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The ‘Switzerland’ of the Sha Tin trainers’ stand bids farewell and heads for the trees.
As Zac Purton was riding his fourth winner on Sunday, trainer Paul O’Sullivan had already kicked off his best leather shoes, changed from his suit to more suitable summer attire, and cracked open a well-deserved cold beer to watch the rest of the races from his Sha Tin Racecourse apartment.
The Kiwi trainer had just sent out his last runner, and before that his final winner in Turquoise Alpha, his 29th of the season and the first of Purton’s four.
As he leant back in the armchair of his home of 18 years, O’Sullivan was in a mood for a chat about the emotional last day of a 500-plus win Hong Kong career.
“First of all I’m thrilled for my team that we had a winner today and I am really proud of how we have performed for the last three months,” said O’Sullivan. “And my career here? Well, it has been a hell of a ride. I am just glad I didn’t leave here kicking stones like a lot of trainers do, I left on a positive note.”
As a racing journalist the term ‘popular trainer’ is a funny term to use in a story – especially given the ‘unpopular’ tag is never used, even if there are a few that deserve it – but if there ever was a trainer or participant who fits the ‘popular’ bill it is the affable O’Sullivan.
And, true to his humble nature, it seems he didn’t even know just how popular he was until it came time to walk through the racecourse gates for the last time on Saturday.
“It was quite emotional actually, I walked through the gates and I was asked to take selfies with dozens of racing fans, people I had never seen before,” he said, still in genuine disbelief at the farewell from fans. “I also had a lot of people, owners and trainers, come up and congratulate me. Even Mr (Simon) Kwok, and his son Patrick, who owns the ‘Beauty’ horses, stopped me in the lift and said a few nice words, and asked me to be on the lookout for a nice horse for him, which was nice considering the last time I trained a horse for them it didn’t go too well.”
The Sha Tin trainers’ stand is a minefield of egos and bitter rivalries, but amid it all O’Sullivan was Switzerland; a neutral that could bounce between the big personalities without ever stepping on toes, one minute bantering about an All Blacks versus Springboks rugby union Test with Tony Millard, the next talking bloodstock with Millard’s arch-nemesis John Moore.
O’Sullivan enjoyed watching trackwork from a comfortable outdoor chair on the second floor balcony, from where he observed the morning preparations of a golden era of Hong Kong racing. It was a time when great horses, including his own powerhouse sprinter Aerovelocity, travelled regularly to take on the world.
Maybe because of his self-effacing style – or perhaps because he grew up in the considerable shadows of his father Dave, a legendary trainer, and superstar jockey brother Lance – Paul O’Sullivan is rarely recognised for his own pre-Hong Kong exploits: he won 11-straight trainers’ titles at home in New Zealand in partnership with Dave, and teamed up with Lance to win the 1989 Japan Cup with Horlicks and the 1991 Cox Plate with Surfers Paradise.
In the famous 1986 Cox Plate they teamed up to produce Our Waverley Star, the beaten protagonist to Bonecusher in what was dubbed the race of the century.
From his comfortable chair, O’Sullivan also watched a host of highly credentialled expat trainers come and go, failing to generate the same success as they did in their homelands. O’Sullivan nearly endured the same fate too; he had a three season stretch when he trained just 45 winners from 2010-11 to 2012-13. Yet even during that lull, O’Sullivan retained his charm with the local media, dishing out high fives and hugs to reports in celebration when he passed the minimum win criteria late each season.
“I took a while to adapt to the place,” O’Sullivan said. “One of my main problems was that I was really working the horses too hard.
“I do a lot of gym work myself and I know that when I work too hard I end up with rubber legs. For the first three seasons here I was doing the same to my horses – I had them with rubber legs – they just had nothing to give in a race.
“I watched others do the same, turn up from other countries where they had been successful and think they could do the same. You can’t. I think Hong Kong is one place where you either adapt or you die.
“You have to swallow your pride, and say what I am doing isn’t working.”
On the other end of the scale, O’Sullivan says there are now more trainers that do adapt, learn from the best directly as assistants and trackwork riders or simply take the time to watch and learn.
“The competition now is just chalk and cheese compared to when I started, it is miles better than what it was,” he said. “The quality of trainers has improved out of sight.”
“A lot of that might be due to John Size. Now you are getting guys like Frankie Lor, who learned from John, and guys who have worked for Tony Cruz starting to figure out what they all do. Find out what they are fed, how many times, and also what type of work they do – it’s all there on the there on the Jockey Club website and happening right in front of you – there are no secrets.”
So what next for O’Sullivan? Surely, given that goodwill around the trainers’ stand, knowledge of world racing and a potential pipeline of talent from his brother Lance and Andrew Scott’s stable in Matamata, a lucrative earn in bloodstock beckons.
“Absolutely not, you won’t see me hanging around there trying to show videos of horses to people,” he said.
What the 62-year-old will do upon return to the beautiful Waikato region of New Zealand is maintain his great passion of planting trees.
“I love it, I have planted thousands of trees,” he said. “I started back in my 20s and it is a real passion of mine. I have a lot of pruning to do when I get back. I plan on planting a few more too. They say society grows when an old man plants a tree he will never see the shade of. I am only 62, but I will be planting plenty more.”
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