Untold story of how discarded horse became $8m winner
The Melbourne Cup has become one of the most sought-after international horse races in the world and one now dominated by horses bred in the northern hemisphere. Cashed-up owners spend millions of dollars trying to buy a horse from north of the Equator that just might be good enough to win it. Internationals arrive in their droves with the same intention, to the point where horses bred in Australia are these days almost a novelty factor in the race. So when the Aussie-bred, Aussie-trained, Aussie-owned sales ring discard Vow And Declare won the $8 million race in 2019, it was a little leap on the ambition one owner had of winning a Birdsville Cup.
Now his owners are gearing up for another Cup tilt - hopeful, rather than confident given how few horses repeat - but still buzzing from what unfolded 12 months ago and how the Cup now plays a part in their lives every single day.
When Vow And Declare stuck his nose out at Flemington last November, he became the first horse bred in Australia to win the Melbourne Cup in 11 years. At the same time, he delivered a group of Queensland owners - for many of them it was their very first horse - an experience they had barely dreamed possible. What started as a confidence-sapping disappointment for breeder Paul Lanskey, 66, turned full circle to provide a group of everyday people with the thrill of a lifetime.
"It's been quite amazing. It's not a race we ever would have anticipated in a million years; when you go into racing that it would be on the list of things you might achieve," Lanskey says.
"We've had a ton of fun. The stars must have been aligned last year. My father's (Charlie) birthday is November 5, Melbourne Cup had always been a big thing in the family, he was a bookie in Townsville and we had big nights after Cup night always. It was a pity they weren't around to experience what happened."
Vow And Declare's biggest shareholder is former NSW MP Geoff Corrigan, who donated $50,000 to Dementia Australia in the wake of the horse's $4.65 million Cup win last year.
Corrigan, 67, who lives in Sydney's Camden, had raced Vow And Declare's older half-brother Lycurgus with top Melbourne trainer Danny O'Brien and came on board with "Vow" when O'Brien agreed to train him. That was after the horse had been snubbed at the Inglis Classic Sale in Sydney and failed to reach the $60,000 reserve Noosa-based breeder Paul Lanskey was asking for. "We were gutted. In fact there was a big push from my partner (Helga Hueston) to bail on breeding," Lanskey says.
"You spend a fair bit of money on service fees, having them prepped for the sales and you rock up and don't even get a bid. It's not the most pleasant thing.
"But as fortune would have it, we were very, very lucky we didn't (sell) him."
Enter the Gympie connection.
With Corrigan in for 35 per cent and O'Brien including some stable clients, Lanskey's sons Tom, 28, and Joe, 32, came into the ownership and he also invited his nephew Anthony Lanskey, 51, into the partnership. Anthony, principal at Gympie State High School, had long wanted to race a horse and in turn brought his two boys, Lachlan, 23, and Ben, 26, into the tent.
He in turn invited Bob Leitch, 53, a long-term colleague and, at the time Gympie's deputy mayor, as well as Darling Downs-based Kort Goodman, 47. Lanskey, Leitch and Goodman had been long-time friends from years of taking schoolboy rugby league teams to state championships.
Anthony Lanskey says it might be closing in on 12 months since Vow And Declare won the Cup, but it is still fresh in the minds of the people he comes in contact with. "It has dominated a fair bit of the year," Anthony says. "Any conversation you have seems to steer towards the Cup at some stage. I might do an enrolment interview, it's kicked off with congratulations. I jump in a cab and the cabbie has won something on him. So it's had an impact across the community, which is really nice."
Leitch says the Cup win is something they all "reflect on regularly".
"We have a little corner in the house that has photos in it and we also have a replica Cup. It's part of our life. Every time I catch a glimpse, it reminds me of the experience we had last year. We were very lucky to be part of it," he says. "The journey we had over those few weeks last year … What a ride for everyone."
Roma-raised Goodman is now principal at St Joseph's College Toowoomba, having spent the previous four years in Warwick.
