smiling Shard moved up three-wide and provided Stunin Cullen with perfect cover.
Im Themightyquinn was well back at the 800m marker whilst he also encountered big traffic problems as the field bunched quickly.
The third quarter was posted in 28.3 seconds.
Approaching the home turn, Smiling Shard loomed dangerously before Stunin Cullen made his move and sprinted quickly to join him as they straightened together.
Village Of Dreams who raced behind the leader quickly darted back to the sprint lane and looked a distinct winning chance with 100m remaining.
Stunin Cullen gained the upper hand from Smiling Shard near the finish line whilst Im Themightyquinn stormed down the outside to finish a close-up third.
Village Of Dreams finished fourth just in front of a very unlucky Karloo Mick.
The final quarter was clocked in a brilliant 27.6 seconds.
The mile rate for the marathon was 2.01.1 but the sectionals over the final mile tell the story of the race.
The last mile was covered in 1.56.7 with the final half run in 55.9 seconds.
Race favourite Im Themightyquinn produced a remarkable effort to finish as close as what he did at the finish given he was the only handicapped runner in the event.
Winning driver Anthony Butt was naturally delighted after the race.
“This race has proven to be very good me over the years, it's a great race to win but I'm just so happy for the horse,”
“He's a terrific little horse and he's overcome so much in the last twelve months after undergoing a throat operation here by Dr Alastair Maclean but he has bounced right back to his best form and he's beaten the big boys at their own game tonight.”
The Christian Cullen entire has now won 17 from 34 whilst his career earnings have rocketed to $1,354,881 with the promise of plenty more to come.
The victory has brought Stunin Cullen right into commission for the Barastoc Grand Circuit title.
Stunin Cullen now moves to equal third with ten points courtesy of his back to back triumphs in Victoria and sits only three points behind current leader Smoken Up whilst Im Themightyquinn gained another point for his third placing and now has a total of twelve points.
Mr Feelgood and Monkey King also have ten points.
Stunin Cullen will now return to Christchurch and be prepared for the up-coming Inter Dominion Pacing series which starts on March 25 at Addington raceway.