Ballina trainer John Everson has his improving stayer Winkler primed to run a big race in Thursday's XXXX Gold Lismore Cup (2100m), the five-year-old's first outing since July when he went within a length of causing one of last season's biggest upsets.
Ideally, Everson had planned to run Winkler ($7.50 on TAB fixed odds) in the Ballina Cup (1600m) earlier this month as a lead-up to Thursday's $60,000 XXXX Gold Lismore Cup but those plans went up in smoke when the Ballina meeting was abandoned. But the trainer is confident he is still fit enough to be a major player over the 2100m of Thursday's feature.
Winkler hasn't started since he surprised almost everyone except Everson when he finished second as a $101 chance behind Brisbane stayer First Crush in the $160,000 Grafton Cup (2350m) on July 12.
"His Grafton Cup effort didn't surprise me at all," said Everson. "The day before the race I saw he was at $151 in the betting. I don't bet, but I told my wife that he would run a big race and to back him a place - which she did. The winner (First Crush) chopped him out at about the 200m, but he went on to win by a length so there was no protest.
"After the Grafton Cup the plan was to give him a freshen-up and aim him towards the Ballina and Lismore Cups.
"But when the Ballina Cup meeting was abandoned I had to put my thinking cap on and extend the length of the freshen up. He never really went for a spell after the Grafton Cup and hasn't left the stable, so he's not really tackling the race 'first-up'.
"I've kept him up to the mark. He's had enough work and I'm confident he'll run a big race. This horse has a special quality in that he has a tremendous will-to-win and he's a beautiful mover."
Winkler's Grafton Cup performance followed a series of consistent middle-distance efforts on Northern Rivers tracks - including wins at Lismore (February 19), Murwillumbah (March 5) and Grafton (May 20). Winkler started his career with Sydney trainer Bjorn Baker before joining Everson early last year and has just kept on improving in his new surroundings.
"The Baker stable told me he was a horse who would be really suited to a country atmosphere - he just didn't like the city life at all - and once he settled in here and we figured him out, he's really gone from strength-to-strength," said Everson, who currently only has two horses in work.
Everson was rapt to learn that Winkler drew the inside gate in Thursday's 16-horse field. Experienced Queensland rider Jason Taylor continues his successful association with Winkler.
"Jason's rapt in this horse and should give him a perfect run from the inside gate," said Everson. "He's fit and well and drawn beautifully. Apart from missing that Ballina Cup run, everything has gone perfectly and I think he'll run a great race."
The Lismore Cup has been a pretty good race for Everson in recent years. He won it in 2004 with Arena Valedora and again in 2009 with Hecentadove. He went close in last year's race when Al Shameel finished second to Skytrek.
"I was also hoping to set Al Shameel for another attempt this year but that didn't work out," said Everson. Thursday's eight-race Showcase Lismore meeting also features the $30,000 Lismore Workers Club Rousillon Showcase Hcp (1516m) and the $30,000 Laser Plumbing And Electrical Lismore Untamed Sprint (1200m).
And Lismore CEO Scott Jones will return for his first Lismore Cup meeting since suffering serious burns in a gas explosion late last year: "The track is in fantastic shape and is currently rated a Good 4. With lovely spring weather (sunny 24 deg) forecast, we're expecting a sizeable crowd."