Goodman noted that he, Lanskey and Leitch had often mused about racing a horse.
"My dad had a few horses and worked at the Roma racecourse as a barrier attendant and it was something I always thought I would like to one day do," Goodman says.
"Possibly run in the Roma Cup, Birdsville Cup, those western Cups. I would have liked to have a horse do that. Anthony gave me a ring and said this was the opportunity.
"Thank you, Paul, very much!"
Goodman says one of the biggest satisfactions is seeing the joy others get out of it.
"Going back to Warwick and given the dire situation of the town with regards to drought and then going back to my home town of Roma, it was amazing last year," he says.
"Every first conversation I have with anyone since that day always goes back to the Melbourne Cup. People just love the Cup and are so excited for my family and the other people involved, it's surreal.
"I also cop heap of jibes, 'This is your first horse, you're a joke, now comes the real part of it', of course, but it really has been surreal."
Vow And Declare also turned Paul Lanskey's breeding fortunes this year when he sold a half-sister to Vow And Declare for $320,000 at the Magic Millions and he has another filly pencilled in for next year's Inglis Australian Easter Yearling Sale.
There are more in the pipeline as well, with Vow And Declare's mum Geblitzt producing a filly by US Triple Crown champion American Pharoah this year and she's gone back to the same stallion again.
The Queenslanders had plans for the Cuptrophy to do a tour of their hometowns this year, but COVID-19 put an end to that, at least in the short term.
"COVID put a bit of a dampener on what I thought would be 12 months of celebrations," Paul Lanskey says.
"I've had requests to have the Cup on display and raise some funds for charities in the area on the strength of people being able to touch the Cup or hold the Cup.
"As it's turned out, it's just been impossible.
"That is unfortunate when you are lucky enough to win a race like that, but having said all of that, I wouldn't give away the experience that we have had."
Corrigan, as the senior owner, has possession of the Cup, but each of the others has had replicas made.
"The situation this year means we probably haven't had the opportunity to share it with our community," Leitch says. "We intended to have the Cup up here for the big race days (at Gympie) and we had planned a few other things.
"We haven't had the chance yet to take it to the old people's homes. It's a bit sad we haven't had the chance to share the Cup itself with our community.
"People do appreciate (the replica) but in yourself, there's nothing like saying this is the real thing. Replicas are lovely and they do still produce an amount of emotion in people.
"We talk about them as the owners' Cups. But the Big Dog as I call it, is fairly romantic."
In the 160-year history of the Melbourne Cup, only five horses have managed to win it more than once.
So the team readily concedes they are not as bullish this year as they were 12 months ago.
Vow And Declare's form is down on last year, struggling on the wet ground in the Caulfield Cup at his latest start.
He is at big odds to repeat.
"Back to back is (nearly) impossible,"
Anthony says. "It's only a few greats that have been able to do it and he's got extra weight this year, so we go into it hopeful and optimistic as opposed to confident."
But racing is more than just about winning and, win, lose, or draw, they have planned to celebrate Vow And Declare's Cup defence together again this year, albeit most likely a long way from Flemington given the COVID situation in the Victorian capital.
"The Queensland contingent are going to be at Doomben as a group on Cup Day," Lanskey says. "It won't be quite the same, but at least we will be together and have a bit of fun."
Leitch put in for leave the day after last year's Melbourne Cup.
"I realised we would be in it again, so I put it in straight away. Being together is important to us. As many of the owners that can be together as possible. I'm sure we will have a good day," he says.
And sure as night follows day, Vow And Declare will not be the first and last horse the group races.
In January this year, O'Brien purchased a colt by American Pharoah and nearly all of them have dived in again, as well as additional family members.
"My Mum (Jenny) thrives on the Vow And Declare updates and has decided she wants to be a part of this and she's in the American Pharoah colt," Anthony says.
"So we've got another Lanskey involved."
Originally published as Untold story of how discarded horse became $8m winner