Vow And Declare Restores Local Pride In Melbourne Cup

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Vow And Declare wins the Melbourne Cup in a tight finish | Bronwen Healy

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MELBOURNE, Australia—There is no better illustration of the internationalisation of the G1 Lexus Melbourne Cup than the fact that the first six horses home on Tuesday bore six different suffixes. Crucially, for the race which is in danger of becoming a victim of its own global appeal, it was the Australian-bred, -owned and -trained Vow And Declare (Aus) (Declaration Of War) who kept his bold chestnut nose in front in a four-way scramble for the line.

Fighting it out with him were challengers from Britain and Ireland—Master Of Reality (Ire) (Frankel {GB}), whom owner Nick Williams said Frankie Dettori had demanded to ride, along with Prince Of Arran (GB) (Shirocco {Ger}) and Il Paradiso (Galileo {Ire}), one of only two 3-year-olds in the field. Scrimmaging within that chasing pack in the closing stages prompted a stewards' enquiry which resulted in a nine-meeting ban for Dettori and relegation to fourth place for his mount, with last year's third place Prince Of Arran moving into the runner-up spot and Il Paradiso to third.

Joseph O'Brien had flown on from his success at the Breeders' Cup to Flemington, where he claimed his first major international victory in the Cup two years ago with Rekindling (GB). Added to his quartet of runners was a trio from the stable of his father Aidan, who did not join him on the trip. But it was the homegrown Danny O'Brien, no relation to Ireland's dominant duo, who added his name to the list of Melbourne Cup winners for the first time. It was not just an important marker for him as he rebuilds his career after being embroiled, with other trainers, in the saga of cobalt positives, but also for Australia itself. The Melbourne Cup has long been a national sporting institution, but it faces threats both from outside racing and within.

In Australia, as in America and elsewhere, the voice of the animal rights lobby is growing ever louder, while the state of Victoria, traditionally the home of racing in the spring, is being challenged by New South Wales with a handful of new and valuable races during the carnival. These include last Saturday's A$7 million Golden Eagle, deliberately pitched to rival the Victoria Derby card. Furthermore, the Melbourne Cup has been accused of being in danger of losing its appeal to local racing fans and punters as a fresh wave of unfamiliar imported runners arrive to make their challenge each year.

“The way the race has changed over a decade,” said Danny O'Brien. “When I had the favourite back then with Master O'Reilly (NZ) there were five horses that were international and this year there's 22. So it has certainly become a more elusive target for a local trainer, and to do it with a locally-bred horse is not something that is going to happen very often. So it is getting more out of reach but today proves that it can still be done.”

The trainer has steadfastly been rebuilding his team at Flemington and Barwon Heads and has the favourite for Thursday's G1 Kennedy Oaks in Miami Bound (NZ) Reliable Man {GB}), who backs up after her victory in Saturday's G2 Wakeful S.

He continued, “Everyone who puts a saddle every morning never gives up hope. It's a game of hope. I don't think anyone survives in racing without some down times. Even when you're training winners at a 20% strike-rate, it still means that four out of five runners are getting beaten. You learn that there are good times and bad, and through that period I was still training and fortunately this horse came into the system a few years ago.”

In the 4-year-old Vow And Declare, who brought up a Group 1 double within days for his sire Declaration Of War following the victory of Warning (Aus) in Saturday's Victoria Derby, O'Brien believes he has only just scratched the surface of the horse's capabilities. He said, “He just has the genetic make-up—he has the heart, the lungs, the low-resting lactate when we work him, and he has all the things that you need to run 3,200 metres. He was able to run second in the Caulfield Cup but he could run 4,000 metres if he was in a race of that distance.

“I was very confident that we'd beat all the horses that raced us in the Caulfield Cup because I knew how much better my horse would be at two miles and on the Flemington circuit rather than Caulfield—he wobbled a bit at Caulfield and it cost him about a length, not that he'd have beaten the winner that day. But there were another ten that have turned up today. They run in these races all the time. I'd love to be running Vow And Declare in two-mile races three or four times a year but we don't have those opportunities. They are there in Europe and [those horses] are more hardy and more used to this sort of stuff than he is.”

If Vow And Declare's part-owner Geoff Corrigan has his way, O'Brien may yet get the chance to test the horse over farther and at one of Europe's most prestigious meetings.

“Danny said last year that this horse was an elite staying prospect but you don't even think that this is going to happen,” Corrigan said. “If we want to be running him to get his best we'll have to think about going over to Ascot for the Gold Cup. That will be a couple of years away. I think he's too young now, but what I'd love to do is go to Ascot and show them that an Australian horse is just as good staying-wise as the British horses. Chris Waller is going over with Yes Yes Yes (Aus)—he must like going up and down the straight in the open carriages—and I can just see me and Danny there with our top hats on and meeting the Queen for the Ascot Gold Cup.”

O'Brien, however, is in no rush to commit to that project, with a return to the Melbourne Cup next year uppermost on his agenda. He added, “He's still a very young horse, he's just turned four, and he's a horse that we think will get better at five, six or seven.

“I've been all around the world to English Derbys, to Royal Ascot, to Kentucky Derbys, and nothing comes close to this. You have a whole city that just stops, the rest of the country does as well, and if you don't believe that the best people to ask are the people from outside Australia who come here. They are just speechless.”

For winning jockey Craig Williams, this was also a first, bringing up a full set of Australia's major contests. He said, “The bit of bumping that he endured actually spurred him along. I was up in front so I was okay. It was a privilege to ride him today. I really want to thank all of the people who came out today. Not only is this our greatest race that stops a nation, as you can see by the form book, today it is targeted by horses from all around the world and we did it today with an Australian horse.”

In racing, one man's joy is usually another's despair and Frankie Dettori's initial response after finishing second past the post on Master Of Reality was simply, “I want to cry.”

His mood likely darkened after the stewards handed him a careless riding suspension for allowing Master Of Reality to roll in towards the rail and the fast-finishing Il Paradiso.

Master of Reality's trainer Joseph O'Brien was more phlegmatic, saying, “The horse ran a fantastic race and Frankie gave him a perfect ride. I'm gutted for Frankie but I'm delighted that the horse ran so well. It's mixed emotions but that's racing. We're looking forward to next year.”

The first four home were divided only by a head, a nose and a half-head and such near-misses can indeed bring a mix of emotions, as witnessed by Charlie Fellowes being on his knees in the mounting yard as Prince Of Arran flashed past the post in the melee. That frustration quickly turned to pride, however, when considering another valiant run from his popular campaigner.

“He's been so consistent. You have to think he deserves a big one,” said Fellowes. “I never at any stage thought we were going to get it until literally the last five yards. He is amazing. He's a credit to Tash [Eaton] and to all the guys back home. To do that two years in a row is an amazing effort. I think we've done enough to qualify for next year.”

Beyond the first four the field remained tightly bunched almost throughout, with another Australian-trained horse Surprise Baby (NZ) (Shocking {Aus}) finishing strongly for fifth, closely followed by two of the ante-post favourites, Japan's Caulfield Cup winner Mer De Glace (Jpn) (Rulership {Jpn}) and Finche (GB) (Frankel {GB}).

Rostropovich (Ire) (Frankel {GB}), who was eased down in the straight, pulled up lame and was transferred to the University of Melbourne Equine Centre, where it was found that he had sustained a pelvic fracture but was reported to be in a stable condition.

His recovery will be as important to the race's reputation as the fact that the winner was a local through and through.

“Vow And Declare has won it for Australia, they're on top of the world,” roared race caller Matt Hill as the horses charged the line. A bob of the head at just the right time has rarely meant so much to so many.

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