Cameron Crockett saddled up six chances in Sunday's Central District Racing Association country championship heat at Mudgee but even he was stunned when it was Soul Secrets that stormed to victory in the $150,000 heat.
Most of the attention was on $3.20 pre-race favourite Ori On Fire and when Crockett booked champion jockey Hugh Bowman for the ride on Monday that expectation ballooned.
As expected, Crockett's stable dominated the qualifier and Ori On Fire set much of the pace throughout the 1400 metres but it was his $13 outside that stole the show.
With Adrian Layt on board, Soul Secrets poked her nose in front mid-way down the home stretch on a wide run and then showed immense strength to hold on to her advantage to secure Crockett his first country championship heat victory.
The four-year-old mare won by half-a-length from Gayna Williams' fast-finishing shot Noel's Gift ($41), Crockett then filling the next four spots with Barbass, Ori On Fire, Caprera and Meraki Miss finishing a couple of lengths within each other to complete a wonderful heat for the Mudgee-based stable.
Crockett was speechless post-race.
"(She) blew me away a little bit," Crockett said.
"I was confident she'd run well, but I didn't think she'd quite do that."
The master trainer said his mare benefited from a bit of extra water on the track during the week - the track was rated a good four - and substantially less weight.
Soul Secrets carried just 54 kilograms, the least of any runner in the 13-horse field.
"There seemed to be a bit of pressure up front too … but I was looking in too many different places so I don't know what's gone on," Crockett said, battling to keep track of all six runners during the race.
We didn't really think we'd be heading to Randwick again but here we are.Gayna Williams after Noel's Gift qualified for the country championship final for a second straight year.
Crockett will now prepare Soul Secrets for the $500,000 country championship final on April 6. It's the second time Crockett has had a runner in the final after Iron Blue qualified out of the CDRA heat placing second in 2016.
Out of the barriers, Ori On Fire and Worldly Pleasure set the pace and it was that pair that headed the field for the bulk of the race.
Dean Mirfin's duo Alcatran and I Am Magnificent challenge at parts and when the field hit the straight and battled for positioning, a blanket finish was on the cards.
But the wide runners had different ideas, with Soul Secrets the first to emerge wide before holding on as Noel's Gift challenged from the fence to storm home and qualify as well, the second-straight year Williams' versatile six-year-old has made the half-a-million dollar country championship final.
Noel's Gift emerged from a curtain of rain to qualify in 2018 and managed to handle near-perfect conditions a year on to book his place at Royal Randwick again.
"Thrilled," a beaming Williams said.
"I'm really thrilled for the stable. It's a team effort and I'm happy for everyone that works in the stable.
"We didn't really think we'd be heading to Randwick again but here we are."
Williams enjoyed a day out at Mudgee on Sunday, preparing quinella's in the fifth and six before Noel's Gift capped the stunning showcase meeting with his second-place finish in the qualifier.
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"He's been much better this preparation," she said.
"He's more seasoned this preparation. He's matured, the breed takes a bit of time to mature so we thought we'd give it another go this year to see how we go with not many expectations.
"We're thrilled to run second. congratulations to Cameron and his team on the win."
Ori On Fire is a likely candidate for the Muswellbrook wild card heat a week before the final, as is Mirfin's duo I Am Capitan and I Am Magnificent.
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