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1998 NZ CUP - One of the great races


Great races usually involve more than a superlative performance from one horse, and by the time the 1998 NZ Cup rolled around, there were only two horses on everybody's lips - the 'defending champion' Iraklis in the red, white and blue corner and an upstart young challenger in Christian Cullen in the light blue and white one. They had met for the first time in the Ashburton Flying Stakes, where Christian Cullen had delivered a telling blow, but the injury-troubled star still had to make it to the post and there were many rating the great stayer Iraklis just as big a chance, even with a 10m handicap.

Brilliant northerner Agua Caliente, winner of the Taylor Mile/Messenger double the year before, had gone amiss with a breathing issue in mid-October, but the likes of such quality performers in Anvil's Star, Anvil Vance, Brabham, Franco Enforce, Kate's First, Surprise Package and There's A Franco hardly raised a mention, such was the hype around the 'favs'.

Anvil's Star was a 7-year-old and in his last campaign in NZ, having already won over $400,000. He was beaten less than a length when Il Vicolo won his second NZ Cup, and a fourth at Kaikoura where he was beaten a head and two noses showed he was still a force to be reckoned with. Anvil Vance was a year-younger son of Vance Hanover who had also won over $400,000 for trainer Barry Purdon. He had been placed twice in both the Auckland and NZ Cups and won that year's Easter Cup in 4:04 over Happy Asset and Franco Enforce.

Brabham was an 8-year-old winner of over $600,000 and also coming to the end of his career for Mark Purdon. He had been beaten a head by Kate's First in the previous season's Auckland Cup, and a devastating finish to win the North Shore City Stakes by three lengths in a NZ record 3:20.3 (MR1:59.3 for 2700m stand) showed he was in as good a shape as ever. Franco Enforce was a 5-year-old and had won nine of his 16 races starting the season. He had won the Sires Stakes Final by a nose over Franco Hat Trick and Lavros Star in a 1:57.5 mile rate in his third lifetime start, and was beaten a nose in Bogan Fella's NZ Derby before winning the Queensland/Australian Derby double in grand style. Resuming the previous February with three wins at Addington before a third in the Easter Cup, there was little fuss for Franco Enforce to qualify for the Cup with wins at Motukarara and Addington going into Ashburton. A sound fifth there didn't hurt his Cup prospects at all, although the 'OK Bye factor'was soon to rear its ugly head.

Kate's First was also a 5-year-old and the splendid stayer had won the NZ Oaks in 3:13.1 and as a 4-year-old the Auckland Cup in 4:01.2, both records. Surprise Package was starting to get a bit long in the tooth as a 7-year-old, but had won that year's Hunter Cup when 10 of the 14 starters were either NZ-bred or trained, or both, and banked over $700,000. He had only resumed at Kailoura, so was a bit of an unknown package going into the Cup, but class always has and had to be respected.

There's A Franco was a 6-year-old and had won 11 of 24 races starting that season, having missed her 4-year-old term through an injury. She had been placed in four races going into Ashburton, where she was a close and solid sixth, and as one of four mares starting in the Cup that year, also gave them a high card in a strong hand. Holmes D G, the winner of four Derbys the previous season, had been brilliant when resuming in the Kumeu Stakes in late October, but Barry Purdon opted to bypass the Cup and wait for a return bout with Christian Cullen in the FFA.

Thus, while Agua Caliente and Holmes D G were not there to challenge for the north, and there was the usual amount of 'padding' to make up a full field, it can be seen that this was a good Cup field, even without Christian Cullen and Iraklis.

Iraklis had been Horse of the Year as a 4-year-old after blowing away Brabham in the Junior FFA and NZ Free-For-All, where he also dealt to the dual Cup winner Il Vicolo, before winning the Miracle Mile in a race record 1:54.2 and finishing third in the Inter-Dominion at Globe Derby Park. The previous season he had again been unbeatable in the spring, winning twice at Addington, the Hannon and Ashburton Flying Stakes before winning the Cup, although the half-head over rank out-sider Smooth Dominion was a bit scary for those who had made him the odds-on favourite and shortest price winner in the history of the event. On the comeback trail as a 6-year-old after going amiss the previous December, Iraklis had looked just as good again in romping away in good company at Addington and again winning the Hannon inpressively, and a pending first showdown with Christian Cullen loomed at Ashburton.

Iraklis had opened the $2.75 favourite with Fixed Odds for the Cup and Christian Cullen was at $4.75, but a lot was about to change. There was a nagging doubt that the In The Pocket entire would both remain sound and take the next step to Cup class, given that he had already twice gone amiss on the eve of Group 1 assignments.

He had looked a budding superstar from the time he won his first two races as a juvenile - the first such race in the South Island at the Cup meeting in November by five lengths and a 2600m M0 stand in January by six in 3:18.6. The Welcome Stakes and PGG Sales race proved mere formalities, but after getting a knock to a tendon in the week leading up to the latter, a week later he had to be withdrawn from his Sires' Stakes heat and the rest of the season. In the spring he won the Rising Stars, but was beaten in his other four races going into the Sires' Stakes. Christian Cullen was too strong for Holmes D G on that occasion however, and on the final night of the meeting, against mostly open class horses, he convincingly downed Anvil's Star and Brabham in the $100,000 Round Up 1950.

