The 2021 Australian Pacing Gold Grand Circuit heads across the ditch for the first time this year with the running of the Gr.1 $600,000 IRT New Zealand Cup.
The famed 3200m stand start feature will be staged at Addington, Christchurch on Tuesday afternoon.
With lingering ramifications of Covid-19, no Australians are making the trip across the Tasman Sea for the second straight year.
Also, no crowd will be on-course either.
But the one constant of the Holy Grail of New Zealand racing since 2014 has been Mark Purdon.
Since the victory of Adore Me, the champion horseman has either directly or indirectly been involved with the winner every year since.
Arden Rooney, Lazarus (x 2), Thefixer, Cruz Bromac and Self Assured last year.
Purdon was the former trainer of Arden Rooney who scored in 2015 for record-breaking Australian heroine Kerryn Manning while playing an active role in the training with partner Natalie Rasmussen of all others listed.
And during the reign, he took the winning drives behind Lazarus (x 2) and Self Assured.
In total, Purdon has won the New Zealand Cup eight (8) times as a trainer and six (6) times as a driver.
If successful on Tuesday, Purdon will join Ricky May with a record seven (7) Cup victories as a driver.
Oddly, since 2014, the All-Stars livery has been well represented in the Cup with multiple runners each year.
But in 2015, the all-conquering stable fielded just two runners and came up short with race favourite Smolda beaten by Arden Rooney while Messini finished fifth.
Last year, the stable led home the trifecta with Self Assured defeating Spankem and Ashley Locaz.
But 2021 is vastly different, Purdon is now in a training partnership with Hayden Cullen and the duo will only have the solitary runner starting in the Cup.
Defending champion Self Assured is the only Cup runner from their Rolleston operation.
The last pacer to record back-to-back victories was Lazarus in 2016/17 while Purdon had done it previously courtesy of Il Vicolo in 1996/97.
So, can Self Assured join the list and add to the domination of the All-Stars?
His lead-up form is excellent including his last start victory in the Ashburton Flying Stakes back on October 25.
The brilliant five-year-old must overcome a second line draw after landing gate 15 in the field of 18 runners.
And he also must overcome Auckland ace Copy That, the pacer that started favourite in last year’s Cup before being wiped out at the start.
The Ray Green trained star is back for unfinished business.
Following a successful Brisbane winter campaign, Copy That has shaped nicely in two Auckland starts in preparation for his Cup tilt and has drawn widely in gate 10.
If successful, Copy That will move to second place on the APG Grand Circuit leaderboard behind leader King Of Swing.
Copy That is raced by Merv and Meg Butterworth, the same owners of Arden Rooney.
The last time a North Island trained runner scored in the Cup was 2008 when the Geoff Small prepared Changeover proved successful.
Another Auckland trainee with great credentials is the Brent Mangos conditioned South Coast Arden, the rising star continues to meet every challenge put in front of him and looks extremely hard to beat despite being on the unruly and starting from gate 16.
Natalie Rasmussen, who scored behind Thefixer back in 2018, will again take the drive.
The last time Mangos had a starter in the Cup was 2017 when fourth with Maxim behind Lazarus.
Barry Purdon is no stranger to Cup success, now in partnership with Scott Phelan, they prepare Bad To The Bone who missed away at Ashburton behind Self Assured at his most recent start.
Representing the Waikato is Arna Donnelly, the Cambridge based trainer has two runners, giant gelding Kango plus the second emergency Taipo.
This is first time Donnelly has had a Cup starter/s.
Kaikoura Cup winner Classie Brigade takes his place in the Cup again, his third attempt after finishing third behind Cruz Bromac and Spankem two years ago while sixth last year behind Self Assured.
The ultra-consistent veteran beat South Coast Arden in the Kaikoura Cup and will carry plenty of support for the combination of Robert and Jenna Dunn.
Also representing the Dunn stable is Steel The Show, Matt Damon and Henry Hubert.
Other Cantabrians include Cranbourne (Brent White), Terry and That Alexander Guy (Regan Todd), Laver (Geoff & James Dunn) and Dance Time (Steve & Amanda Telfer).
The south is well-represented with progressive type Pembrook Playboy looming as a legitimate chance following his eye-catching effort last start at Ashburton behind Self Assured and Classie Brigade.
The Nathan Williamson prepared four-year-old just needs a slice of luck to take this race.
Vintage Cheddar (Alister Black) and Robyns Playboy (Ross & Chris Wilson) boast solid form lines and cannot be treated lightly.
The emergencies are Matt Damon, Taipo and That Alexander Guy.
With the Auckland Cup set to be staged as the final leg of the 2021 APG Grand Circuit, the result of the New Zealand Cup carries significant interest.
King Of Swing leads the way as he chases back-to-back Grand Circuit Champion titles but with three legs remaining, two of which staged in the Shaky Isles, it’s not a given he takes the title again.
Or is it?