Racing: Kiwis dominate at Melton

By Michael Guerin

Australians left with a few crumbs as New Zealand's big guns blast locals off the track.

Ohoka Punter capped off a great night for the Kiwis by winning the Victoria Derby. Photo / Stuart McCormick
Ohoka Punter capped off a great night for the Kiwis by winning the Victoria Derby. Photo / Stuart McCormick

Tony Herlihy doesn't want to tell you Ohoka Punter could be the best horse he has trained.

That sort of word gets stuck in his throat, muted by Herlihy's natural modesty in all things harness racing.

To say Saturday night's A$200,000 ($246,000) Victoria Derby winner has the potential to be his best ever would, to Herlihy, be an affront to former stable stars like One Over Kenny, Sly Flyin and Bella's Boy.

And it increases pressure on Ohoka Punter to become a superstar, which he is well on the way to doing.

So Herlihy would rather just keep things on the down and let his big 3-year-old do his talking on the track.

But he can't. Because Herlihy struggles to hide his admiration for how Ohoka Punter has come back from an injury last season to dominate an outstanding classic crop.

"He has that little something special about him," Herlihy said in the Melton driver's room after Saturday's victory. "He has real speed and he is tough and he is still just a big kid.

"I don't know what he could be with another year on him, but I'm pretty keen to find out."

Ohoka Punter overcame a second-line draw to win the Derby and while he was aided by hot favourite Guaranteed galloping when in front at the 600m, you get the feeling Ohoka Punter would have outstayed him.

He will bring that x-factor back to Auckland now, preferring the Woodlands Derby on March 8 over the NSW Derby run the same week.

That will make him the favourite for the Alexandra Park classic, which will already boast enormous depth, with other major race winners this season like Classiesistar and Franco Nelson also targeting it.

Herlihy's brilliant drive, to get Ohoka Punter in the one-one at the bell after starting from the second line, continued his love affair with Melbourne harness racing.

He has driven Hunter and Victoria Cup winners, Australasian Trotting Champs and Interdominion Trotting Final winners.

And he has won a string of Derbys.

"I have always loved coming here but it is getting harder to win the big races," he said. "The overall standard of horses is better and the racing is very competitive.

"You have to have a good horse to come here and win at this level these days."

While that may be true, the biggest guns in New Zealand harness racing were doing just that on Saturday night, with the Kiwis winning four of the five races they contested.

The Mark Purdon-trained pair of Escapee and Smolda were outstanding winning free-for-alls.

Escapee trotted the fastest opening sectional ever at Melton and was still too good for comeback hero Sundon's Gift and I Didn't Do It.

And Smolda overcame having to sit three wide for the last 1200m of his sprint race to win in sensational time. Purdon couldn't make it a treble though as Dr Hook went down by a nose after leading in the Australasian Trotting Champs.

- NZ Herald

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