Expat New Zealand trainer Paul O’Sullivan was in a positive frame of mind after Hong Kong’s 2020-21 racing season drew to a close on Wednesday night.
Now a veteran of almost two decades among Hong Kong’s training ranks, O’Sullivan was more than satisfied with his stable’s final result of 26 winners and 52 placegetters from 377 runners. He also marvelled at the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s ability to continue racing – albeit largely without crowds – in the face of unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s definitely been a very different season to anything I’ve experienced before, but I just think it’s amazing that racing was able to go ahead without interruptions,” O’Sullivan said. “I know everything had to shut down entirely in New Zealand for a couple of months.
“The Jockey Club here jumped through every hoop to make sure that we could keep going. In the end, they’ve achieved a 12 percent increase in turnover for the year, which is just incredible.
“We’ve had to deal with some quite strict restrictions and requirements, and a hell of a lot has gone on. We were all being tested four times a week at one stage, and there have been times where you weren’t allowed any visitors to your apartment and things like that. But the racing season still went ahead, which was a great outcome for all of us.”
O’Sullivan has now trained a total of 492 winners in Hong Kong since relocating there in 2004, including more than a dozen at black-type level.
Highlights have included two Group 1 Hong Kong Sprint (1200m) triumphs with champion sprinter Aerovelocity, a Hong Kong Derby (2000m) with Vital King and a Stewards’ Cup (1600m) with Fellowship – all of which were New Zealand-bred.
There were no stakes successes during the 2020-21 term, but O’Sullivan believes he has laid the groundwork for bigger and better things next season.
“We ended up with some pretty good results in the end,” he said. “I think we’ve developed quite a lot of young horses that can go on and win a few more races next season.
“A lot of horses in Hong Kong take four or five starts before they get to the point where they start fulfilling their potential, and we’ve gone through that period with quite a few of our runners in recent times. But hopefully we’ve now got a bit to look forward to next season.”
However, O’Sullivan’s 2021-22 arsenal will not include Rocket Spade, who he sourced as a yearling.
Trained by O’Sullivan’s brother Lance in partnership with Andrew Scott at Matamata, the Fastnet Rock colt was an impressive winner of this year’s Group 1 New Zealand Derby (2400m), Group 2 Avondale Guineas (2100m) and Group 2 Auckland Guineas (1600m).
Rocket Spade will race in Hong Kong next season, but will be trained by Caspar Fownes.
“Such is Hong Kong racing,” O’Sullivan said. “The owner asked me to go to Sydney and buy him a Derby horse, so Lance and I went there and found a Derby horse – but now he’s gone to a different trainer.
“That’s just how it is in Hong Kong. It’s water off a duck’s back for me now. I’ve been here 17 years, so I’ve got pretty used to it.
“But I think I’ve got a nice group of horses for next season. I won’t single out any particular standouts – if I thought I had a Derby horse, I probably wouldn’t want to say so. But even if we don’t have any for those sorts of races and we’re mostly competing in Class 5 grade and things like that, the prize-money is still good.”
With the 2021-22 season not due to begin until September, O’Sullivan now has to find a way to pass the time over the next few weeks. Managed isolation requirements will prevent him from returning to New Zealand.
“How I’m going to spend the off season is a very good question,” he said. “Unless you like eating and shopping, there isn’t really a whole lot to do in Hong Kong. There’s only so many times you can go and look at the Big Buddha.
“There’ll be a few going-away parties in the next few weeks for people who are leaving during the off season, so I’ll go to those. Apart from that, I think I’ll probably just do what I did last year – hang around the house for a few days, and then get back to work.
“It probably makes me sound quite boring, but I’ve been asking other trainers for ideas on what to do during the off season and they’re not coming up with anything either, so at least I’m not alone. Everyone’s in the same boat.”