Racing: Can former great turn back time?

By Michael Guerin

Auckland Reactor, unwanted by punters, faces the crossroads in tomorrow's NZ Cup. Photo / NZPA
Auckland Reactor, unwanted by punters, faces the crossroads in tomorrow's NZ Cup. Photo / NZPA

So, it comes down to this.

After five years of headlines, hype and heartache, Auckland Reactor has four minutes left in which to right the wrongs.

To make anybody care. To matter again.

Because Auckland Reactor used to really matter.

As hard as it is to believe, the now New Zealand Cup outsider arrived on the harness racing scene a game changer, the equine version of the iPhone.

He went from unraced 3-year-old to Sires' Stakes hero in months and was acclaimed champion trainer Mark Purdon's greatest-ever horse.

The Great Brown Hope was sold for around $4 million and his life became a reality show, equipped with fake horror.

There was the episode where he nearly died before the Harness Jewels; the debacle of Purdon's suspension and the driver merry-go-round at the Gold Coast Inter Dominions.

In between times, Auckland Reactor would run and win and small children with giddy adults would hang over the outside rail post-race for the privilege of a pat. To touch greatness.

Racing officials made caps and posters to give away as Auckland Reactor became their real-life, pin-up boy. They had to cordon off his race night stall at Alexandra Park because too many people wanted to see The Reactor. Never happened before or since.

There was the now cringeworthy episode where he was apparently so viciously attacked in front in the New Zealand Free-For-All, a rival driver was publicly abused and castigated, by the media and even those at the highest levels, before ever being charged.

It was the same sort of protectionism rugby zealots call for now for our beloved Richie McCaw. You can't pick on champions, they are sacred.

The difference is, McCaw is a champion whose record matches his reputation.

Auckland Reactor's does not.

Reactor's subsequent North American campaign went about as badly as Sarah Palin's, and he returned home to a throat operation and a stalled stallion career.

Last season, there was the false dawn of his Flying Stakes win before another Cup week injury, followed by some truly superb performances in the Australian summer before the inevitable Interdom Final implosion.

Yet, Auckland Reactor started this season the highest rated of Purdon's then six Cup chances.

He looked great, his work was fluent. He was back.

But the closest he has finished in three race starts is sixth.

The one-time Cup favourite could, or at least should, start 20-1 in tomorrow's New Zealand Cup.

But Auckland Reactor, with his new pilot Maurice McKendry, is no longer racing for stakes and trophies.

He is racing for something far more important.

If by some miracle he steps away safely tomorrow, actually puts his mind on the job, ignores the pain of ageing joints and muscles and manages to run past about 14 of the best pacers going around, Auckland Reactor will turn back the clock.

Pundits will claim they always knew he still had it, his Interdominion odds will be slashed, he will grace television and newspapers again, like he did when he was the $4 million horse.

He will be a player again, for the summer, for a stud career, for a place in our memories.

Or he could gallop away in the Cup, over-race like he doesn't want be an athlete anymore and lose the last of his fans. He could be little more than a name on a few discarded tote tickets, half a line in the race results.

Don't expect to see anybody wearing their blue Auckland Reactor caps to Addington tomorrow.

But maybe a few people will be searching for them, or those crinkled Auckland Reactor posters come Wednesday morning.

Maybe broodmare owners will start to think that Auckland Reactor is the answer to their generic problems.

Maybe we will all love him again.

But probably not.

NZ Cup Day
What: New Zealand Trotting Cup day.
Where: Addington, Christchurch.
When: Tomorrow, Cup at 5.15pm.Auckland Reactor will be seeking to recapture past glories, when he was acclaimed by packed Addington grandstands, in the New Zealand Cup tomorrow.

- NZ Herald

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