Trainer Gayna Williams was like everyone else at the Mudgee Race Club watching Sunday’s Central Districts Country Championship qualifier.
Due to the curtain of rain that swept the course, she couldn’t see anything, let alone where her championship hopeful Noel’s Gift was in the field.
So when she noticed the five-year-old “swimmer” paddling home faster than just about every other horse, except for eventual winner Cosmologist, to secure second and a berth in the $500,000 country championship final on April 7, the Mudgee trainer was stunned.
“I was in total shock,” she said.
“I was standing among everybody. I couldn’t really see the (big) screen. I actually couldn’t pick him out.
“The first time I saw him was when he was about 50 metres from the post. I couldn’t believe it.”
Which, given Williams had reservations about Noel’s Gift in the lead-up to the qualifier, is pretty understandable.
Williams admits she had sleepless nights in the lead-up to the race as she jostled with the idea of scratching the brown gelding due to the calibre of horses in the field.
Noel’s Gift had one of the lower benchmarks of the 16 horses, and bookies placed Williams’ gelding on the ninth line of betting at odds of $51.
But the Mudgee trainer said given the qualifier was at home and the 1400m distance was favourable, the pros of racing in a $150,000 race far out-weighed the negatives.
“The hope was to run in first 10 to win enough money to pay his fee,” she said.
“We didn’t have any expectations, results wise. But the one thing in his favour was the wet. He’s an absolute swimmer.
“Had it been dry on Sunday he wouldn’t have finished where he did.”
Williams praised the ride of Grant Buckley, too, the veteran jockey revealing post-race he almost came off on the back straight before regrouping, finding the rail and settling into a handy pace.
The fact he ended up second was as stunning to Buckley as it was Williams.
“He shook his head,” she added.
Noel’s gift will spend the next week in the paddock before Williams weighs up what type of preparation will suit the five-year-old ahead of the April 7 final.
Williams owns Noel’s Gift with her husband Frank and her son-in-law-to-be Matt Cook, from Bathurst.
She said the family will head down to Randwick for the final, but will keep a lid on expectations much like she did ahead of the qualifier at Mudgee.
That’s despite Noel’s Gift’s last five starts netting three first place cheques and two second placings.
“Anything can happen, but we’re reluctant to get too excited because of the class in the final. We’ll enjoy it the best we can,” she said.
“We may not get the chance again.”