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When the local hero Oguri Cap battled Horlicks up the straight in the 1989 Japan Cup, 140,000 fans responded with a noise so loud jockey Lance O’Sullivan described it as “like a physical assault.”
When New Zealand mare Horlicks arrived before the other overseas competitors for the 1989 Japan Cup her handler had an ingenious solution to stop her from fretting due to loneliness.
A second-hand mirror, smeared with another horse’s sweat, turned out to be a key to Horlicks winning the world’s second richest race at the time.
“On the track she was an absolute warrior, and overall she was a straightforward horse, she never had a sore day in her life, but she was going to be on her own there after she arrived,” explained Paul O’Sullivan, who was travelling foreman at the time for his father Dave.
“Where she had been stabled in Melbourne before she travelled, there was a grey horse in the stables next to her that she was buddies with, so I took some sweat and put it all over this old mirror I bought from a second-hand store in Melbourne.”
Once Horlicks arrived, that mirror served as company to break the tedium and ease the anxiety brought on by the unfamiliar surroundings.
“I tied it to the fence in the paddock she was in, and she could smell the other horse on it,” O’Sullivan said. “For the first few days in Tokyo she hardly left that mirror. Then she got a bit more confidence, she would get up and walk around but she would still come back and stand by that mirror.”
Having overcome homesickness, Horlicks would now need to face the emerging Japanese champion Oguri Cap in front of what would be a huge home crowd.
Just how monstrous that crowd would be became apparent in the days before the race. Jockey Lance O’Sullivan – Paul’s brother – had arrived, and as the team headed for breakfast one morning they were stunned to see a queue already formed in front of the Tokyo Racecourse gates.
“We all went out on bicycles to get breakfast in the morning and people were sleeping in tents, sleeping bags and cardboard boxes folded out on the ground, waiting to get in,” Paul said. “I had never seen anything like it, and come raceday when the gates opened it was like a race to get in. People just bolted through to find the best seat.
“They weren’t there to see us,” O’Sullivan said. “Oguri Cap was the idol at the time and they had all types of merchandise; Oguri Cap caps and t-shirts. There were banners up for him.”
More than 140,000 crammed into Tokyo for the ninth running of the race, which carried prizemoney of 100 million Yen, second only to the Breeders’ Cup Classic at the time.
The race did not disappoint. Horlicks sat close to the speed as the field scorched through lung-straining sectionals on the fast ground.
As she pulled clear of highly rated rivals that included the previous year’s Japan Cup winner Pay The Butler, that year’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Carroll House and the world record holder Hawkster, it was the local hero, Oguri Cap, that emerged from the pack as the clear challenger.
The pair pulled clear in an absolute dogfight, met by the roars of the masses at Fuchu.
In Lance O’Sullivan’s biography Tears in the Wind, he described feeling the crowd noise as “vibrations in my body.”
“It’s a physical assault,” he told author Dianne Haworth. “Like standing in front of speakers with the volume turned full on, the vibrations are hitting you.”
The time of 2 minutes 22.5 seconds broke Hawkster’s record and post-race Lance said he wasn’t at all surprised.
“Horlicks started fast from the beginning, so I expected her to set a record time,” he told Associated Press at the time.
At its genesis, the he Japan Cup was created as an invitational designed to test Japan’s best horses and lift the standard of racing. Along with the acquisition of elite broodmares from around the world, it worked in elevating Japanese horses to among the best in the world.
Horlicks’ win was one of nine in the first 11 runnings that were by overseas-trained horses. Japan has won 25 of the 30 since that sequence, including the last 16, dating back to Deep Impact in 2006.
Paul O’Sullivan would return 26 years after Horlicks’ famous win as a trainer in his own right to capture a G1 when Aerovelocity triumphed in the 2015 Takamatsunomiya Kinen.
Given what he witnessed in 1989, he hasn’t been surprised at Japan’s emergence as a world power in racing.
“I won a sprint race and I reckon that might be the only race worth targeting these days,” he said. “At a mile and beyond, they are just too strong. Back in 1989 I just sat there and watched these horses getting off the float, and they were just such magnificent individuals. Big, strong, long horses. They had bought a lot of quality broodmares back then and have continued to do so, they have gotten even better since.”
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