THE Boxing Day races are an institution on the Auckland sporting and social calendar. Aucklanders flock to the picturesque track in their tens of thousands, the grassy expanses of the infield becoming lost in the throng of picnickers and revellers.
The iconic day is beginning to have a special place in the heart of Hastings trainer John Bary as well.
The Hawke's Bay horseman's love affair with the Ellerslie Christmas Carnival began three years ago with a champion 3-year-old and continued last year with an unpredictable crowd favourite.
Now it could hit an all-time high in 2013. Of the four major Boxing Day feature races, Bary has strong chances in three - The Hombre, Recite and Survived.
It was the race he doesn't have any representation in this year that kicked off John Bary's Boxing Day success.
The great Jimmy Choux blew his rivals away in the 2010 Great Northern Guineas, breaking the 1:34 barrier for the mile in a spectacular and breathtaking performance.
The stunning display of superiority destroyed any doubts over his recovery from the alarming atrial fibrillation he suffered in the Levin Classic a month earlier. He wasn't just back; he was better than ever. Four consecutive stakes wins would follow, including the New Zealand Derby and Sydney's Rosehill Guineas, en route to the Horse of the Year title.
Then last year it was the turn of the enigmatic sprinter The Hombre, who ran away to an emphatic four-length win in the Newmarket Handicap. Once again proving his fondness for Ellerslie, where he had previously finished second in the Group 1 Railway, the unpredictable gelding left a high-class sprint field gasping in his wake in one of the best performances of his career. Now he's back 12 months later to defend his title. He'll break from the exact same gate as he did last year - barrier three - but will have to carry 2kg more on his back than last time. And there's no shortage of talent lining up against him, including highly rated gallopers Albany Reunion, Forefront and Statham.
Recite was one of the best of her generation last season - sailing undefeated through her four-race campaign and topping it all off with a brilliant Group 1 win in the Sires' Produce Stakes at Awapuni.
She hasn't had the same success this time in, losing her undefeated record to the exceptional Bounding in her first start of the season and going winless in two races since.
But her performance to finish a solid second to rising star Kawi under a big weight at Trentham last time out hinted at a return to somewhere near her best. But somewhere near may not be enough against the imposing field set to contest today's Eight Carat Classic.
Spectacular 1000 Guineas winner Costa Viva is the headline act, having prepared for her return to the racetrack with an outstanding recent trial win. But there's also the impressive and unbeaten Procurement, stakes winners Hera, Whistling Dixie and Rising Romance, and the highly rated Flirty Gertey and Telepathic.
Survived deserved better than the fourth-place prize money in the Group 1 Captain Cook Stakes last start, having run a mighty race and finished only 0.6 lengths behind winner Shuka.
He has the chance to turn the tables this time in today's biggest race, the Zabeel Classic.
The Hawke's Bay star is expected to relish the step up to 2000m for this eagerly anticipated rematch, whereas Shuka is generally considered more of a miler. Captain Cook runner-up Viadana is back as well and Historian, Lady Kipling and Zurella are also expected to make their presence felt.