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Vital King to Aerovelocity, trailblazing O’Sullivan departs Hong Kong on a high

July 15, 2022, 3:58:12 AM

The curtain will close on Paul O’Sullivan’s 18-year odyssey in Hong Kong at the conclusion of Saturday’s (16 July) season finale fixture at Sha Tin but the affable New Zealander won’t be lost to racing as he prepares for a return to where it all began.

The curtain will close on Paul O’Sullivan’s 18-year odyssey in Hong Kong at the conclusion of Saturday’s (16 July) season finale fixture at Sha Tin but the affable New Zealander won’t be lost to racing as he prepares for a return to where it all began.

“Lance (O’Sullivan) is just that busy and there are things that have to be done now, so it’s about time I took up a bit of responsibility with it. But regarding training horses in Hong Kong – I’ve been absolutely blessed,” O’Sullivan said.

O’Sullivan, 62, departs for the Land of the Long White Cloud after calling Hong Kong home since 2004. He leaves with 516 wins and HK$525,837,109 banked in earnings for his owners and this weekend’s fixture is his final chance to boost both figures.

“I’ve seen a lot of the world but there’s still more to see, my father manages my affairs in New Zealand but he’s got a bit old to do it,” O’Sullivan said.

O’Sullivan’s early days were spent in Matamata on the North Island of New Zealand. The son of New Zealand Racing Hall of Famer Dave O’Sullivan – a living legend – while his brother Lance rode for the family and together they formed a powerhouse operation across three decades in New Zealand and Australia – also winning the 1989 G1 Japan Cup (2400m) with crack mare Horlicks as the first Southern Hemisphere team to do so.

“Mum made Dad give me a job, back at Wexford. I think I was 17 when I started,” O’Sullivan said.

he trio’s exploits with Dave and Paul at the helm of Wexford Stables returned a string of big-race successes on both sides of the Tasman Sea, including the 1991 G1 W.S. Cox Plate (2040m) with Surfers Paradise, a pair of G1 New Zealand Derby (2400m) triumphs in 1990 and 1993 as well as a G1 New Zealand Oaks (2400m) success with Snap.

The O’Sullivan’s trained Waverley Star, also known as Our Waverley Star, when he raced in Australia to produce the “race of the century” against Bonecrusher in the 1986 W.S Cox Plate.

They also had Mr Tiz who dominated New Zealand’s sprinting ranks across 1989, 1990 and 1991 – earning New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame status for his hat-trick of G1 Railway Stakes (1200m) successes.

“For sure, I just had the bug. We never went to the races, we weren’t encouraged to do anything but one day Dad came home from the trials and he never used to talk about the horses much but he said ‘I think I’ve got my first good horse’.

“Anyway, he went to Matamata for his first start and I used to play rugby in the morning and then I went home to watch it and well, that horse, he ended up winning a Sydney Cup (G1, 3200m). He was named Oopik – he won a lot of races and I thought ‘this is easy’.

“I just kept following him around and he kept winning everywhere, so that probably would have been the time when I first got into racing – I would have been around 14,” O’Sullivan said.

O’Sullivan switched tack for the Far East in 2004 and he will be remembered as one of the jurisdiction’s finest horsemen of the modern era. He knows the highs and lows of Hong Kong, twice experiencing 50-win seasons, while a stretch through 2010/11, 2011/12 and 2012/13 returned 13, 17 and 15 wins, respectively.

“There’s nobody holding your hand here and coming from how we trained horses in New Zealand, I really had to adjust to working them and feeding them – it took time.

“If the horse isn’t going so well we’d go to the South Island (of New Zealand) for a bit of confidence – there’s nowhere to run and hide in this joint,” O’Sullivan said.

O’Sullivan’s time in Hong Kong is headlined by his three stars of the circuit: Aerovelocity, Vital King and Fellowship.

Aerovelocity was a true fighter who rose from Class 3 to Group 1 glory in Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore. He remains the only Hong Kong-trained horse to win three Group 1s in three different jurisdictions and he was retired from racing in 2017 with 11 wins overall from 24 starts (excluding his debut in New Zealand) and earnings of HK$45,252,368.

“He was half mad! You look at his races he never won by far but he was a very courageous racehorse and he never lay down, you admire that in a horse,” O’Sullivan said.

Hardiness was Aerovelocity’s finest quality, a wrecking ball who never gave up with an attitude and flair to match – leaving his mark on anyone or anything in his way.

