Will lucky $50 be a Cup omen for Surprise Baby?
The $50 note has been folded four times over and tucked in the cover of Paul Preusker's mobile phone case for almost a decade.
The Horsham born-and-bred horse trainer, whose Melbourne Cup hopes are pinned on Surprise Baby, put it in there for safekeeping, before one day driving the 10km trip from his McKenzie Creek base into town.
Problem was, he'd put his phone on the roof of his ute before he left.
Panic set in.
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"I drove into town and realised," Preusker says.
"I've never lost a phone, never lost any cash. I got out of the car and was looking for everything and as I went to get back into the car, I saw it on the roof still.
"I couldn't believe it.
"I had one of those ripple covers on the phone, and it just sat on my car. It was unique, because I always had a 50 cent piece there at the time. I'd lost my 50 cent piece. But this $50, that was my trade-off."
The "pineapple" has been with him ever since and has become symbolic - a reference point to remind him of good luck in tough times.
There was more panic a week ago when he again travelled to Horsham for a new iPhone.
"I went into the Telstra shop to swap it over and I put the $50 into the back of my wallet," he says.
"I went to get it out to put it into my new phone and it wasn't there.
"My son Ollie is 17 - I fizzed him up a bit, really questioned him.
"Bugger me dead - I pulled all my cards out and here was the $50, still there. I had to eat humble pie a bit.
"I just can't lose it."
It was an added layer of stress to what Preusker admitted has been a taxing few months as he prepares Surprise Baby for a tilt at the Cup, after a win in The Bart Cummings in October earned a berth.
The spotlight - and social media - aren't really his bag. He reckons he's posted one thing on Facebook and only sent "two or three" emails.
Nor is the races.
It will be a 299km journey from Preusker's base to Headquarters on Tuesday, past the giant koala at Dadswells Bridge and along the Western Highway before hitting Ararat, past Ballarat and into town.
And with precious cargo - the $5500 bargain-buy trained "slowly, slowly" by Preusker in the bush. A horse that's grown from a "menace" to Melbourne Cup chance in the space of just two years.
"Me and a mate were in New Zealand at the time (in 2017), shopping for horses," he says.
"The owner, Johnny Fiteni, rang and said, 'I've bought a horse over the internet, go and have a look and make sure he's worth bringing home'.
"At the time I didn't ask how much he was, and fronted at Rich Hill Stud … I wouldn't say I was quite impressed, but I thought by looking at him, 'Geez, he's very correct and tough-looking'. There were no faults there so I gave him a tick.
"I brought him home and he was an absolute menace. He was a nightmare, actually. But it was just slowly, slowly. And now, he's a really tractable horse that's just got a great will to win."
How he's turned out is like nothing Preusker has seen before.
"He's just got this attitude that he puts in 110 per cent every morning," he says.
"When you ask him to go, he will just literally go until he's got no more. There is no second-guessing, no matter where he is. He just gives you every bit he's got.
"I'm absolutely convinced you could pull him out of the Melbourne Cup on Tuesday and run him down the straight and if you asked him, by jeez, he'd still be there. He's a unique stayer in the fashion that even though he's ultra-fit, if you asked him to run out a solid 1200, he still can do it and would be hard to hold out.
"It's freakish. I've never seen a horse do it, or have anything like it before.
"This horse excites me … he's just prepared to give you everything he's got and fight to the death and so for me, I'm quite proud of him. You like seeing that. They're horses that are fighters and they're good to watch.
"You look at (the internationals) and they're intimidating. This horse is not a really attractive horse.
"There's no bells and whistles about him - nor me - but the truth is, it's the fight of the horse that can't be bought. It's either in them and nurtured, or it's not in them.
"At this stage, it's in us and he'll fit in good."
Will Preusker fit in?
"Definitely not," he laughs.
The 47-year-old - who isn't sleeping much at the moment - says his training is "pretty different", putting in plenty of time to ensure they are "fitter and mentally stronger" than their opponents.
It means morning and afternoon work on his Horsham property, and he reckons "it would be nearly 1000 days since I've had a day off, but that's me".
"I like being around it. I'll certainly go for a holiday after this one," he laughs, saying a trip across the ditch for some horse sales and "a bit of their good tucker" will do - and hopefully "a party or two" if all goes well on Tuesday.
