Ballina stayer Partnership provided all of his connections with their first city winner last preparation and could move a step closer to realising another lifelong ambition for elderly part-owner Jim Timmins when he tackles Sunday's Westlawn Finance Grafton Cup Prelude (2230m).
Sunday's seven-race Grafton meeting kicks off a huge fortnight of racing for Clarence River Jockey Club and features four races where the winners gain automatic entry into the July carnival's feature events.
Trainer Ethan Ensby thinks Partnership is primed to bounce back to his best form second-up in Sunday's Prelude before hopefully having a shot at the $200,000 Grafton Cup (2350m) on July 9.
He would love to have a crack at the Grafton Cup for part-owner Jim Timmins.
"Jim has raced horses for many, many years," he said. "He's in his eighties now, I think, and being a Grafton man, he has always dreamed of winning his hometown Cup, so hopefully this horse can at least give him a runner in the race this year."
Ensby said that although Partnership's first-up effort over 1816m at Eagle Farm on June 6 when 11th of 12 behind Mangione looked very ordinary on paper, there were some excuses for the performance.
"He did look a bit disappointing first-up, but he came out of the race with a stone bruise which he probably already had and it just sparked up during the race," he said.
"There had also been a few niggling little issues with him leading into the race, plus my wife Jade, who usually rides him work, hadn't been on him prior to his comeback run and his work just hadn't been the same.
"Michael Hellyer did nothing wrong on him at Eagle Farm, but Nori (Masuda) has built up a great relationship with him. The horse runs really well for Nori and he'll be back on him at Grafton on Sunday.
"He's a funny horse - he just seems to click with certain people. I just think his prep before his first-up run was a bit mixed up. Everything's back to normal for him now, he's come on really well and he worked enormous on Wednesday.
"Penshurst (trained by Matt Dunn) obviously looks the one we have to beat in Sunday's race, but I think Partnership will definitely improve sharply on what he showed at Eagle Farm and will run very well."
Ensby purchased Partnership for $5000 from Sydney trainer John Sargent in December 2018 and has so far won five races with the beautifully-bred son of Tavistock and the Zabeel mare Harmony.
The four-year-old put three straight wins together over staying trips last preparation for Nori Masuda, including an Eagle Farm win over 2400m on October 26.
"That Eagle Farm win was the first Saturday metro winner for me, Nori and all of the owners," said Ensby.
"He only cost $5000 from 'Sarge' and has so far won five races and just over $100,000 in prizemoney, so he's been pretty good for all of us."
The opportunity to buy Partnership came a few months after Ensby had considered buying a Tavistock or Ocean Park yearling at New Zealand's Karaka Yearling Sale.
"It has always been an ambition of mine to buy a yearling at Karaka and that year I was keen to buy something by Tavistock or maybe Ocean Park, but it had to be out of a Zabeel mare," he said.
"However, my wife Jade said it would cost too much, so I didn't go ahead with it. But then later in the year John Sargent rang to let me know he had a horse I should buy and it turned out to be Partnership - by Tavistock out of a Zabeel mare, just the breeding I'd been looking for.
"I was originally going to race him myself, but Jim Timmins's last horse with me was just about to finish racing, so I offered him a share.
"Then another mate, Mick Smith, wanted a share and we now have a great team of six owners, including Coffs Harbour Racing Club manager, Tim Saladine."
Ensby will have a three-pronged attack on Sunday's Prelude with Winkler and Lady Grande also set to line up.
Winkler almost caused a massive boilover in the 2018 Grafton Cup when trained by John Everson, finishing second at $101 behind First Crush. But the rising seven-year-old's recent form has been hard to follow.
In 17 starts for Ensby, Winkler has won one race - at Toowoomba last November - but did run well at the Sunshine Coast three starts back on May 15 when second in a Benchmark 90 over 2200m.
"I thought he was unlucky not to win that race at the Sunshine Coast," said the trainer. "He's been a hard horse to train, but if he happened to produce his very best on Sunday he's more than capable of winning that race, but you just never know with him.
"The race might be a bit tough for Lady Grande, but she has been working well. She does race very well at Grafton and one thing about her is she always puts in, so she could run a sneaky race."
Murwillumbah trainer Matt Dunn looks poised to take a strong hand at Sunday's meeting. As well as having the favourite Penshurst in the Cup Prelude, he will have the talented sprinter Snitz lining up at short odds in the John Carlton Cup (1215m), while Dreamtime Magic looks hard to beat in the Grafton Guineas Prelude (1420m).
The winner of the John Carlton Quality is exempt from the ballot in the $200,000 Ramornie Hcp (1200m) on July 8.
The winner the Guineas Prelude gets an automatic berth into the $80,000 Grafton Guineas (1600m) on July 8, and the winner of the 2YO Maiden Plate (1015m) earns a certain start in the $45,000 Springboard To Fame 2YO Plate (1200m) on July 9.
Despite carrying 62kg and drawing an outside gate, Snitz clearly looks the one to beat in the John Carlton and will start a very warm favourite.
Snitz has been racing in the best form of his career, boasting metropolitan wins in four of his past five starts, including the Listed Takeover Target Stakes (1200m) at Randwick two starts back on May 9.
At his latest outing, Snitz was beaten less than a length into third place behind the exciting sprinting prospect Classique Legend in the June Stakes (1100m) at Randwick on June 6. And Snitz is also unbeaten at Grafton, winning twice at the track earlier in his career.
Gosford trainer Tony Newing will be hoping history repeats when his three runners line up on Sunday. Newing won five races across six meetings during last year's Grafton carnival, including a double at this same meeting last year, winning the Grafton Guineas Prelude with Charmed Princess (who went on to win the Guineas) and a Maiden Plate with Tainted Affair.
Newing's runners on Sunday are Camp Rifle in the Guineas Prelude, In Fiore in the Class 3 (1115m) and Divine Approach in the Class 1 (1215m).
In Fiore won twice during last year's Grafton carnival, and goes into Sunday's race with an unbeaten record from his three runs at the track.