Zac Purton steered him to all of his wins, including that magical six-month stretch which returned the 2014 G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Sprint (1200m), 2015 G1 Takamatsunomiya Kinen (1200m) in Japan and 2015 G1 KrisFlyer International Sprint (1200m) in Singapore.

“He was a very aggressive horse, even with his mafoos in his box and around the tracks in the morning. He’d push the mafoos into fences and he was difficult but when he got on the track he was different, for whatever reason a calmness went over him and he was a lovely horse to ride and then he put that aggression into his racing,” Purton said.

Aerovelocity is still the only foreign-trained horse to win the Takamatsunomiya Kinen.

Twice crowned Hong Kong Champion Sprinter (2014/15 & 2016/17), Aerovelocity started out as Naisoso Warrior with a debut win at Awapuni. His career would close as one of Hong Kong’s most decorated sprinters.

“He never laid down, he was always up for a fight and he always gave everything that he had and it was a great journey to go on with him, especially with the owners,” Purton said.

Following his overseas exploits he won the 2016 HKG1 Centenary Sprint Cup (1200m) before his final win as an eight-year-old in the 2016 LONGINES Hong Kong Sprint.

“I think his last Hong Kong Sprint really showed us how much character the horse had. He was an eight-year-old, no eight-year-old had ever won the race and we’d all to a certain degree written him off and it was going to be one of his last runs.

“So for him to pull himself out of the ashes and rise to glory again in the way that he did, I think, really epitomised the horse that he was,” Purton said.

Aerovelocity was owned by Daniel Yeung throughout his career in Hong Kong and he remains the only eight-year-old to prevail in the LONGINES Hong Kong Sprint.

Together O’Sullivan and Purton had significant success, Purton’s first Group 1 in Hong Kong came for O’Sullivan aboard Fellowship in the 2010 HKG1 Stewards’ Cup (1600m), downing none other than the brilliant Good Ba Ba who finished third.

“He’s a fantastic trainer to work with, he’s very easy and very straightforward. He’s always had a lot of confidence in me and I’ve always had a lot of confidence in him and the way that he’s been able to prepare his horses.

“When they’re in form and ready to go they tend to hold their form and run true to form and that’s what you like to see from any trainer but Paul’s been very good at doing that,” Purton said.

Since the turn of the century, O’Sullivan’s win in the 2007 Hong Kong Derby (2000m) ranks as one of the most astonishing in the race’s history as Vital King circled the field from near-last under Brett Prebble to nail the favourite Floral Pegasus on the line.

“I was with Derek Cruz, I think, right here in the weighing room and he said to me ‘he got up’ and then they went through the slow motion replays but I was happy to listen to that, anything positive anyone had to say,” O’Sullivan recalled.

Prebble’s trademark red gloves moved frantically to get Vital King’s head down on the wire and he did, successfully scoring by a nose in a photo finish.

“That’s the Melbourne Cup of Hong Kong, you get a lot of spin off business from it and it grows,” O’Sullivan said.

But O’Sullivan’s proudest moment as a trainer in Hong Kong is of no surprise, especially the fact that it didn’t come at either Happy Valley or Sha Tin.

“Aerovelocity in Japan, that’s the biggest thrill I got,” O’Sullivan said.

“Japan’s been good to us, I’ve been four times and we’ve had three winners – Horlicks, Waverley Star and Aerovelocity.”

Across his time, O’Sullivan forged a strong relationship with Derek Leung, whom he took under his wing as an apprentice. Together the duo enjoyed considerable success with Leung riding over 50 career-wins for O’Sullivan.

It will be a quiet exit for the Kiwi with three engaged at Sha Tin this Saturday for what will be his final day as ‘Paul O’Sullivan – Hong Kong Trainer’.

“There are no regrets – not one. I read this somewhere, you’re better to leave when some people still want you to stay than the other way around,” O’Sullivan said.

O’Sullivan does exactly that. He’s well-liked and respected by his peers but outside of racing, he says he leaves with one very minor repentance: “There is one regret and I had 18 years to do it – I never got married,” he laughed.

O’Sullivan’s future is in New Zealand and as of next season he will not be a participant of Hong Kong racing but his name and the horses who represented him will forever remain in folklore.

“He’s been a good friend as well and he’s been very successful on and off the track, so he’s always been able to offer some good advice. I don’t know what Hong Kong is like without Paul, so I’ll find that out next season,” Purton said.