Vow is back, with Billy on board

6 November 2023 Written by VRC

He was the popular winner of the 2019 Lexus Melbourne Cup, and Vow And Declare is back again for a fourth time. The eight-year-old gelding, who has overcome back issues and a potentially career-ending tendon injury, is poised to join an exclusive group of horses, becoming only the 21st in over a century to compete in four or more Melbourne Cups. Shadow King holds the record for the most Melbourne Cup appearances, racing in six between 1929 and 1935. Red Cadeaux (2011-2015) and Skybeau (1996-2000) each contested five editions of the race.

The 2019 Cup is fresh in people’s minds as the one where Vow And Declare and jockey Craig Williams bravely held back the tide and gave hope to every hobby breeder and small-time owner that Cup dreams could still grow and thrive on local soil. Other than his win in 2019, Vow And Declare has also placed 18th and 10th in the race under trainer Danny O’Brien. 

This year, he’ll be partnered by Group 1 jockey, Billy Egan. Egan, who missed last spring and summer with a broken arm and ACL injury, bounced back to win a breakthrough Group 1, the South Australian Derby. 

Thrilled to be riding Vow And Declare, Egan told the Herald Sun: “At the start of the season, I didn’t have anything booked (for spring), I just thought I want to be prepared if someone asks and that’s where it’s led to.”

The jockey has a particular soft spot for the horse. “I love him (Vow And Declare), he’s a great old horse to ride, not often you get that affinity but I picked it up straight away with him, I think he’s a horse that definitely suits me.”  

Egan, who faced a weight of nearly 70kg during his recovery period, will be competing at 54kg.

The 33-year-old adopted a rigorous training regimen, including ‘metcons’, which are CrossFit-style metabolic conditioning exercises, to shed the excess weight.

In preparation for race day, he will focus on walking and swimming to ensure he retains his strength.

This will be Egan’s second ride in the Melbourne Cup, having finished 17th on Etah James in 2020.

2019: The Cup that just kept giving

The 2019 Lexus Melbourne Cup was supposed to be the race that the locals couldn’t win; well, not without the help of an expensive imported stayer anyway.

Heavily outnumbered and beaten on the score of class according to the vast majority of racing pundits, the only hope of a truly local victory came in the shape of a rangy chestnut named Vow And Declare; indeed the only Australian-bred, owned and trained runner in the race.

Less than half a length separated first and fourth across the line as Vow And Declare held off a surging Master Of Reality, Prince Of Arran and Il Paradiso. 

Tears of joy were shed by Williams, trainer Danny O’Brien and his team, and Vow And Declare’s group of owners made up largely of the Lanskey family; their winning horse was a kind-hearted home-bred yearling sales reject; and their jockey a champion.

For Williams, a jockey known for his endless gratitude after any major race win, this was a victory he had chased without success for twenty years and he was only too happy to talk about it.

“It’s something I dreamed about at school writing stories about winning the Melbourne Cup, it won’t define me but it’s just very special to be able to win our greatest race,” he said.

Williams already had a Caulfield Cup, Golden Slipper and Cox Plate trophy in his keeping, but the Lexus Melbourne Cup had eluded him after 16 attempts; his best result a well-beaten third on Mount Athos in 2013.

Cruelly, he missed out on the winning ride on Dunaden in 2011 through suspension and would have claimed a remarkable clean sweep of the Spring Carnival majors that year had he fulfilled his commitment and won.

But in Vow And Declare the jockey knew he had found another winning chance with a Caulfield Cup second placing setting his confidence soaring.

“He just has the best temperament, his strapper and Danny’s team. They told me what a relaxed horse he is and every time I rode him I felt that,” he said.

While many commentators tipped a gruelling tempo and a stamina sapping test, Williams quickly summed up a lack of early speed and thrust his mount forward from barrier 21; in an instant the pair had found the lead and the rail, and the tempo had slowed to a jog. 

This was a campaign some twelve months in the making, with O’Brien telling connections that they might have a handy stayer on their hands when Vow And Declare won the Listed Connoisseur Stakes on Oaks Day 2018. 

The trainer aimed the horse towards the Queensland Derby in which he ran second, and then tested him over 3000m against older horses in the Tatts Cup – he won by over three-lengths.

Before the 2019 Lexus Melbourne Cup O’Brien produced Vow And Declare just twice for a fourth in the Turnbull Stakes and a second in the Caulfield Cup, preferring to get the horse fit on the beach and hill track at his Barwon Heads property.

“We could do the work without putting him under race pressure, it was a European style preparation,” he said.

For Vow And Declare’s breeder and part-owner Paul Lanskey, the good fortune began two years earlier when his horse was passed in at the 2017 Inglis Classic Sale for $45,000 without attracting a single bid.

Queensland based Lanskey’s business background is in construction, but he decided he’d dabble in racing in 2008 when he bought a chestnut mare by Testa Rossa from the yearling sales. That mare was named Geblitzt, a five-time winner from 1200m – 1400m before her owner decided he’d try his luck breeding from her.

“I really thought she’d leave a sprinter,” said Lanskey.

He sent Geblitzt to Group 1 winning speedster Star Witness but the resultant foal, Lycurgus – also trained by O’Brien – won to 2500m at Flemington. Lanskey decided his mare might appreciate a stronger staying influence.

A union with Coolmore stallion Declaration Of War produced Vow And Declare. 

“I named it after an expression my father used to use. He would come home after work and ‘vow and declare’ that he’d only had six beers when he’d probably had sixteen, so that was a declaration of war with my mother,” Lanskey explained.

Relive Vow And Declare and Craig WIlliams win the 2019 Lexus Melbourne Cup