Just Believe and Merlin make magic at New Zealand’s Cambridge Raceway

by Adam Hamilton

If they weren’t already, now the world is really taking notice of Down Under trotting.

And it’s largely due to the amazing deeds of globe-trotting gelding Just Believe.

The 8-year-old scored arguably his greatest win yet when he sat parked outside the leader and beat a world-class field in the inaugural $600,000 TAB Trot at Cambridge in New Zealand’s North Island on Friday (April 12) night.

In what was widely considered the strongest field of trotters assembled in Australia or New Zealand since the southern hemisphere, since 1997 (more on why soon), Just Believe made the ultimate statement and silenced some doubters who were questioning whether age was finally catching-up with him.

“It’s moments like this you live for and it’s why we’re in this game,” driver and co-trainer Greg Sugars said. “He’s given us some great moments over the years, so many of them, but this really is up with any of them. This was such a great field, so much depth.

“It’s well documented it’s the strongest field of trotters we’ve had in this part of the field for a long, long time. And he’s been able to come across, at his first start in New Zealand, and sit outside them and win. You run out of things to say about a horse like him.

“He’s been super special to us [Sugars and wife Jess Tubbs, who trains Just Believe]. More than that, he’s just a special horse to have around… and do anything with. To think he’s been to Sweden [in 2023] and done what he did and now come across here and won such a great race… he’s just amazing.”

Just Believe won a legion of fans globally during a brave three-race Swedish campaign in May/June, last year.

The Swedes desperately wanted him to return for another tilt at Elitloppet late next month, but it’s not happening.

“No, he’s not going back,” managing owner Malcolm Wells said. “It’s something we put lots of thought into and he’s going to stay on and [race] in some other big New Zealand races instead. Sweden is a huge commitment, a massive commitment in fact, for Greg and Jess with their big stable at home.”

It’s no secret Sweden is a costly exercise too. Despite the generous work of Harness Racing Australia and the Solvalla track, it’s still a financial challenge because of the money Sugars would lose by not driving back in Australia at the time.

So, the Kiwis will have Just Believe to contend with for another two or three feature races in coming weeks.

“Yeah, he’s staying here,” Sugars said. “His next [race] is in a couple of weeks.”

Just Believe’s win was his 29th from 73 starts with another 22 placings.

It took him to second on the Australasian all-time prize money list with $1,386,523. Only the mighty Lyell Creek has more at $2,256,724.

When Just Believe prepared to return to racing late last year, after his Swedish trip, Sugars declared he was better for the trip. His record says that with 13 starts since with 11 wins and two fantastic seconds.

Along with the TAB Trot win, he’s also won the past two Inter Dominion finals along with the 2023 Great Southern Star, a race he finished a close second in earlier this year behind glamour European import Callmethebreeze.

“I won’t hide the fact it’s nice to turn the tables on him [Callmethebreeze] tonight and get one back,” Sugars said. “In saying that, he’s a fantastic horse and they’re going to have so many more great clashes… it’s great for the sport.”

Callmethebreeze blasted to the front from the gate and dictated the terms in front. He looked to be travelling best on the home bend, but Sugars felt otherwise.

“No, I thought I had them turning for him,” Sugars said. “My guy was still cruising and I know how much he finds when you ask.”

Amazingly, Sugars didn’t even pull the ear plugs.

“Once I had them, I let him go to the line as comfortably as I could,” he said. “He did the rest.”

Callmethebreeze, who fought on superbly for second, heads back to Australia for a spell with driver Nathan Jack eyeing-off more chances to beat Just Believe later in the year.

“He just had a couple of little niggles going into [the race] and the camp wasn’t 100 per cent happy, so to go so well is a credit,” Jack said. “Just Believe is a mighty horse and all credit to him, but I’m looking forward to racing him again. They’re building a great rivalry.”

For so long New Zealand has boasted better trotters than Australia, but it was an Aussie dominance in the TAB Trot with the four Aussie raiders filling the top four placings. Brilliant mare Queen Elida was third and the emerging Arcee Phoenix fourth.

Renowned Aussie trotter owner, breeder and advocate Duncan McPherson — of Aldebaran Park fame — was beaming after the race.

“What a race,” McPherson said. “What a group of horses. I’ve been all over the world for the best races and these horses are absolutely world class, I’m telling you. The world is watching our trotters now.”

One of New Zealand’s greatest horsemen of all-time Barry Purdon added yet another chapter to his remarkable career with Merlin’s win in Cambridge’s other feature last Friday night, the $1 million Race By Grins.

The emerging 4-year-old, superbly driven by young gun Zachary Butcher, ran down fellow leader, fellow 4-year-old and favorite Don’t Stop Dreaming and smashed the New Zealand national record time in the process.

It marked the start of an exciting new era for New Zealand pacing with the 4-year-olds upstaging their older rivals.

Purdon, who has dominated mega races like the Inter Dominion, Miracle Mile, Hunter and New Zealand Cups, said Merlin’s win ranked up with any of them.

“To come in such an exciting new race at this stage of my career, in my twilight, is really special and in a different way,” Purdon said. “I love sharing it with Scotty [Phelan], my co-trainer. He’s done all the work with Merlin. It’s his win.

“Scotty’s been with us for so long. He’s like family and this is a moment to treasure.”

The personal flavor ran even deeper for Purdon.

“Merlin’s owned by Dean Shannon and he’s been one of our best and most loyal owners for so long,” Purdon said. “To get a horse like Merlin together is everything Dean deserves.

“I’ve had some great horses through my career but Merlin has now shown he’s right up with them and he’s still got years ahead of him. He’s just starting out in these big races.”

Merlin boasts 18 wins from just 26 starts and $1,145,620.