By Adam Hamilton
It was the Carnival that had it all.
When Racing Queensland enhanced it’s Winter Carnival, adding a few new Group 1 features and bolstering stakes money, it hoped to become a real destination event of Australian harness.
It’s only taken one year and defied all the travel hassles of a pandemic to do so.
The chorus of praise from participants likened the TAB Constellations Carnival to the glory days of the Inter Dominion when participants and fans would gather from all parts of Australia for great racing and celebrate the sport.
Perhaps passionate Queensland harness sponsor and horseman Daren Garrard said it the best and most simply: “The trots back in Queensland!”
Here’s my snapshot of some of the many stars and highlights, with apologies to those I may have overlooked because there were so many.
The champion driver put on a clinic across the five weeks of the Constellations, continually showing the right mix of daring, poise and aggression to land in the right spot. He finished with three Group 1 wins, only beaten a head in another when Copy That was second in The Rising Sun. Despite the obvious distractions of a split with leviathan owner Emilio Rosati, Butt had his biggest night last Saturday with Group victories on Tough Monarch and American Dealer.
The highly-respected veteran Kiwi was anything but a household name in Australia, but he is now. The way he built his three pacers – Copy That, American Dealer and Tommy Lincoln - through his six weeks in Queensland was stunning. Copy That finished with two wins, including the Group 1 Sunshine Sprint, a close second in The Rising Sun and a brave fourth in the Blacks A Fake. American Dealer was beaten at his first two runs, then strung together three wins, including the Group 1 Queensland Derby.
What is it about Nathan Purdon and Queensland? He’s only been there twice as a trainer and won the Blacks A Fake both times, first as trainer and driver of Ohoka Punter in 2016 (beating Hectorjayjay) and now with Amazing Dream. He raised the bar this year, also winning the inaugural Group 1 The Rising Sun. The timing is perfect with Purdon having made the bold move from NZ to set up in his own right as a trainer at Lara, just outside Geelong in Victoria. How good is it having NZ’s most famous harness and arguably racing family being a full-time part of Aussie harness now!
Her deeds should and will go down in history. She came across from NZ with a stunning CV, but also under a cloud. She’d had plenty of hard racing and there were genuine concerns whether she could still rough it with the big boys. Didn’t she prove that to be nonsense. Sure she had gorgeous runs behind the leader both times, but she had to have the weapons to find that spot and then utilise it. First it was former trainer Mark Purdon who partnered her to win The Rising Sun and then Blair Orange drove almost a replica race to snare the Blacks A Fake. Albion Park race caller Chris Barsby said she’s the first mare to beat the boys in an Australian Grand Circuit race since Baby Bling won the Miracle Mile in 2013.
He may have been the smallest pacer to race during the Constellations, or at least very close to it, but what a motor and will-to-win he packs. Most felt he was struggling in NZ before coming across, but trainer Ray Green had faith. The jury was out after defeats at his first two Albion Park runs, but then Green weaved his magic and American Dream finished with three successive wins, including the Group 1 Queensland Derby. It’s great he’ll be staying in Australia, first with trainer Kevin Pizzuto in Sydney, and then down to Nathan Purdon for the Victoria Derby.