Shelley Hale is a testimony to the assertion that the thoroughbred racing gods don't discriminate when it comes to small-time trainers.
But despite the gargantuan odds and divine blessings Hale knew her campaigner, Close Up, wasn't a done deal as a late entry in Hastings as the first of four horses on the ballot.
"You just can't be [confident] . . . it's the luck of the gods, you know," said the convivial Cambridge trainer after Auckland jockey Grant Cooksley nudged Close Up by half a neck past Aide Memoire and rider Mark du Plessis in the feature $200,000 race of the Tarzino Trophy Daffodil Raceday meeting over 1400m on Saturday.
It was quite an emotional occasion for Hale who disclosed she was a cancer survivor so it was fitting that she had claimed her maiden group one victory on a raceday where close to $20,000 was raised for Cancer Society Hawke's Bay.
The teary-eyed co-breeder and part-owner of Close Up also dedicated her accomplishment to the late Noel Johnstone, a fellow co-breeder and owner.
The ownership now comprises Cambridge horsewoman Hale, the Noel and Alison Johnstone Family Trust and Robin Stent.
Hale had heard a little whisper on Friday that a scratching was a possibility and was determined to have a contingency plan in place if the dice rolled her way.
"I had everything organised so when we were notified we were in the truck and away," she said, after receiving the thumbs up at 6am on race day.
That sense of preparation included giving Cooksley a heads up so the veteran hopped on a flight out of Auckland.
"It's just mammoth. I pulled one off so it's the pinnacle," said a beaming Hale, revealing that her success as a small timer made it so much more rewarding.
She has been training thoroughbreds for almost three decades but started out with just a couple of horses.
Hale reiterated what she said in her victory speech at the bird cage - it's a labour of love for someone who adores horses.
She described Close Up, an 8-year-old bay gelding, as a "hard case".
"He's got a huge personality and I'm just so proud of him because he's had his injuries but they won't cause him any problems in racing."
Some doubts had emerged on whether he was able to make it to the Bostock New Zealand Spring Racing Carnival trilogy but Close Up had responded emphatically on Saturday.
"The ability was always there but we just thought his [injury] issues might have curtailed his career."
Hale said only 18 months ago the veterinarian had returned a verdict of "some wear and tear and probably there's not much more left in him".
"But we nursed him along and he's better now than ever," she said with a laugh.
Hale agreed the conditions - clumpy after six earlier races and long grass after persistent rain overnight - worked in her gelding's favour but she stressed Close Up also had a turn of pace on "better ground".
"He's a 110 per cent fit whereas the other horses they are only 90 per cent so when the track was quite testing that paid off somewhat."
She had asked Cooksley when was the last time he won a race here and simply got a smile from the "Iceman".
The 57-year-old has an enviable career, having carved a niche for the best part in Australia for an overall 8335 starts and 937 victories.
He has had 99 starts at the Hastings course, 11 wins and 21 placings and readily accepted he had chalked up so many wins he didn't have a clue.
"He's been an absolute world-class top jockey for a long, long time. I guess some people will say he's a veteran but I tell you he's as good as any jockey going around," said Hale of the jockey who labelled Close Up " a nice horse".
Cooksley has had 38 starts with Hale, recording with 11 wins and eight placings but it was the trainer's 24th start with four wins and five placings in Hastings.
The pair's last victory was on Seventh Up in the group 2 Easter Stakes few months ago but Close Up had come here as runner-up from the group 2 $100,000 Lisa Chittock Foxbridge Plate in Te Rapa (Waikato) on August 19.
Westbury Stud owner Andre Russell, speaking in the winners' circle, had touched on Hale's loyalty to employ Cooksley when many trainers opted for young riders.
Hale said: "He's ridden all around the world at the highest level and has won multiple group one races so I had no hesitation in sticking with Grant."
Cooksley had asked her what the race plan was before the 3.50pm start and she had replied: "Well mate, that's your job. My job is to get the horse ready and your job is to steer him around."
Hale said a handy draw at No 2 also enabled the combination to tuck in nicely midfield.
Close Up is nominated to return to Hastings for the second leg, the group one Windsor Park Plate over 1600m on Saturday, September 23.
"We shouldn't have the problem of being on a ballot or having to wait until race morning to get down here."
She said Close Up had only tried a mile (1600m) once before and didn't go well on "a very bad track" in New Plymouth.
"I think the way he races he should get a mile so we'll chance our arm again," she said, fancying better weather.
Her previous group one entries number about four and the best finish of fifth or sixth.
She thanked the club and sponsors for the unforgettable experience.