One of harness racing’s elite drivers Zachary Butcher finds himself thrust into the hot seat behind two Group 1 favourites at Addington today in most improbable fashion.
Butcher woke up on Thursday as the driver of the second favourite for the New Zealand Pacing Derby and the NZ Oaks today but will arrive at Addington on the favourite to win both.
The two classics make up a quarter of the eight Group1s at harness racing’s final major age group meeting for the year, with an open class pace and trot thrown in.
Butcher not only drives but trains Mantra Blue, who went from paying $6 to win the NZ Pacing Oaks to $1.50 when hot favourite Millwood Nike was scratched after a tendon knock on Thursday.
Mantra Blue has been quite brilliant in her short career, only bested by the unbeaten Millwood Nike and with the latter out of the rest of the season, Butcher is now on the filly to beat.
He has made an adjustment to Mantra Blue’s hopples after she galloped at the start last time, before staging a huge recovery, and Butcher is confident she will behave today but they have to overcome a wide draw.
“She is very well and I am not worried by what happened last start, we have pulled her hopples up and she will have shorteners in early to give her confidence,” says Butcher.
“I will be an interesting race early as Aardiebytheseaside has been leading but I think my filly has gone better than her the last two times they have met.
“It might come down to luck in the running but I wouldn’t be surprised if my filly was even better than last start.”
While Butcher has been promoted to driving the favourite for the Oaks via Millwood Nike’s scratching, it is weight of money that has made his Derby drive Merlin favourite over Don’t Stop Dreaming.
Merlin opened the $2.70 second favourite on Tuesday but has been backed into $2 while Don’t Stop Dreaming has drifted from $2.20 to $2.40, mainly on speculation that Merlin’s better draw will enable him to lead.
“I’d like to lead and the way he felt last week when he beat Don’t Stop Dreaming I think if we do he will be very hard to beat,” says Butcher.
Don’t Stop Dreaming has always looked the slightly superior stayer and Merlin the faster but Don’t Stop Dreaming’s trainer-driver Mark Purdon has all but conceded unless there is hot early pressure, he might have to sit parked outside Merlin.
Coming at the end of the year some of today’s field have been shorn in numbers as, particularly the juveniles, have started to get tired.
There are refreshingly Southland-trained winning chances in Bring On The Muscle (male trot), Dreams Are Free (male pace) and Louies Girl (female pace) in the juvenile ranks while Empire City (R4, No 3) has the draw and form to win the juvenile fillies trot for Oamaru trainer Phil Williamson.
Williamson also has Majestic Man and Love N The Port in the $110,000 NZ Trotting Free-For-All but concedes natural speedster Majestic Man wouldn’t be able to go with in-form Oscar Bonavena if the hot favourite gets serious.
After the gate speed Oscar Bonavena showed last Sunday that suggest the hot might be able to run to the front, from where he would be incredbly hard to catch.
●In a race thrown into disarray by a false start, quality four-year-old Desert Lightning stood tall and claimed his first Group 1 victory in yesterday’s TAB Classic (1600m) at Trentham.
Te Akau Racing was on top of the two-year-old podium at Trentham, with their untapped filly Captured By Love running out a dominant victor in the Group 2 Wakefield Challenge Stakes (1100m).
Meanwhile, Lupo Solitario fought hard to better Orchestral in the Bonecrusher Stakes (1400m) at Pukekohe, extending his record to three wins from four starts.