Cullen Racing kicks off at Cambridge tonight
By Michael Guerin from HRNZ Website
Hayden Cullen's dream homecoming at Cambridge tonight night is being dampened by one small detail: he won't be there. The man taking over Australasia's most powerful harness racing stable is learning the realities of what that means — work always comes first.
Cullen is now the trainer for almost all the horses which until last week were part of Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen's All Stars brand, with the pair taking a sabbatical from training.
The 36-year-old now runs the most powerful stable in the industry even though to casual punters it will look much the same tomorrow night, with Cullen also taking over Purdon's famous colours and Purdon and Rasmussen both driving.
But this is Cullen's team now and he has been in the north working them this week. Until today.
"I have had to come back to Christchurch to work the babies because they are at an important stage and we need to look forward with them," he tells the Herald.
"So while I looked after the horses up there this week, I won't be going to Cambridge. That is a little bit of a shame because it is my home track and I'd love to have been there but this is my job now, I have to look after the whole team and delegate staff to be where I can't."
Cullen says it was a surreal feeling to see his name in the form guides next to Self Assured and Spankem.
"This isn't usually how it usually works. When you start training it is often with a few maidens and unraced horses, not New Zealand Cup and Miracle Mile winners. I don't think it has sunk in yet and I don't think it will for a few weeks."
So what does all this mean for punters? It would be unrealistic to think Cullen, or anybody else, could maintain the standards Purdon and Rasmussen have set so some horses might eventually see a dip in performance.
But there is no proof of that yet and if things change that should take a while to show up.
Cullen is a young man taking on a massive job and while he has been trained by the best as their foreman, he is still going to learn as he goes.
But the reality is Spankem and Ashley Locaz raced in the Auckland Cup only eight days ago so would have taken little work this week leading into a mile race, while Cullen says he is happy with Self Assured, who hasn't raced since winning the New Zealand Cup because of a corn.
"I worked him on Wednesday and he worked well," he says.
"He is not carrying any extra weight and is ready to go but the draws make it tough for all of ours because it looks like Copy That will lead and that will make him very hard to beat."
The Flying Mile at Cambridge being what it is, with leaders so hard to catch at this level, Cullen's debut with three of New Zealand's best pacers could well end in defeat because the best version of Copy That might be unbeatable in front.
But Cullen should get his first solo training victory — he has 62 in partnership with Brent Mangos between 2011 and 2014 — with Italian Lad (R8, No 11).
"He has worked well and is fitter for his last start so he will be hard to beat."
If he is right Cullen and his wife Amanda, who will help run the stable, can raise a glass for their first win in a unique chapter of New Zealand racing.
And then tomorrow get straight back to work.