BATHURST trainer Gayna Williams has earned another trip to the $500,000 Country Championships Final at Royal Randwick after Zoo Station and Tags gave her the quinella in Sunday's qualifying event at Mudgee.
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The Williams pair locked out the two qualifying spots in thrilling fashion during the $150,000 CRDA Country Championships Qualifier (1,400 metres), with Zoo Station poking through the middle of the pack to make his winning sprint while Tags somehow found a way back into the race after missing the start by five lengths.
Jockey Anthony Cavallo had sat midfield along the rail with Zoo Station ($2.70 favourite) throughout the race and waited for the right time to pounce, bursting through the gap between Lockdown Gamble and Amicus Curae on the home stretch to secure the win.
It was a much more frenetic race for apprentice Reece Jones on Tags ($5), who could only watch as the rest of the field charged out of the barriers while his horse decided to take his sweet time.
He had to put in early work to latch on to the back of the field, but when Jones called on Tags to make his run for home he displayed a super turn of foot to finish within half a head of his stablemate.
Lockdown Gamble ($4.80, Mathew Cahill) was half a neck away in third.
Just over 1.5 lengths would separate the top seven runners in the race.
Zoo Station naturally took plaudits for her composed performance but it was the comeback efforts of Tags that stole the spotlight.
"They tried very hard and they're both genuine horses with plenty of ability," Williams told Sky Thoroughbred Racing after the race.
"Tags is just slow away. He waits until they jumps and that's when he says 'Now I'll go'. He definitely wasn't far away today after he had a lot of ground to make up. He had to use him up early but he did well.
"His run last start at Dubbo was an incredible effort as well. We're very concerned that he throws these races away but he's certainly talented."
Zoo Station moves to a record of five wins from 11 starts with Sunday's success, and has moved past the $200,000 career prizemoney mark.
"She's a wonderful, tough, honest mare. Nothing fazes her. You'll feed her, work her and then she says 'What's next?' That's her attitude," Williams said.
"We had planned to race her fresh today, because she likes that, and there's been a bit of time since her last run. She trialled at Bathurst, and was due to trial on Tuesday again, but we gave her a good gallop instead and that seemed to work."
Sunday's race was a solid performance for the two runners from Roy McCabe's stable, as Know Where To Look ($26, Jean Van Overmeire) and The Drover ($12, Andrew Banks) finished sixth and seventh respectively for the Bathurst trainer.
Given the class difference, Wanda Ings' promoted emergency runner, Out Now ($201, Chelsea Ings), performed admirably for the Bathurst trainer in his 10th place finish, five lengths off the winner.
Williams has confirmed that he third runner from the qualifier, El Mo, is set to contest the wild card qualifier at Scone on March 20.
The Country Championships Final takes place at Randwick on April 2.
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