SHAKESPEARE’S quote ‘my kingdom for a horse’ has never been more appropriate than for struggling Hong Kong trainers, and this rings true for Paul O'Sullivan who has tasted both success and defeat.

MICHAEL COX reports in the SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST that for the New Zealander, Aerovelocity is ‘that’ horse, and the headstrong sprinter that won the Takamatsunomiya Kinen at Chukyo racecourse in Japan on Sunday, marked the culmination of a stunning 18-month turnaround and proved again what a difference one good horse can make to a stable's fortunes.

Eighteen months ago, O'Sullivan had endured three miserable seasons with returns of 13, 17 and 15 winners. He had a new assistant trainer, Pierre Ng Pang-chi, for the start of the 2013-14 term and they set about rebuilding from the ground up.

Everything changed - training techniques, horse feed and bloodstock purchasing policy. But most importantly that period of soul-searching coincided with the transformation of Aerovelocity from ‘non-winner’ into Hong Kong's most improved horse and winner of five straight races.

"History says it, people that were in my position and battling, that one good horse can make an enormous difference," said O'Sullivan.

"If you have got a bloody good horse in your stable, it is going to attract owners and give you more opportunities," he said.

O'Sullivan came to Hong Kong in 2004 having won 11 titles in partnership with his father, Dave, in their native New Zealand, and with a Japan Cup and Cox Plate on his resume.

The brother of champion jockey and trainer Lance, O'Sullivan also found initial success at Sha Tin, winning 52 races in his third season, finishing second in the championship and capturing a Hong Kong Derby with Vital King.

Given the history of winning, finishing last in the Hong Kong trainers' championship - which he did in 2010-11 - was not part of the plan. The failure cut deep, but O'Sullivan put on a brave face.

"I just tried to live by what the great New Zealand trainer Colin Jillings once told me: 'Keep your head up and never let them know it's hurting.' But still, you have to take a look at yourself because at the end of the day, while in most sport the buck stops with the athletes, here the buck stops with the trainer - full stop."

There were more horses leaving the yard than coming in - the exodus experienced by many a struggling trainer. It is an experience once summed up by O'Sullivan's rival David Ferraris thus: "The stampede of horses from your yard in Hong Kong when things aren't going as well as everyone would like, well, it makes the wildebeests charging across the Serengeti look tame."

O'Sullivan's stable just did not have the quality or quantity to compete.

"David Hayes told me once that if your numbers hit 25 then that's the death knell and it is very hard to come back from that - well, I had 26 and was desperate," he said.


It was around this time O'Sullivan and his brother took a punt and paid NZ$120,000 (HK$704,800) for Aerovelocity as a yearling. "We don't pay that amount for a horse, but we looked at each other and thought, 'We need a good horse, badly.' He bolted up in a couple of trials, but we didn't have any owners with permits."

O'Sullivan could have sold Aerovelocity for more money than he did but, if he had sent the sprinter to the highest bidder, he would not be training him today.

"Oh for sure, he would have went to someone travelling better than me," O'Sullivan said. "We had to qualify him through a race, and I had to ask Lance to 'take one for the team' and sell him for less just to keep him in the stable."

The bloodstock buying policy was also up for an overhaul. First of all, 800m trial winners were banned and O'Sullivan implemented a simple rule: "I am not going to buy a horse unless I have seen it, my father has seen it or my brother has seen it."

"We were ending up with horses where the seller says it is 1,100 pounds and 16-hands high and you go to see them in the quarantine stables and they can barely see over the door. If we are dealing with someone and they are telling you down the phone line, 'If you don't buy it in 24 hours, it will be gone' - well, I've just started saying, 'no, too bad.' We have become more careful."

The white board in O'Sullivan's stable where horses exercise schedules are marked was seriously underused two years ago, but now contains the names of nearly 60 horses.

Mornings are a logistical puzzle requiring military precision to put into practice. And on that score, organisation and managing staff, Ng's influence as assistant trainer cannot be understated. The son of former trainer Peter Ng Bik-kuen, O'Sullivan said the 31-year-old had been a "breath of fresh air".

"Having a talented assistant trainer is crucial here," he said. "Pierre is well-educated and highly intelligent, fantastic with staff and a hard worker. He is a very good organiser. Most importantly, though, he is overwhelmingly positive and personable with owners."

O'Sullivan has 34 winners for the season and is a legitimate chance of again challenging for a trainers' championship. Aerovelocity earned a 95 million yen (HK$6 million) first prize cheque at Chukyo to add to the nearly HK$20 million he has already won for owner Daniel Yeung Ngai.

That prize money tally includes more than HK$10 million for taking out last year's Longines Hong Kong Sprint, O'Sullivan's first Group One victory in nearly five years.