MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australian stayer Vow and Declare won the 159th running of the Melbourne Cup by a neck at Flemington racecourse on Tuesday with the race overshadowed by a stewards' protest and a horse pulling up lame with a cracked pelvis.
The Danny O'Brien-trained gelding kicked in the final meters to seal the A$8 million ($5.52 million) handicap and give jockey Craig Williams his maiden Melbourne Cup triumph after more than a decade of trying.
Master of Reality, ridden by flamboyant Italian Frankie Dettori, crossed second in a photo finish with Prince of Arran but was later demoted to fourth after a protest for interference in the closing stretch.
Stewards found the Aidan O'Brien-trained Master of Reality had impeded Il Paradiso, the entrant prepared by the celebrated Irish trainer's son, Joseph.
Prince of Arran was promoted to second and Il Paradiso lifted to third in the grueling two-mile race.
With the "race that stops a nation" dominated by international entrants over the past decade, the victory of locally bred and trained Vow and Declare, rated a 10-1 shot, was a welcome surprise for Australian racing.
"Not only is this our greatest race that stops a nation, as you can see by the form-book it’s targeted by horses from all around the world and we did it today with an Australian horse,” Williams said at the trophy ceremony.
In 2011, Williams had been due to ride eventual winner Dunaden but had to make way for Christophe Lemaire because of a suspension for careless riding at an earlier meeting.
Two years later, Williams ran third on Mount Athos.
"I was just lucky enough to sit on Vow and Declare," said the overjoyed 42-year-old father-of-four.
"It was a privilege to ride him today."
It was also an emotional day for Danny O'Brien, who was suspended for four years in 2014 after a number of his horses tested positive for the banned substance cobalt.
He fought to clear his name and had the ban overturned on appeal in 2017.
"It's an amazing win, a special thing to happen," he said.
"I really can't believe it, I just feel incredibly blessed to have a horse good enough to be in it.
"The last 100 (meters) he just wouldn't give in."
While a festive public holiday crowd soaked up the spring sunshine, the Cup ran amid heated debate about animal welfare following an investigative report into the mistreatment of retired racehorses and the alleged slaughter of hundreds of thoroughbreds at abattoirs.
The David Hayes-trained Rostropovich pulled up lame during the race and was later found to have a fractured pelvis after finishing last of the 24 runners.
The Irish stayer was taken to equine hospital where he was in a "stable condition", governing body Racing Victoria said.
"Time will tell. Rest is all you can do with an injury like this,” Hayes said.
A bleak outcome for Rostropovich would heap further pressure on an industry rocked by a slew of horse deaths during recent Melbourne Cup carnivals.
Since 2013, six horses have been euthanized after injuries from running on Melbourne Cup day, including Aidan O'Brien-trained The Cliffsofmoher, who was put down on the track after last year's race.
Animal rights advocates called for a ban on thoroughbred racing at an organized protest party outside the gates at Flemington on Tuesday. Protesters splattered in blood-red dye staged mock races at the "Say nup to the Cup" event.
Prince of Arran jockey Michael Walker later received a seven-meeting ban and a fine for excessive whip use on his mount.
($1 = 1.4486 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford, Robert Birsel)