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Vow and Declare triumphs in Melbourne Cup

AFP-JIJI

Australian gelding Vow and Declare won the coveted $5.5 million Melbourne Cup at a packed Flemington on Tuesday as revelations about the grim fate of retired racehorses were put to one side as punters streamed through the turnstiles.

With veteran jockey Craig Williams in the saddle, the 4-year-old edged out Prince of Arran, Il Paradiso and Master of Reality in a thrilling finish in the famous 3,200-meter “race that stops a nation.”

Racing out of barrier 21 on a glorious day, Twilight Payment led for much of the race until the Danny O’Brien-trained gelding came through on the line to upset a field jam-packed with overseas runners containing only two Australian-bred horses.

“I was lucky enough to sit on Vow And Declare. A credit to Danny O’Brien,” said Williams, who has now won the Melbourne Cup to go with the Cox Plate, Caulfield Cup and Golden Slipper during an illustrious career.

“It was a privilege to ride him today. We had a difficult barrier draw but we trusted him. We knew what we can do. Great to be associated with a horse like this.”

Master of Reality crossed the line second in a photo finish ahead of Prince of Arran and Il Paradiso.

But the stewards lodged a protest over interference in the final 100 meters. The footage was reviewed and the protest was upheld, with Prince of Arran elevated to second, Il Paradiso third and Master of Reality bumped down to fourth.

O’Brien, who gave Vow and Declare a light spring campaign of just two runs before Tuesday, paid tribute to Williams.

“An amazingly special thing to happen,” he said. “I feel incredibly blessed to have a horse good enough to be in it and then for him to be ridden so beautifully by Craig.

“He rolled the dice like he does, he’s an outstanding jockey.”

First staged in 1861, the Melbourne Cup has been run on the first Tuesday of November since 1876, and the winning horse instantly becomes a household name in Australia.

It is a cultural institution and tens of thousands of well-dressed punters flock to Flemington, with boozy parties held nationwide.

The race was run this year with the industry under extreme scrutiny following damning revelations about the fate of retired racehorses.

While slaughtering horses intead of rehoming is not illegal in Australia, an undercover probe by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation alleged the practice was far more widespread than acknowledged.

It detailed healthy horses being brutalized at one abattoir before being killed on an “industrial scale,” with their meat shipped overseas for human and pet consumption.

It sent shockwaves through the industry and revulsion among some fans, with the industry pledging to do better.

While the Melbourne Cup was not directly linked to those slaughterhouses, the race was already a target of animal rights activists after six deaths since 2013, although there were no reports of injuries Tuesday.

Despite this, fans appeared undeterred. No attendance figures were immediately available — 90,000 were expected — but the grandstands were heaving.

And despite pressures to boycott the race, betting agency TAB was cited in local media as saying they expected more than three million people would have a flutter on Tuesday.

It is not just horse racing in Australia feeling the heat — a thoroughbred was euthanized after being injured in the United States during the high-profile Breeder’s Cup Classic at Santa Anita, California, last weekend.

Mongolian Groom was the 37th horse to die since December at Santa Anita alone, a grim toll that has sparked outrage, an investigation by law enforcement authorities and dire warnings about racing’s future from federal legislators.

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