That controversial late withdrawal from the Miracle Mile over a supposedly contaminated swab when Chokin had already found the task as a 3-year-old so overwhelming and an unlucky third in the Great Northern Derby followed, and then Christian Cullen was on the sidelines again when the NZ Derby was run and also won by Holmes D G, who would be 3yo Pacer of the Year by virtue of also accounting for the Victoria and NSW Derbys. Resuming in August with two wins over Good Mate in intermediate company from a handicap and the Superstars from 20 metres, set the stage for Christian Cullen's first clash with Iraklis.

Adding fuel to the fire in the pre-race hype - it was pretty much the Cup field - was the fact that Ricky May had opted off Christian Cullen after winning the Sires' Stakes, in light of the pending clash with Iraklis in the Miracle Mile. The drive went to O'Meara's 25-year-old stable foreman Danny Campbell, who had earlier worked for Cameron and been the regular driver of Iraklis going into the 1996 Cup Meeting, only to be replaced by May. May could hardly be blamed for being faithful to the horse who had won the Miracle Mile and NZ Cup, but now Christian Cullen was coming back to haunt him. There must also have been a nagging doubt in the back of his mind that Christian Cullen would not be around for long at all. In the decade prior, O'Meara had had a host of top pacers including Naval Officer, Really Honkin, Trident, Tuapeka Knight, Bold Sharvid, Tight Connection, Reba Lord, Hey Jude and Spirit of Zeus, and for one reason or another, none had made it to the start of a NZ Cup.

When the dust had settled at Ashburton though, any doubts remaining existed in the minds of Campbell's rival drivers to the effect of 'how on earth are we going to beat this horse?'. May was the first to move and had Iraklis in front passing the winning post the first time, but stalking them were Campbell and Christian Cullen and they smoked past soon after. Campbell stacked them up a bit on the turn and Christian Cullen sprinted them home; try as he might, Iraklis could make no impression at all. Christian Cullen had been timed over his last mile in 1:53.5 (58.4, 55.1) and finished 2/10ths of a second outside Master Musician's national record of 2:57.8, set in winning a Kaikoura Cup from 15 metres. He hadn't raced for seven weeks and O'Meara believed the run would improve him.

And as if that was not enough, Christian Cullen trialled over 2400m at Ashburton a week before the Cup and beat There's A Franco and Iraklis by six lengths in an unbelievable 2:56.8 - a mile rate of 1:58.5 from a stand. The stage was thus set for not just a two-horse race, but a two-horse war.

'Cullen' had firmed in favour dramatically with the 'bookies,' but Cameron and May were not lying down even though Iraklis would have to concede 10 metres - the two miles of the Cup tended to be a great leveller and Iraklis was a great stayer. May was happy with his drive without being overly confident, but O'Meara and Campbell were quite bullish. Anvil Vance, third at Ashburton after following the first two around and never leaving the fence, and Tony Herlihy were the third choice but at double figure odds, ahead of Brabham, Kate's First, Franco Enforce, Anvil's Star, There's A Franco and Surprise Package - the rest were just there to get in the way.

As the big Cup Day crowd began to fill every vantage point in the stands, the growing 'hum' from anticipation and chatter increased exponentially as the race approached, and then before you knew it they were off! Roymark and Franco Enforce showed out early and as they settled, Christian Cullen was well back but Campbell was about to seize a three-wide cart into the race, and Iraklis had only the wayward Aussie visitor Hilarity Lobell behind him.

'Cullen' was in command shortly after the first lap had been covered at the 1900m, and when Campbell then eased the speed a bit, around came Iraklis to sit at his wheel for the last lap - this was what the people had come to see. Seemingly jogging down the back, Christian Cullen dropped Roymark passing the 400m and Iraklis dropped on to his back, hoping for a slingshot late in the piece. Iraklis was travelling well and May briefly entertained the idea of upsetting his nemesis and the $1.90 shot, but Christian Cullen "kicked on" and never really looked in danger of defeat.

Just as at Ashburton, Iraklis could get to Christian Cullen's wheel but no more, and the margin was again a length and a quarter. If there had been a mid-race breather it hadn't been for long - Christian Cullen's 4:00.4 equalling Luxury Liner and Il Vicolo's race and track record. Iraklis had gone terrific and was gallant, being timed post to post around the field in 3:57.5 as they came home in 28, but the 10m and Christian Cullen were the big difference as they finished seven lengths clear of Franco Enforce and There's A Franco.

For Christian Cullen it was his 14th win from 20 starts, and he was of course just just getting started. Soon to follow and fall were the Free-For-All over Holmes D G; that spine-tingling Miracle Mile and a magnificent Auckland Cup performance in 3:59.7 in what was a memorable two months. Christian Cullen would go amiss again that season after winning on the first night of the Auckland Inter-Dominions, but it had been an unbeaten and glorious 12-start campaign and he would be an overwhelming choice for Horse of the Year in a season where Courage Under Fire remained unbeaten in 22 races and won six Derbys.

That year was in fact the beginning of the end of Christian Cullen's racing career, but all that really meant was that it would signal the start of an equally if not more sensational one at stud.

Credit: Frank Marrion writing in HRWeekly 2Aug06

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