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O'Sullivan makes another foray into Japan
24 Mar 2015 | By NZ Racing Desk

Hong Kong-based Kiwi trainer Paul O'Sullivan has no false illusions about the enormity of the task ahead of his star Windsor Park-bred sprinter Aerovelocity (NZ) (Pins) in Sunday's Gr.1 Takamatsunomiya Kinen in Japan.

Though if anyone had reason for brazenness ahead of such a significant international assignment, it would be the champion trainer.

Not only is O'Sullivan enjoying a resurgence in the cauldron of international racing that Hong Kong has become, but he has history with Japanese racing.

O'Sullivan and his father and then training partner Dave produced the great mare Horlicks (NZ) (Three Legs) to win the Gr.1 Japan Cup in 1989, ridden by champion jockey Lance O'Sullivan, to score in world record time.

O'Sullivan has since campaigned Hong Kong Group One winner Fellowship (NZ) (O’Reilly) in Japan without success, but has high hopes for Pins gelding Aerovelocity, who was bred by Windsor Park Stud's Nelson Schick and Steve Till and won his only New Zealand start under Matamata trainer Andrew Scott at Awapuni on Anzac Day in 2012.

Since joining O'Sullivan in Hong Kong, Aerovelocity has won seven of his 15 starts, most notably claiming the Gr.1 Hong Kong International Sprint (1200m) at Sha Tin last December under champion Australian hoop Zac Purton.

"Fellowship raced in Japan four or five years ago, but he was at the end of a very long campaign and he went terribly," O'Sullivan recalled this week.

"This horse is going into the race close to his peak. There are a few variables that go with racing in Japan that won't make it easy. He's got to race the other way, left-handed, and the track's a bit rougher than in Hong Kong, where it's like a bowling green.

"It's been a long trip for him. He went up to Japan a week ago and he's been in quarantine and then had a seven-hour float trip to where he's racing this weekend. But he's tough. He's no Mr Tiz, but he's probably the toughest horse I've had anything to do with."

A comparison with New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame galloper Mr Tiz (NZ) (Bletchingly), rated by Dave O'Sullivan as the best horse he trained, is high praise for Aerovelocity, but there's no doubt he's worthy of it.

"He ran last one day when he got flattened but apart from that, he's run first or second in every other start for the last two seasons," O'Sullivan said.

"He's a fast horse and very brave."

The Takamatsunomiya Kinen (1200m), to be run at Chukyo Racecourse, outside Nagoya in central Japan, is run for a stake of 197 million yen (about $NZ2.16 million), with 95 million yen (about $NZ1.04 million) going to the winner.

"It's a long way from home, but I can't fault the horse, condition-wise," O'Sullivan said.

"I trialled him before he went and he did his usual thing and won by six lengths. Not many foreign horses go to Japan and win, but I'm sure he'll be competitive.

“It's a tough gig but if he can do it, it will be a real feather in the cap of the New Zealand breeding industry, especially for Windsor Park Stud and Waikato Stud [which stands Aerovelocity's sire Pins]."

O'Sullivan, who flies to Japan on Wednesday, was delighted to retain the services of Purton, Aerovelocity's regular rider.

"Zac had the choice of going to Dubai this weekend or Japan and he's decided to follow our horse, which is great," O'Sullivan said.

"They are very hospitable people, the Japanese, and of course we did win the Japan Cup here all those years ago but we're not racing in Tokyo and we know this isn't going to be easy."

O'Sullivan has made a habit of overcoming the odds.

He became the first New Zealand trainer contracted by the Hong Kong Jockey Club when he accepted an invitation to train there in 2004, having already won the New Zealand premiership 11 times, either in partnership with his father or training solo.

While he has yet to win a Hong Kong premiership title, O'Sullivan finished second in 2006-07 and has shown he has the necessary skills and systems to make a play for the top rung on the ladder.

While he could only manage 23 winners and equal 16th place last season, O'Sullivan currently sits in fourth spot this term, just five wins shy of reigning champion trainer Caspar Fownes.

"After last year, I had a good think about what I've learned in my time in Hong Kong. I changed personnel and our feed. We had an ordinary lot of horses, but this year everything has changed," he said.

"We've got good momentum. We've got 62 horses in work and we're only five off the leader. Aerovelocity has been a big part of that. I was lucky he walked in through my gate and things have only gone upwards since. He's helped a lot. Owners see him winning and they want to be part of that.

"Hong Kong can be a fickle like that. If it's going well, it's the best place in the world. But if it's going bad, it can be very tough. Right now we're fourth on the premiership and fifth in terms of prize money won this season. It's going really well."

A Group One win in Japan this weekend will only make that better.