Legendary Thoroughbred Trainer And His Solid Gold Secret

Dave O’Sullivan is solid gold, a true champion who’s had a long and illustrious career training legions of world-class record breaking racehorses. Success at this level is fascinating, it propels people into another realm, making them appear almost godlike. How do they do it? What are their secrets? I spoke with Dave O’Sullivan at his farm in Matamata to hear his story and see if I could find out his secrets – and I did.

At 15, determined to become a jockey, he begged his father to let him leave his job at a menswear store and went to work at the local stables. After six months probation, he signed on for his apprenticeship, serving a further four and a half years. In 1956, he says he attained his greatest achievement – marrying his sweetheart, Marie Davis. After a decade in the saddle,  despite 125 wins and making it to 2nd leading apprentice (North Island), Dave’s description of his performance as a jockey is typically understated. “A bit better than average” he chuckles.

Around 1960, Marie’s father who was also a trainer, became ill, and Dave started to take over the reins. His jockey career had been hindered by ongoing struggles with weight, so training was a good way to stay in the industry he loved. Dave remembers “I got my license in February ‘61, and in March I got my first win… matter of fact I trained three horses who raced that day, the first dropped dead and the other two won.” A textbook example of the extreme highs and lows of horse racing, and that nothing is certain. “It was a tough slog from there, never easy, but I didn’t expect it to be”. It paid off. He won one premiership title independently and a further eleven in partnership with his son, Paul. Winning the 1989 Japan Cup was a crowning glory – the biggest race in the world at the time, and the only New Zealand trainers to have ever earned the distinction. He continued to excel, remaining in the top three of all NZ trainers for the last 19 years of his career. An extraordinary record, because it’s one thing to make it, yet another to stay there.

You can tell straightaway that Dave has a cheeky side to him, his smile gives it away. That, and the fact that he doesn’t miss a beat. Walking across to the stables, he pops his fedora on, perfectly completing the classic look of gentleman and horseman. The familiar way his roughened, worn hands manoeuvre the elegant gelding out of its stall reveal his many years of experience.

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There’s no doubt that Dave is a trainer with a gift. His other son, champion jockey Lance O’Sullivan, described it as the “gift of the old fashioned stockman, to be able to instinctively read a horse”, adding that “Dad was fiercely competitive, but I think his biggest strength was that he was a master planner  who never took his eye off the horse, it came before everything else.” Much has been said about the trainer’s pioneering approach to feeding horses like athletes, and Dave maintains that this was largely a case of feeding them more regularly. “They were stronger and I could work them harder.”

Renowned for the physical condition of his horses, Dave also placed a lot of emphasis on their appearance. When first starting out, he had four horses to work with, and he recalls the owner visiting but leaving in disgust, “I want racehorses, not show ponies” he said, promptly removing two of them from his stable. Nevertheless, Dave’s conviction that good looking horses attract good people proved to be true, and always concentrated on building relationships with excellent clientele. “My owners were extremely important to me. You’re only going to get wins if you get good stock, and you’ll only get good stock if your owner believes in you, and is prepared to spend the money.” It won’t surprise anyone that it was winning that Dave loved the most. “That’s what you’re there for. Imagine getting up at 4 a.m. to watch your horse run slowly” he laughs.

It would be misleading to suggest that Dave O’Sullivan’s success was a solitary feat, and no one including the man himself, said so. Instead, his family, a great team of staff, and a bit of luck received all the credit. Lance agreed saying that his mum, was a rock and a guiding light. “She was incredibly wise, had a great business head and her clever decision making was hugely important to their success”. On top of that, Paul, who currently holds the prestigious place of 2nd leading trainer in Hong Kong, was his right hand man, with him every waking minute from the age of 22.  “A tight knit family team that was second to none”.

So, now you know Dave’s secret too. His story, like most who rise to the very top of their game, is one of natural affinity, perseverance, hard work, and unrelenting family support. It seems that’s always the secret.

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