Epic night expected in Melton with Just Believe and Leap To Fame sharing spotlight

by Adam Hamilton

The Inter Dominion is Australia’s most iconic race meeting, but Hunter Cup Night is now its best.

As great a show as hot and steamy Albion Park turned on for the Inter Dominion finals just six weeks ago, Melton will be epic on Saturday night (Feb. 3).

The biggest stars of Albion Park — trotter Just Believe and pacer Leap To Fame — are back in action for the first time on the same stage.

But Saturday night’s Hunter Cup card has so much more, especially with Australia’s biggest trotting race the Great Southern Star being added to the menu this year.

There is the $100,000 4YO Bonanza, a race which has helped launch the careers of superstars like Lazarus (2017) and Lochinvar Art (2020) in recent years.

It’s a springboard to Australia’s biggest 4YO feature, the $250,000 Chariots of Fire at Sydney’s Menangle track on March 2.

Saturday night’s Bonanza doesn’t have a standout, but that’s the beauty of it.

Will a standout emerge? Which of this even and talented batch of 3-year-olds from last season will progress best at 4?

Premier trainer Emma Stewart holds the key with Perfect Class from the pole, but the man who trained and drove Lochinvar Art to win has a huge opinion of his latest stable star, Captain Hammerhead (post 3).

Then there is Australia’s most impactful trainer Jason Grimson, the man who won two of the past three Inter Dominion pacing finals (Boncel Benjamin, 2022 and I Cast No Shadow, 2023) and finished third last year with Swayzee.

Grimson is telling those close to him he’s got something special in former Queensland pacer Frankie Ferocious, who will start from the inside back row (gate 8) and likely follow leader and favorite Perfect Class everywhere.

Grimson also has talented former Kiwi pacer Lous Dream from post 5.

And you have to respect Brad Hewitt’s Captain’s Knock, who boasts 11 wins from 20 starts and almost $300,000 in earnings. He’s got some star flavor with part-owner Jarrod Croker being the recently retired captain of big Aussie rugby league team Canberra Raiders.

The support races go deeper than the Bonanza with fans getting their first proper glimpse at some of the best 3-year-old fillies in the Gold Chalice (race 5).

It’s a crucial race with the first classic of the season, the NSW Oaks, just around the corner at Menangle.

Stewart, who has dominated juvenile ranks for so many years, has three runners, including heavily backed favorite Uniquely Ideal, a lightly raced daughter of American Ideal.

There’s also a quirky spectacle with the final of the 1,200m series, the Mercury80 (race 9), which is little more than a lap of the 1,000m Melton track.

But ultimately, all that is the icing on the cake.

It’s the Hunter Cup and Great Southern Star at the heart of it.

And that’s why the meeting will be televised live on free-to-air across Australia on the Racing.com channel.

The Hunter Cup gives Down Under’s standout pacer Leap To Fame a chance to score a win even more important and significant than the Inter Dominion back on Dec. 16.

That’s because this would be a win on the road, away from the safety and comfort of his own backyard at Albion Park.

In any sport, winning on the road on a big stage is the ultimate.

For everything Leap To Fame’s trainer/driver Grant Dixon has achieved in a career boasting over 5,000 driving wins, landing a mega win outside of his home state has eluded him.

“It’s hard to say this would mean more than the Inter Dominion because so many of my family and friends were at Albion Park to share that with me, but it would be a bigger achievement I think,” Dixon said. “Training in Queensland, which isn’t as big as Victoria and NSW, means you rarely get a chance to train a horse good enough to beat the best in the land, or Australasia for that matter. But this horse has come along and changed all that for me… he’s a once in a lifetime horse.

“I grew up watching races like the Hunter Cup and Miracle Mile and all the stars who won them. To think [we have] a big chance of winning one is pretty special.”

Leap To Fame, who boasts 30 wins from just 40 starts, is more than a chance to win. He dominates betting at $1.30 (for a $1 bet) after drawing post 6. He will move into 5 if first reserve Cantfindabettorman doesn’t get into the field from post 1.

“It’s a much better draw than he’s had in so many of the big races over the past year or so,” Dixon said. “Maybe our luck’s changing. It’s pretty much ideal. We’ll keep working forward and will be a big chance of getting to the front from there.”

While pacing is “king” over trotting in Australia, the stunning rise and dominance of our best trotter Just Believe has the 8-year-old seriously challenging Leap To Fame for top billing on Saturday night.

The story is well documented that Just Believe was a star on the rise before he had a daunting three-race campaign in Sweden through the middle of last year.

He’s come back and gone to another level with seven wins from as many starts, including winning all three heats and final of that Brisbane Inter Dominion.

But his biggest test comes in the Great Southern Star on Saturday night, which consists of two heats early in the night (races 2 and 3) and then the final a couple of hours later (race 8).

Just Believe was beaten in his heat last year, but atoned to dominate the final.

That’s a fact not lost on trainer Jess Tubbs with Just Believe drawing poorly in by far the stronger of the two Great Southern Star heats.

“It’s not the draw we wanted [post 9, back row], especially over the short [1,720m] trip,” she said. “I’m sure he’ll still be hard to beat, but don’t forget he was beaten in his heat last year and won the final.

“As much as we’d love him to win every time, it’s the big races that matter. We’ve got him as well as he’s ever been and we’re heading there with plenty of confidence. He’s just an amazing horse and a privilege to train.”

Win, lose or draw, the trotting world awaits the days after the Great Southern Star.

That’s when Tubbs, driver Greg Sugars and Just Believe’s owners are set to publicly declare their hand; will they return for another crack at the famed Elitloppet in Sweden or stay closer to home and target the inaugural $650,000 TAB Trot at Cambridge on April 12.

It’s even possible to do both should they dare to try it.