O’Sullivan looking forward to return home

By Dennis Ryan

8 Jun 2022

O’Sullivan looking forward to return homePaul O’Sullivan is presented with a big-race trophy at Sha Tin by Hong Kong Jockey Club CEO Winfri

After nearly two decades training in Hong Kong, Paul O’Sullivan is preparing to return home for a life of retirement with no regrets.
When the 11-time New Zealand premiership winner headed to the vastly different environment of high-rise training and high stakes racing at Sha Tin, he was the first Kiwi conditioner to be offered the lucrative opportunity of a licence under the jurisdiction of the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
No more than 25 trainers, comprising a mix of locals and a high-profile selection from the rest of the world, make up Hong Kong training ranks. A licence from the HKJC is the ultimate guernsey for any aspirational trainer, and one that O’Sullivan has made the most of.
His brother Lance’s experiences there as a jockey gave O’Sullivan some insight to what awaited him when he relocated to the Chinese territory in 2004, but there was still much to learn as he bedded in for the long haul.
“You adapt or die here,” O’Sullivan told RaceForm following last week’s HKJC announcement that he had given notice of his intentions to relinquish his licence. “Over the years I’ve seen a lot of guys come in here and bring their training methods with them, only to get found out.
“Training horses up here is so different to New Zealand and other countries, it’s something you simply have to take on board if you want to be successful. The one thing I’ve always realised is what adaptable animals horses are, and it’s up to you to make the most of that.”
O’Sullivan will depart Hong Kong when the curtain comes down on the 2021-22 season at Sha Tin on July 16. Before that he has four further meetings at the inner-city Happy Valley track and another three at his Sha Tin base in the New Territories inland from Hong Kong Island.
After a slow start to the season, his team has been in very good form over recent weeks, with a Sha Tin double on Sunday taking his tally to eight since the start of last month and his full season score to 21. While he’s had better seasons in the previous 17, he’s happy to be signing off on a positive note.
“It’s nice to win a few races on the way out,” he observed, “because most people walk out of here kicking stones.”
After taking a year or two to find his feet, O’Sullivan made rapid strides with a second placing to local star Caspar Fownes on the 2006-07 season. While he never managed to claim a premiership, he takes pride in having been the most successful trainer in one season at Sha Tin and likewise at Happy Valley in another.
The 2006-07 season also marked the emergence of his first major winner, former New Zealand galloper Vital King, who won the race every Hong Kong owner covets, the Hong Kong Derby.
There’s perhaps no coincidence that O’Sullivan’s two other headline acts were also Kiwi-bred. Fellowship won the 2010 HK-Gr. 1 Stewards’ Cup and four years later Aerovelocity, who had begun his career in Matamata at Wexford Stables before his export to Hong Kong.
His first major success was the 2014 Hong Kong Sprint on the prestigious International card and later that preparation added the Takamatsnomiya Kinen in Japan and the KrisFlyer Sprint in Singapore to become the first Hong Kong-trained horse to win internationally recognised Group One races in three jurisdictions.
“He was my standout, such a good horse,” says O’Sullivan. “He could travel and perform anywhere and it was great to be able to do that with a New Zealand-bred that we selected ourselves out of the Karaka ring and then developed at home.
“The Kiwi horses really do have a good reputation up here. They make up about 40 per cent of the population and win 40 per cent of the races, so they more than hold their own with horses from the rest of the world.”
The past season has seen O’Sullivan pass the 500 mark in wins (his current tally stands at 514), and with that he recognises the rewards to be had in Hong Kong.
“Getting the chance to train here was the best thing that ever happened to me. There’s no better opportunity in the world.
“But the time is right to call it a day. It’s actually a decision I made four years ago, it was easy at the time and while the lockdown we’ve had to endure the past couple of years has not been easy, it didn’t have any bearing on where I’m now up to.
“My time has come, I’m 62 and it’s a lot easier going home now rather than waiting until I’m 66,” he adds in reference to the HKJC’s standard retirement age of 65.
O’Sullivan has crossed tracks briefly with Jamie Richards, the champion Kiwi trainer who may be spoken of as his heir apparent and now in the early stages of setting up his own Sha Tin stable, and is looking forward to catching up with him this week over dinner.
“Given how long I’ve been up here and the fact I’ve hardly been back home while Jamie has been doing such a huge job, I actually don’t know him that well. But I do know enough about him to realise what a gifted trainer he is.
“I’m sure he’s clever enough, and once he gets going he’ll work things out and do well here.”
While he still has business to take care of over the next month or so, O’Sullivan doesn’t hide his enthusiasm for the return to New Zealand, particularly to catch up with family and close friends and most of all, his 88-year-old father, Hall of Famer Dave O’Sullivan.
“That’s going to be great, I can’t wait. And once I’ve caught up with the family, the next thing I want to do is to go for a drive around the farm. I know there’s plenty of work to do there, so that’s going to keep me busy.”
One thing O’Sullivan has no intention of pursuing is a renewal of his New Zealand trainer’s licence.
“No, I’m happy to leave that to others. No doubt I’ll get along to the track to catch up on my mates, but that’s as far as it goes. In my mind there’s nothing worse than an ex-trainer giving advice, so you can count me out there.”