Valedictum back in the spring spotlight

THE racing adage "horses for courses" reminds us that certain horses have an affinity with certain tracks; that some have a favourite course on which they love to run.

While the saying has stood the test of time, Robert Martin, semi-retired lawyer and thoroughbred syndicate manager, reckons he could change it to "horses for races", as his two best gallopers, former top-liner Umrum and tomorrow's Emirates Stakes contender Valedictum, have enjoyed love affairs with major spring events.

Umrum, trained by South Australian Leon Macdonald, contested six straight Toorak Handicaps at Caulfield from 1998 to 2003, winning two and filling a place on three other occasions. In 2005, two years after Umrum's last Toorak start, Valedictum began his own group 1 tradition when winning the Emirates Stakes at $41. Last year he was third, and tomorrow he will go around again in the $1 million group 1 race at Flemington.

But, the similarities between Umrum and Valedictum do not end there. Both horses are by veteran sire Umatilla, as was Martin's other good horse, Standish Handicap winner Blessum. Both are chestnuts, and both achieved their biggest successes at 1600 metres.

This apparent coincidence is more the result of a formula Martin employs when attending yearling sales in the search for sprinter-milers.

"Valedictum is actually the fourth chestnut by Umatilla that I've owned, and they all fit a certain type of Umatilla progeny, which I always look out for at the sales," Martin said.

A keen student of pedigrees and an eye for a horse, Martin bought his first thoroughbred "before I owned a car and well before I could afford either". After enjoying a freakish run in the Toorak with Umrum, who won more than $1.6 million in 81 starts, he considered himself extremely lucky to strike gold again with Valedictum.

But, when trainer Danny O'Brien phoned after last year's Emirates Stakes to give him the news that no owner ever wants to hear, Martin was sure his luck had run out. "We were just shattered when he broke down," Martin said. "Looking at the replays (of the race) I think he hurt his tendon in the run, so his effort to run third was huge."

Valedictum had torn a tendon when finishing a brave third to Divine Madonna, a half-sister to Martin's other good horse Blessum, adding insult to injury.

"In days gone by, the injury would have been career-ending, but with advances in stem-cell surgery, Danny thought we might get him back racing," Martin said.

O'Brien was hopeful more than confident that stem-cell surgery would repair Valedictum's torn tendon. He had never trained a horse who had had the surgery and although the procedure had returned Casual Pass to winning form for neighbouring trainer Mat Ellerton, O'Brien remained cautious about Valedictum's outlook.

"It wasn't a really bad tear but any tendon injury is potentially career-threatening. It's never good news" O'Brien said.

"He's a gelding so there wasn't much point retiring him. We had to consider it but it didn't really take long to make the decision to try and bring him back."

Following surgery and three months' rest for the horse, O'Brien sent Valedictum to a trotting establishment for some unusual therapy. "His rehab included a lot of trotting and pacework exercises more commonly used in the training of harness-racing horses, in order to strengthen his injured leg," Martin said. "He needed to strengthen the tendon as well as his body after three months out of work."

O'Brien brought the seven-year-old back to work slowly and, with Martin, set out to replicate the gelding's 2006 Emirates campaign. "It's so hard to replace horses like him who are competitive year after year, especially at group 1 level," O'Brien said. "So it's great for the stable and the owners that he has been able to come back.

"If you look after these old geldings, they just keep coming up year after year, they look after you. Look at Fields Of Omagh and Robert's other horse, Umrum, they're just ultra-competitive."

Twelve months after the injury, Valedictum returns to Flemington, where he will line up for his third crack at the million-dollar mile. O'Brien and Martin are confident Valedictum is racing as well as ever, and are optimistic about a second Emirates win despite the presence of glamour three-year-old Weekend Hussler.

"To my eye he's going about as well as he was last year, and this is not a vintage Emirates outside the favourite," Martin said. "He's in with a chance but it's just great to have him back racing."

And as long as he's fit, tomorrow's Emirates Stakes might not be Valedictum's last.

by Michael Sharkie - The Age

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