by Adam Hamilton
They say the Melbourne Cup is the race that stops the nation in Australia.
Remarkably, it is a harness race, the New Zealand Trotting Cup, which goes closest to stopping the nation across the ditch in New Zealand.
We’ll get to why it’s called a “Trotting” Cup soon when it’s actually for pacers, but it is truly remarkable to think a harness race – above anything in thoroughbred racing – is THE race most New Zealanders consider their once a year, must-watch race.
New Zealand’s most prominent racing media man Michael Guerin grew-up with the NZ Cup ingrained in his DNA.
“It’s always been a huge thing in my life, but it’s the same for so many people over here,” he said.
“The (NZ) is still clearly NZ’s biggest race. There are three $NZ1 million galloping races, but none of them get the media coverage, pull the crowds or just have the general buzz of NZ Cup Day.
“It’s the only race in NZ which commands a public holiday where it’s run (in Christchurch).
“It would also be one of only two harness races in the world which is the biggest horse race in that country, the Elitlopp in Sweden would be the other.
“But this race is bigger in Christchurch than the Elitlopp is in Stockholm, and I’ve been to both. There is nothing else that matters in Christchurch on Cup Day. It’s like it’s the only thing that exists.”
Just as Australians know when the Melbourne Cup is on by the tag “the first Tuesday in November”, NZ Cup’s stamp is the “second Tuesday in November.”
Now, why’s it called the NZ “Trotting” Cup when it’s actually a pacing race? That’s tradition. In its formative years, the “trotting” was used to describe harness racing in general as a difference to thoroughbred or galloping racing. The Kiwis are big on tradition and don’t like tinkering with it.
The passion and interest of the NZ Cup certainly extends to Australia, but winning it has proven elusive for Australian trainers.
Since the Victorian-based Jimmy O’Sullivan upstaged the Kiwis with (ironically) a former NZ pacer My Lightning Blue to win the 1987 NZ Cup, only one Aussie-trained pacer has been able to do it again.
And that was an historic moment.
Victoria’s Kerryn Manning, a real trailblazer and one of the world’s most successful female drivers, became the first female to train and drive an NZ Cup winner with Arden Rooney in 2015.
For all of her incredible achievements, Manning ranks it right up with her greatest moments.
“It may be my greatest achievement in the sport,” Manning said. “It’s such a special race and incredible day to be part of it. I’ll treasure it for ever. Every year it’s run, it brings back so many great memories.”
This year’s Cup is just around the corner on Nov. 8.
And there are two Aussie trainers trying to create memories of their own like Manning, and O’Sullivan before her.
Victorian Mick Stanley is already across in NZ with his young star Rock N Roll Doo, while the almost revolutionary young NSW trainer Jason Grimson heads across early next week with his stable star Majestic Cruiser.
Importantly, they are two best credentialled pacers in Australia to fly the flag at Addington Raceway on Tuesday week.
Rock N Roll Doo is a potential champion. He’s furnished from a raw diamond into something special over the past few months.
His win in the Group 1 Victoria Cup at Melton was something to behold.
In an era where the gap between the very best and those chasing isn’t great, Rock N Roll Doo did something very rare. He sat parked throughout the race and humbled a hot field. He won without Stanley having to fully extend him.
But crossing the Tasman Sea to get to NZ isn’t the only hurdle Rock N Roll Doo has to overcome. There is also the standing-start factor.
You see, the NZ Cup is a 3200m (two mile) race, contested from a standing-start.
When Rock N Roll Doo left Australia, he had never raced from a stand. He had his first try at Ashburton, in NZ’s South Island, last Monday and it didn’t go to plan.
The 4-year-old seemed a tad overawed. He hopped and skipped and lost about 30-40m at the start before recovering, catching the field, moving around to sit parked and fading late for sixth.
It was a brave effort and showed, with a safe and even start, he is as good as any of the Kiwi pacers he will face on Nov. 8.
But, and it’s a crucial but, he must learn from the experience and step away safely from the standing-start to be any winning hope.
It’s something the more seasoned 8-year-old Majestic Cruiser has in common. He too is new to standing racing.
And Majestic Cruiser won’t see the standing-start tapes under race conditions until he lines up at Addington.
But Grimson isn’t fazed. “I wouldn’t be taking him all that way if I thought he was a big risk of blowing the start. He’s a relaxed old fella and he stepped away well when I stood him in a (Menangle) trial recently.”
Grimson is also driven by the fact Majestic Cruiser has already been to NZ and beaten their best. He did so back in April in the Group 1 Messenger at Auckland’s Alexandra Park.
“I’ve been itching to get back since. It was a great experience winning the Messenger and my horse is such a great stayer, my mind turned straight to the NZ Cup,” Grimson said.
Both Stanley and Grimson know the significance of the race and the enormity of the challenge confronting them.
Remarkably, Stanley has sacrificed a shot at the Inter Dominion – arguably Down Under’s biggest and most famous harness race – to focus on an NZ Cup and the major races early next year.
“I love the race, always have,” Stanley said. “I’ve always wanted to have a runner in it and when this horse started to emerge, I spoke with Brendan (James, owner) and we decided we’d have a crack at it if he kept ticking the boxes along the way.
“Even before he won the Victoria Cup, we’d decided we were going. We think the whole trip will be a great experience for him and help make him, because he’s still getting better and learning. But we also think it’s a race he can win.”
Grimson also admits the sheer “pull” of tackling a race as special as the NZ Cup is the reason he is taking Majestic Cruiser across.
“It’s awkward timing and sorting travel – both over and back – hasn’t been easy, but we think he’s the right horse for the race and it’s something we just really want to be part of,” he said.