By Garry Howe
Warwick part-owned Vow And Declare last year had to overcome a crack international field to win the country’s most famous horse race, the $7.3 million Melbourne Cup.
This year the Danny O’Brien-trained stayer will have to overcome a global pandemic in a quest to become only the fifth horse to go back-to-back in the big Flemington two-miler.
Part-owner Bob Leitch said that Vow And Declare was back in work and thriving in a campaign again aimed to culminate at Flemington on Tuesday 3 November.
He said all was going to plan – or as much as you can plan in the middle of a pandemic.
The campaign is set to kick off in the Makybe Diva Stakes over 1600m at Flemington on 12 September, then progress to on to the Turnbull Stakes, also at Flemington, over 2000m on 3 October before tackling the 2400 metre Caulfield Cup, a traditional lead-up race, on 17 October.
O’Brien said after last year’s Cup win that Vow And Declare would be a better horse next spring.
The signs are he was on the money.
“Danny O’Brien us really happy with him,” Leitch said.
“He’s a bigger, stronger horse than last year, but he will need to be to carry the extra weight.”
Vow And Declare, who carried 52kg to win last year, is based at the stable’s 13th Beach facility at Barwon Heads, near Geelong in Victoria.
“They’ve actually had him working harder down at the beach than he would if at Flemington,” Leitch explained.
“He’s due to have a jump out in a couple of weeks and from there will do a bit of extra work.”
One thing in their favour this year is that there is unlikely to be an influx of internationals, due to the worldwide virus crisis.
Racing authorities are pulling out all stops to help international runners make the trip, seeking a Federal Government travel exemption so trainers and their staff can travel.
But it needs to be sorted by mid-August at the latest and is becoming more and more unlikely as Covid-19 figures spike in Melbourne, where Flemington is considered a hotspot for infection.
Vow And Declare flew the Australian flag last year, as the only locally bred horse in the field – and also had local solely local owners, trainer and jockey.
For some, it rekindled their interest in the race.
“I spoke to a lot of racing people afterwards and they said it brought back a lot of interest in the Cup – that it’s not just a race for the internationals.
“It shows that the average Joe Blow can invest in a horse and still win the Melbourne Cup.”
For some of Vow And Declare’s 13 owners, it was their first foray into racehorse ownership, including Leitch.
By US sire Declaration Of War out of Geblitzt, Vow And Declare was bred by Noosa businessman Paul Lanskey, who after unsuccessfully trying to offload him at the sales hawked him around friends and family.
Among those to take up the offer was his nephew, Gympie State High School principal Anthony Lanskey, who also got his two sons, Lachi and Ben, into the ownership.
Anthony is president of Australian Schoolboys Rugby League and had spoken to a couple of great mates also tied up with the schoolboys about one day getting into a horse.
They were Leitch, his colleague at Gympie State High and the former deputy mayor, and Kort Goodman, principal of Assumption College in Warwick.
Goodman and Leitch are former schoolboys rugby teammates and Lanskey was team manager of a side Leitch coached.
They’re pretty close.
Leitch was turning 50 around the time the shares were being hawked around and wife Correne asked him what he wanted for his birthday.
He says the subsequent share in Vow And Declare is the gift that keeps giving.
They realize how fortunate they were to share on of Australian sport’s greatest prizes – and one that has eluded so many icons of the sport over the years.
Take Vow And Declare’s jockey Craig Williams as an example.
Williams grew up in a racing family – his grandfather and father were both trainers of note – and it was his 16th ride in the race. He had ridden over 50 Group 1 winners all over the world, yet made no secret that the Melbourne Cup was his Holy Grail.
To go back-to-back would rank Vow And Declare alongside the Cup’s first winner Archer (1861-62), Rain Lover (1968-69), Think Big (1974-75) and Makybe Diva (2003-05) as the only horses to achieve that feat.
The big question is whether the schoolboys rugby league mates will be at Flemington alongside the other owners to soak it all up again.
“It’s pretty frustrating,” Leitch said. “We’ve already booked flights and accommodation.
“I don’t imagine we will get to the earlier races, but one of the ideas is for owners to go in prior to the race and then be gone by the next race. We’d probably take that.
“There is a fair chance we would have to be isolated because Flemington is a (Covid) hotspot.
“You just don’t know. But we will be there if we get the opportunity.”