QUALIFYING a horse for the rich Country Championships Final at Royal Randwick - it is something that a host of trainers from regional New South Wales aim for every year but only a handful are successful in doing.
But come this Saturday when the 2021 edition of the $500,000 final is staged, two Bathurst trainers will be amongst those cheering on a member of their stable - Gayna Williams and Dean Mirfin.
It won't be for the first time either.
Last year Dean Mirfin's Electrified ($81) was close to the lead at the top of the straight in the 1,400m feature but faded to end up in 15th. Before that in 2018 Cosmologist ($41) also finished in 15th.
In that 2018 race Williams' hope Noel's Gift ($31) fared the best of the runners from the central and western regions as he came home 10th.
Last year Healing Hands ($19) placed sixth for Williams, finishing 1.3 metres behind victor Gracie Belle after being held up in the final 400m.
Now it is Healing Hands who once again holds Williams' hopes, while Mirfin will be cheering on five-year-old Hamogany.
AT the Central Districts Country Championships Qualifier at Mudgee on February 28, Mirfin watched on as Hamogany stormed home to nab a spot in the rich final.
The top-two from that heat were assured a passage to Randwick and after sitting sixth at the 400m mark, Hamogany found the line well to finish a 0.7 lengths second.
Healing Hands, who had won the 2020 qualifier at Mudgee, ran third that afternoon and looked as if he had missed out on a second shot at the final.
But when Wellington trainer Michael Mulholland was forced to scratch Old Harbour - winner of that qualifier - due to a tendon injury, Williams' runner was handed that Central Districts spot in the $500,000 decider.
That news came with mixed emotions for Williams.
"I can't help but feel saddened for Michael Mullholland and Kath Bell-Pitomac and that we're there through someone else's misfortune, which doesn't sit comfortably with me," Williams said.
"But I got a lovely phone call from Michael Mullholland this morning [Wednesday] and it just blew me away. It was so lovely, he just wished us all luck and ended up saying 'You're representing us down there on the weekend and wish you all the luck'.
"He's a very under-rated trainer Michael and a very humble person and Katherine is just so lovely and a friend of mine as well, I was devastated for Katherine and Michael. But I guess that's racing."
HEALING Hands will go from barrier five come Saturday afternoon, Williams saying she is "very much so" pleased with that draw.
"It can be a double-edged sword, you can end up inside a lot of horses and in amongst traffic as we say, but I would much prefer that than drawing 12 or 14 and having to do a lot of hard work early," she said.
Like Williams, Mirfin was satisfied when he learned that his High Chaparral x Skybound gelding had drawn barrier three.
"I wasn't too worried with the barrier because he's a horse that's probably going to go back in the race," he said.
"Three is good, it's better than drawing an outside one, so I'm happy with that."
MIRFIN has opted to show faith in Clayton Gallagher, the young hoop who did the job on Hamogany in the Mudgee qualifier.
"I think my rider has never ridden at Randwick before, so the first time he goes there it's for a Country Championships $500,000 race," he said.
"There's pressure on him but look, he rode the horse so well in the heat that I felt obliged to give him the chance.
"I've gone up there before and put Sydney riders on and they rode okay but probably no better than the country people would of, so there's no reason to change."
Williams has given Samantha Clenton the nod. It will be her first ride aboard Healing Hands.
"She's not long back from injury, she's had a fair bit of time off with a back injury and we've always been a fan of Sam as a rider, so we thought we'd give her the opportunity," she said.
"We're confident she'll certainly do the right thing."
THE BIG DAY OUT
HAVING a horse contest the Country Championships Final is not the only thing which will make Saturday huge occasion for the Bathurst trainers.
The meeting is day one of the 2021 Championships, an event which sees some of the nation's best horses best compete for over $21.2 million in prize money across two consecutive Saturdays.
This Saturday's program includes four Group 1 races.
"These days this race and the Kosciuszko in October are the races that the country owners and trainers strive for and yes, just being part of it is just incredible," Williams said.
"The atmosphere on the day and you see the Group 1 horses walking past you and the Group 1 trainers, it's just a really exciting day and we're privileged to be there."
For Mirfin getting to attend such a prestigious meeting and watch a member of his own team race is a reward for hard work.
"It's a race that you set horses for for a long time and a lot of patience is required to get your horse into the race," he said.
"This horse for example hasn't raced for six weeks, he's been in work for about five months but he's only had the one run.
"The whole time, all the waiting and waiting has been to try and get him right for this. It's a big build up and you start to get a bit anxious to get the race over and done with, but it's exciting and I'm looking forward to it."
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AS a $126 chance, not many people are tipping Hamogany to feature in the battle for victory as the winning post looms.
Mirfin knows the distance is probably not the favoured trip for his hope, but was still surprised to see him as the outsider of Saturday's final. He feels that second up he could upset many of his more fancied rivals.
"He's probably a horse that wants further than 1,400 so we've got to keep him lovely and fresh," the trainer said. "He's a rank outsider in the race as far as betting is concerned and I think that's a little bit unusual to see him at that price, I thought he was a better chance than that.
"I don't think this year's final is any stronger than any year before. I think there have been stronger finals than this. There were changes to the conditions this year and it stopped a few of the horses that might have got into the race getting there.
"But look, they're hard to win, the best horses come from all over the place. You can't line the form up, you can't work out how a horse from Mudgee is going to go against a horse from the Northern Rivers.
"He's very strong at the finish so I know in my mind he'll be passing horses in the straight and they won't be passing him. It just depends how many he's got to pass, if he's got the whole field to pass and he's passing half of them.
"You never know, he's in the race, he's well and these races have been won by outsiders before."
Healing Hands ($17) is rated a much better prospect and Williams said the I Am Invincible x Miss Alberta gelding is better than he was 12 months ago.
"I believe they always end up very open races and no-one can be surprised by who wins, any horse can win it, I think it ends up being the best run in transit, who has the most luck in running. That's so important," she said.
"I feel that he'll run a very bold race and it will just be a matter of where he is at the furlong, the 200. I know he'll keep running on and find the line.
"As I said, it's a matter of luck and if the runs come for him and he's not held up I'm pretty happy to have him there."
The Country Championships Final is set for 12.45pm Saturday.
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