Obituary: towering figure overcame struggles to win greatest prizes

Horlicks wins the 1989 Japan Cup for David O’Sullivan, ridden by son Lance. Photo: RNZ
Horlicks wins the 1989 Japan Cup for David O’Sullivan, ridden by son Lance. Photo: RNZ
Horse trainer


From unlikely beginnings, David O’Sullivan became a towering figure in New Zealand horse racing.

Born on October 5, 1933, David John O’Sullivan — known universally as "DJ " — grew up in Waihou, near the Te Aroha racecourse.

The son of a pub owner, O’Sullivan caught the racing bug early and had ambitions to ride rather than pursue a career in selling menswear, his first job out of school.

After many arguments with his reluctant parents, O’Sullivan came under the wing of Takinini trainer Norman Cunningham as an apprentice jockey.

While good in the saddle — he won 125 races, including the group one Railway Handicap in 1953 at Te Awa while being watched by Queen Elizabeth — O’Sullivan’s true skills as a horseman were to be revealed when he switched to training.

His Matamata training base, Wexford Stables, was the dominant force in New Zealand racing in the 1970s,

’80s and into the ’90s — anything which wore the famed yellow and navy blue silks was to be respected.

However, success did not come easily and he, wife Marie and children Debbie, Paul, Mark, Lance and Lisa, had many struggles before the stable’s breakthrough horse, Oopik.

As a top-line 3-year-old, Oopik won the 1973 Hawke’s Bay Guineas and three years later secured another first for the O’Sullivan stable — its first major win in Australia, the 1976 Sydney Cup.

The O’Sullivan family were the challenge for silverware across the Tasman many times in the coming years.

With success came new owners and better horses, and from then on Wexford Stables was seldom without a champion, or a champion in waiting, on the property.

Owner and All Black Colin Meads with master horse trainer O’Sullivan. Photo: Tara Hughes
Owner and All Black Colin Meads with master horse trainer O’Sullivan. Photo: Tara Hughes
O’Sullivan won his first trainer’s premiership in the 1978-79 season. He was joined by son Paul — later to become the first New Zealander to be granted a training licence by the Hong Kong Jockey Club — in partnership and they won another 11 titles.

Many of those winners were ridden by stable apprentice, and later the stable jockey, son Lance. Now retired as a jockey, Lance trains from Wexford Stables and the roll of honour continues to grow.

Stable stars campaigned by O’Sullivan included luckless 1980 Melbourne Cup runner-up Blue Denim, Koiro Corrie May who was second in the Cup in 1985, champion sprinter Mr Tiz, WS Cox Plate runner-up Waverley Star and Cox Plate winner Surfers Paradise.

Many of those horses, like O’Sullivan himself, were inducted into the New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame. Paul and Lance are also in the Hall of Fame.

His crowning achievement, however, was winning the 1989 Japan Cup, one of the world’s most prestigious races, with Hawke’s Bay mare Horlicks.

O’Sullivan was a quiet but determined man, well-known for having an enormous work ethic and a meticulous eye for detail.

Horses would be singled out after they started to show ability and targeted for certain races months, and sometimes years, ahead.

In the 1992 Queen’s Birthday Honours, O’Sullivan was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to thoroughbred racing.

A long-serving Matamata Racing Club committee member, he was later made a life member.

When he retired in 1998 he had trained 1877 winners in New Zealand and his win tally if overseas victories were counted topped 1900.

O’Sullivan died on Friday, April 26, aged 90.

The next day being Saturday there was, naturally, a major race meeting on. Fittingly, with jockeys all wearing black armbands in O’Sullivan’s memory, the first race of the day was won by Tomodachi, trained by Lance O’Sullivan and Andrew Scott. — Agencies