Friday can't come quick enough for Kempsey trainer Barry Ratcliff who finally gets the chance to set his talented mare Beside You towards the upcoming Country Championships series.
Beside You was being aimed at last year's Championships but ended up being sidelined for 13 months. The four-year-old finally makes her return to racing in Friday's MNCRA Championships Preview over 1210m at Port Macquarie.
All being well, Beside You will then progress towards the Country Championships which culminates with the $500,000 final at Randwick on April 7.
The qualifying series kicks off at Port Macquarie on February 18 with a 1200m race worth $150,000.
Beside You started her career in great style back in mid-2016, winning her first three races, including an eye-catching last-to-first win at Rosehill in August that year. She then suffered her first defeat on a heavy 8 surface at Rosehill on August 27, 2016 before Ratcliff sent her for a spell.
She resumed in December 9, 2016 and that's when disaster struck. She pulled up very sore after her first-up sixth behind Plateau Gold in the Blinkan Missit Hcp at Coffs Harbour and hasn't raced since.
"She had a really 'shelly' front foot," said Ratcliff. "We sent her up to Lincoln Farm at Scone where she was born and she's just needed time up there to grow the hoof back. It's taken a lot of time and cost a bit of money, but finally she's back and going really well.
"I joke that's she's grown an extra foot and one of my mates said he hopes she's got that foot firmly on the till!
"We had planned to tackle last year's Country Championship with her before her problems, so I'm glad she's finally back and we can have a go at this year's series."
Ratcliff said the long layoff had transformed the mare physically.
"She's really matured and has grown an extra hand and is probably also around 40kg heavier," he said.
Beside You has had one barrier trial leading up to Friday's return - a sixth of 10 runners in a Taree trial over 1007m on January 23 when the mare wasn't asked to do anything.
"She was hard-held in that trial," said Ratcliff. "But she's been in work about three months and is very fit. I think she'll run well (on Friday) but it's hard to tip them when they've been off the scene for so long. Ideally she runs a great race and can improve further second-up into the Country Championships qualifier at Port Macquare in a couple of weeks."
Ratcliff's biggest 'fitness' concern came on Wednesday morning with the news that his jockey, Serg Lisnyy, had been slightly injured at the Gosford trials.
"Serge is a bit sore and bruised but he's tough, he'll be right to ride her on Friday," said the relieved trainer.
The horse to beat in Friday's Port Macquarie race is the very promising Jenny Graham-trained Victorem, winner of three of his four starts.
Victorem underlined his potential with a first-up win at Randwick on December 16 when he overcame difficulties to score. The I Am Invincible three-year-old jumped awkwardly, pigrooted soon after the start and struck trouble at the 600m but was still able to wear down All Stand, a subsequent winner. He has since won a trial at Port Macquarie on January 1.
Graham's other talented three-year-old, Awesome Pluck, is also a likely Country Championships contender and will run in Friday's Benchmark 68 over 1010m at Port Macquarie.