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EVER So Natural ran third in the grand final of the Country Championships at Royal Randwick last year and is back for another tilt at the title in 2017.
With 19 runs under his belt and a maximum of 20 allowed, the Cliff Bashford-trained gelding just scrapes in to make the criteria.
“He went so close last year and was literally beaten by a nostril,” Bashford said.
“I followed that up with a short preparation through winter but he didn’t perform on the heavy tracks.
“He’s better than that so I decided to save him for another shot at The Country Championships.”
Ever So Natural’s campaign is off to a strong start.
Lumping 61.5kgs, he made light work of his rivals in the McGuigan BMW Country Championships Preview (1208m) at Port Macquarie on February 11.
With apprentice Chelsea Ings at the reigns, the five-year-old flew home from last at the turn to win by a length.
“She found a good lane out wide and I think it was a pretty good effort,” Bashford said.
“Several of those horses will be in The Country Championships Qualifier at Taree and I can’t see them turning the tables on him.
“He is pretty close to his peak now.”
The racing conditions of the Country Championships stipulate set weights and as a class four horse, Ever So Natural will carry 57.5kgs.
“He gets in pretty well at the weights and drops 4kgs from Port Macquarie,” Bashford said.
“He has to draw a gate now as you can’t get too far back at Taree because it isn’t a long straight.
“Eight or inside would be ideal.
“We also want a good track. Storms are forecast leading up to the race but I hope the bureau has it wrong.”
Leading Sydney jockey Glyn Schofield has been booked for the ride.
He is one of several metropolitan hoops making the trip up on Sunday.
In the lead up to races Bashford doesn’t work Ever So Natural too hard.
“I don’t gallop him much as he doesn’t need a lot of work,” he said. “He is a good horse to train though.”
Ever So Natural is owned by Bashford’s daughter, Donna Barsley, and they’ve enjoyed the ride the horse has taken them on.
“Last year’s Country Championships final at Randwick was fantastic,” Bashford said.
“He jumped from barrier 12, went straight to the back, was held up on the turn and still managed to work home strongly for third.
“He is better than he was last year and if he can repeat that performance he will go close again.”