Justin Stanley and Jake Pracey-Holmes have cemented their places as the kings of the qualifiers after an amazing heat of the Country Championships played out at Dubbo on Sunday.
The format has only been running for four years, yet for both men it was their second win in the race after Stanley trained Something Borrowed to victory in 2016 and Pracey-Holmes partnered Stoneyrise to win last year’s race.
On Sunday, it was Good Host that booked the pair their ticket to the $500,000 final of the series at Randwick in two weeks’ time.
Stanley lined up four runners in the heat, as did fellow Dubbo trainer Clint Lundholm, and to be frank they dominated the event.
Between them they led in six of the first seven runners, with only Wayne Martyn’s Sea Lady separating them, herself booking a spot in the final courtesy of finishing second.
The former jockeys are part of a new wave of trainers coming through the ranks at Dubbo, one that looks likely to be joined by Kody Nestor as he goes about building his team of horses.
But the day belonged to Stanley, Pracey Holmes and Good Host, which sat three wide for the entire journey was still too strong
Sent out a $26 chance despite being a last-start winner, Good Host was largely unfancied by punters.
And as well as being wide, he had a solid tempo to chase through the race as stablemate Coming In Hot ($101, Ken Dunbar) highballed up in front.
We planned this. Don Grimshaw found the horse and we decided to try and get him into this race. Now we'll take him to Randwick and he'll run well there as well.Justin Stanley.
Lulu’s Destiny and Dreadlock did the bullocking work chasing the leader, while out the back Sea Lady had been snagged back to almost last.
Rounding the turn the field had panned across the track, and at different stages it looked as though five or six horses could possibly win the event.
Sea Lady hit the front, but directly inside her, Good Host kept kicking and on the line he out-toughed the mare.
For Stanley, the win didn’t carry the same emotion as it did when Something Borrowed saluted in honour of his old mate John McKinnon, but it was just as satisfying.
“This is what you train for,” he said.
“This has been a plan to get these horses here today, they’ve all made it and they’ve all run well.
“We planned this. Don Grimshaw found the horse and we decided to try and get him into this race. Now we'll take him to Randwick and he'll run well there as well.”
For Pracey-Holmes, the circumstances surrounding this win were also different.
Last year he was the regular rider of Stoneyrise, the cult hero from out the back of Bourke who took the series by storm.
This year, the mount on Good Host was a late pick-up ride that he didn’t have until earlier this week and it came about in strange circumstances.
“It’s one of those things I suppose, you need that luck sometimes,” he said.
“I was supposed to be on Eyesaw, then it was ineligible so I rang around for a ride and Justin said he had been meaning to ring me about riding this horse.
“The race panned out terribly for us. I was three wide the whole way but he just wouldn’t give up.
“He's tough this horse. Sea Lady probably got half-a-length in front of me but he wouldn't lie down.
“Last year was my biggest winner, and it’s still my biggest winner until I get there and win the final.”
Sea Lady’s jockey Rachael Murray was distraught after the race and openly blamed herself for the defeat.
But she will get the chance to atone when the mare lines up in the final.
“I really do think she was unlucky in that race today, and she ran out of her skin,” Murray said.
“Wayne turned her out fantastic and the horse went unreal.
“I’m glad we’re in the final but I think today was her race to win.”
It’s a long way from Coonabarabran to Randwick, but it’s a trip Sea Lady’s trainer Wayne Martyn will be happy to make.
He's tough this horse. Sea Lady probably got half-a-length in front of me but he wouldn't lie down.Jake Pracey-Holmes
He’s only had one prior runner in the big smoke, and it finished last on a bog track.
“They shouldn’t have raced that day,” he said.
“But to be going down there for a $500,000 race I hope there’s nothing that stops it from going ahead.
“I’m proud of where this mare has come from since we got her. She’s run really well for us, never let us down.
“Even though she didn’t win today, she’s qualified for the final and that’s just terrific.”
Outside of the placegetters, the Lundholm trio of Joey’s Destiny ($2.60 fav, Greg Ryan), Tuncoona ($9.50, Michael Hackett) and Sprezzatrura ($7.00, Noel Callow) each ran well and can be followed in any races they contest in upcoming weeks.
Each of the seven main heats have now been run and won in the Country Championship series.
Jenny Graham’s classy sprinter Victorem was the first horse to qualify for the final after winning at Port Macquarie.
He will be joined in the final by fourth-placegetter Shelley Beach Road after his stablemates Awesome Pluck and Portatorio had to be removed from the series due to injuries suffered subsequent to the heat.
Goulburn’s representatives in the decider will be the Danny Williamd pair of Kopi Luwak and Pumpkin Pie, while Dean Mirfin’s Cosmologist and Gayna Williams’ Noel’s Boy are the qualifiers out of the Mudgee heat.
The Riverina will be cheering on O’So Hazy and Bennelong Dancer after they ran 1-2 in the Wagga Wagga heat, while up north those on the northern rivers will have Snitz and Ferniehirst as their representatives.
Closer to home Suncraze and Caerless Choice qualified last weekend at Scone, and of course now Good Host and Sea Lady join them.
The wildcard heat for unplaced or balloted runners will be held at Muswellbrook this coming Sunday, and the final two to make up the field of 16 will come out of that event.
Each set of connections will head to Randwick in two weeks confident they have a horse that can run well, but for someone their life is about to change.
“That’s the good thing about the series,” Stanley said.
“You poke around with the horses and you try hard to get them to peak on the day and we’ve taken a horse that cost about $30,000 and won $80,000 with him today.
“Now we’re racing in a $500,000 event in a couple of weeks time. People want to buy horses now, they want to get involved and they want to do that because there’s the chance to be involved in a series like this.
“We’ll go down there with a horse that tries his best and a jockey that’s ridden in a final already, and it’s only two weeks away.”