Bred in New Zealand - much like the likes of Russell Crowe and Split Enz - Surprise Baby has been adopted as one of the best local hopes in the famous race.
It's quite fitting, then, that the horse that will take on the world is trained in the most Australian of settings just outside Horsham. It's where Preusker oversees more than 50 horses on his expansive property that includes a track, a lake, walkers and a heavy sand area to strengthen his charges.
Security guards for the horse will be an addition to the landscape tomorrow (MONDAY), as per Cup protocol, which Preusker admits will be "a bit weird".
On this 36C day, flies reign supreme and wind whips up dust among the gum trees as thoroughbreds in double stalls watch on, the striking surrounds of the Wimmera region shimmering in the heat.
It's here where Preusker feels most at home - certainly a long way from a heaving Flemington on Cup Day where he'll endeavour to find a quiet spot at about 2.58pm.
It is where he has rebuilt his stable over the last eight years since he was found guilty in 2007 of possessing and being party to the use of a jigger and handed a four-year ban.
He's changed a lot since then, as a trainer and a person - he is certain of that.
"For sure I have," he says, head down.
"Anything in life - everyone hits tough spots. You've just got to keep your eyes on what you're doing and keep focused. Take the hits and keep getting back up. That's how you keep getting there.
"Yeah, for sure I have changed. And I'm really proud to be here and alive."
Preusker would "rather have a horse and a saddle and a bridle" than a suit and tie, having taken up training after a stint breaking in horses after he finished school. He turned professional after a few thoroughbreds were left to him as debt payments.
He "spat it with horses" at 22 and tried his hand at concreting, but was coaxed back within a year.
He'd grown up on the Melbourne Cup, like many Victorian kids, and said he'd retire if he ever won one - a bucket list item that's "not about the money - but "this has come a bit quick".
"I thought I might have been 70 or something and ready to put the moccasins on," he laughs.
"It's come a bit early and I'm lucky for that. So it's certainly not thinking about retiring, and hopefully it gives me an opportunity to get another one in, you know?"
His earliest memory of the $8 million race was in primary school at Horsham, and the time-honoured Cup sweep.
"I reckon I might have been in my second year there," he says.
"It was a big thing. The school stopped, and while growing up it was always that way when the Melbourne Cup was on. The teachers got us involved and you hope that still carries on."
He never won the sweep, he admits with a grin, with his only collect on the Cup coming in 1995 thanks to the Lee Freedman-trained gelding Doriemus.
That could change on Tuesday - when he plans to finally part with his "lucky" $50.
"I was always prepared to spend it at The Bart Cummings, to back him to get into the Melbourne Cup, and I just had a moment," he says.
"I was in the toilet, and I thought, 'No, I'll wait, I'll hold on to it'.
"I'll spend it on Tuesday."
'HARDEST THING I EVER HAD TO DO'
It was the most difficult phone call that Paul Preusker has ever had to make.
When Surprise Baby was spelled mid-year, a decision was made to engage jockey Jordan Childs - who had ridden the horse over last Christmas and New Year - for Tuesday's Melbourne Cup, after three starts with Dean Holland aboard.
Under Holland, the gelding had won the Adelaide Cup and was just nosed out of the Ramsden Stakes at Flemington in May, but Preusker said the Group 1 winning jockey would still be front of mind this week.
"It was the hardest thing I ever had to do, to tell Dean he didn't have the ride in the Melbourne Cup," Preusker says.
"That was a stressful moment. I rang him. He was in Melbourne at the time and I rang him and ran him through it and felt terrible for days before, weeks before … but that's life and on your feet and get back up."
Preusker said it was "a tricky spot" with the two jockeys making up two thirds of his regular riding ranks.
"It was heartbreaking in one sense for Dean, because it's just the greatest opportunity," Preusker says.
"For Jordy, they're good mates, and for him to pick up the ride, it was just a tough spot for everyone at that time, but we've made the right call.
"Full credit to both men - Dean's just been super about it. We're a real team and I only sort of use the three blokes.
"We swap it around and work together and it all works good.
"That's exactly what's Dean's done, so it speaks volumes of him.
"All those things have taken their toll on me, and I'll still be thinking of Dean if we do win the Melbourne Cup.
"It's just one of those tricky, horrible situations. It just swung Jordy's way and we've got full faith in him."