(By John Jenkins)

Valante pulled off an emotionally charged win when he out toughed his rivals in last Saturday’s $40,000 Orora Kiwi Packaging Kiwifruit Cup at Tauranga.

The seven-year-old gelding, trained at Cambridge by Graeme Lord, is part-owned by well known and highly respected racing journalist Wally O’Hearn.

O’Hearn has been a racing journalist for more than 40 years and has worked for such publications as the Friday Flash, Best Bets, Sunday Star, Sunday News, DB Racing Annual, Waikato Times and, more recently, The Informant. He is also the author of the book “Harry, the ride of my life”, an autobiography of champion New Zealand jockey Noel Harris.

As a fellow racing journalist, I was shocked when I heard that Wally O’Hearn was diagnosed with cancer almost three years ago and the prognosis then was that he didn’t have long to live. But, being the strong battler that he is, he is still alive today and was there at Tauranga on Saturday to receive the trophy following Valante’s win in the feature staying race.

Lord struggled to hold back tears when interviewed following Valante’s win in the 2100m event, saying that the success meant so much to him and the other connections but was extra special given that O’Hearn was there to help celebrate it.

“Wally said to me a while ago are you still aiming the horse for the Kiwifruit Cup and I said yes so he said he’d be there,” Lord recalled this week.

“I rang him up on the day and said it was pretty cold but he said he would put on a decent jacket and get there and I was thrilled that he did.”

O’Hearn received the gold cup trophy on behalf of the syndicate, a moment he will no doubt treasure.

The close association between Graeme Lord and Wally O’Hearn dates to 1978 when Lord, who was then a successful jockey, arrived at an airport one day and O’Hearn was there to pick him up.

“He has followed me right through my career since then and we have become the best of mates,” Lord said.

Napier-based John McGifford is another shareholder in Valante and he and Lord have also been great mates since the days they rode together over the jumps.

Another shareholder is Kim Hughes, a well known farrier in the Waikato area and one who has basically been Lord’s right-hand man since he decided to take up racehorse training several years ago.

The other syndicate members in Valante are another farrier and close friend Peter Reid, Te Aroha Racing Club president Wayne Lowen, Palmerston North policeman Paul Claridge, Melissa Armit and Matamata couple Peter and Kim McKay.

McGifford and Hughes also raced the top hurdler D’Llaro with Lord, with that horse’s 11 wins including the 2016 Great Northern Hurdles.

Peter McKay originally trained Valante but told Lord, after the horse went no good at Te Aroha one day, that he should take him over and try him as a jumper.

“Peter said he and Kim would keep a share in him and for me to find some others to come in.

“He still had flat ability at that stage so It thought I’d give him a go. I rang Wally and a few of the others and they all said they were in.”

Valante had won two races at that time and has since had 20 starts in Lord’s care for another three wins, four seconds and three thirds.

“He tries hard and goes in all track conditions so he is a gem to train,” Lord said.

“He has just been beaten by a better horse on the day a few times but last Saturday he proved he was the best.”

Valante likes to race in or near the lead and was taken on all the way last Saturday, first by Meeska Mooska, then by Highlad and finally by Redcayenne. But the Tavistock seven-year-old refused to yield in the very testing heavy-11 track conditions and fought like a tiger up the home straight to win by a short neck from The Kipling Girl, with Redcayenne a nose back in third.

The winning jockey was Donavan Mansour, who was blowing just about as much as the horse immediately after the race.

“They certainly make you earn your riding fee out here,” Mansour said.

“Coming to the 600 I wasn’t that confident but he stuck to it well in the straight.”

“The puggy track was what he had been waiting for all winter,” Lord said immediately after the win.

“This was one of the races I had been setting him for since he finished second in the Wairoa Cup in February and when we went to Ruakaka last week it was a bit of a bonus running third. If he had won, we knew he would still be getting into this on the minimum (weight).

“He won at Waipa a year ago on a puggy track and to have 53 kilograms on his back today was a bonus. He’s one tough boy and I’m just rapt.”

Lord said he will now give Valante a three week break to get over last Saturday’s taxing run and will then decide what to set him for next.

“There is the Taumarunui Cup at Rotorua at the end of July but he has raced three times there and it can get shifty which he doesn’t like,” Lord added.