Victoria’s Premier Grand Circuit Showcase event – the $500,000 (Group 1) A.G. Hunter Cup will be held at Tabcorp Park, Melton this Saturday February 6 and what a race it will be featuring a wonderful array of the best horses in the country headed by Victoria’s Lochinvar Art and NSW hope King Of Swing.
Unfortunately due to Covid-19 conditions, the usual New Zealand contingent’s travel plans have been thrown into disarray with a number of stable’s electing to stay at home.
Named to honor the Trotting Control Board’s first chairman Alex Hunter who was inducted into the Victorian Harness Racing Hall Of Fame in 2011, the race was first held for a stake of two thousand pounds ($4000) in 1949 with a champion of the era Silver Peak successful for Frank Culvert, returning a mile rate of 2-11 for the 12 ½ furlong journey.
A list of who’s who in harness racing circles have won the race over time including Amorous (Albert (Darky) Gath, 1950 from a 24 yard handicap), Ribands (P.J. Percy Hall 1954 - 48 yards), Sheffield Globe twice for South Australia’s Bill Shinn (1961 & 1962 - 12 yards), Waitaki Hanover (Doody Townley 1967 - 24 yards), Monara (Don Dove 1973 & 1974) and Pure Steel (three times 1977, 1978 & 1980 with Jack Ratzlaff and Ted Demmler (twice) in the sulky.
Champions Koala King (Brian Gath 1981), Gammalite (Bruce Clarke 1982), Popular Alm (Vin Knight 1983), Preux Chevalier (Barry Perkins 1985) and Village Kid (Chris Lewis 1986) all etched their names into the record books at a time when harness racing was big and crowds flocked to the track.
Paleface Adios, the legendary people’s horse that travelled from his base at Temora all over Australia to places such as Perth and even Cairns contested the race on multiple occasions but couldn’t break through for a victory.
1976 was the last time the race was held at the Melbourne Showgrounds, with Graeme Morgan’s Truant Armagh victorious with Brian Gath aboard, returning a kilometre rate of 1-21.
A new era commenced when harness racing shifted to Moonee Valley in 1977 with the race changing to a mobile start.
Transferring back to a stand in 1993, Kiwi Master Musician (Robert Dunn) came from a 40 metre backmark to score in a mile rate of 2-02.8 for the 2840 metre journey, with fellow countrymen Derek Jones and grandson Anthony Butt taking the race in successive years of 1994 & 1995 with outstanding mare Blossom Lady who came off 20 and 30 metre handicaps.
There was conjecture through the years 1987 to 1993 when the race still called the A.G. Hunter Cup dropped dramatically in stakes and was held as middle rage event.
It reverted back to its former glory in 1994 (Blossom Lady) and has been held in the highest esteem ever since.
The race became a mobile once again in 2017 with Bling It On the victor for John & Luke McCarthy in a rate of 1-55.1.
There have been many memorable performances in winning such as Yulestar (2000 for Lorraine Nolan & Tony Shaw), Safe And Sound (2002 John & Lance Justice), Mont Denver Gold (2003 Barry & Chris Alford), Elsu (2005 Geoff Small & David Butcher), Sting Lika Bee (2007 Brian Tuddenham & Chris Alford), Blacks A Fake (2008 Natalie Rasmussen) and Mr Feelgood (2009 Tim & Anthony Butt).
The curtain came down on Moonee Valley in 2010 when Christchurch duo Catherine and David Butt scored with Bondy. The following year, David’s cousins Tim and Anthony Butt prevailed with Stunin Cullen as Tabcorp Park Melton staged the season’s feature for the first time.
The Butt’s have made the race their own as Mister DG (2004) Mr Feelgood (2009), Stunin Cullen (2011), Choise Achiever (2012) and Mar Sish (2013) were all victorious.
Outstanding conditioner Mark Purdon has recorded two victories (Smolda 2016 and Lazarus 2018) as has brother Barry with Vics Vance (1996) and plunge horse Surprise Package in 1997. Other notable multiple winners have been Eric Hurley and Minuteman (1964 & 1966), Bob and Vin Knight (Popular Alm 1983, Armchair Ride 1987, Sir Reilly 1988, while Stephen Dove partnered Odds Torado for the stable in 1991).
Reinswomen have been successful on four occasions - Tracey O’Sullivan (Our Brenray 1990), Kate Gath (About To Rock 2006), Natalie Rasmussen (Blacks A Fake 2008) and Kerryn Manning (Arden Rooney 2015).
The race is one of the great Grand Circuit events on the Australian calendar and another name will be recorded with dignity on February 6.