When it comes to anything thoroughbred related, it’s safe to say jockey-turned-trainer, Lance O’Sullivan, knows his stuff.
And as we start to look forward to the opening day of Auckland Cup Week® - Vodafone Derby Day - it's hard to separate the O'Sullivan name from the history of the day's feature race, with 2-time wins as a jockey and just last year, taking his first Derby win as a trainer.
We managed to grab him for a quick chat (he's a busy man!) and in the process, found out many more claims to fame from this iconic day for the O'Sullivan family...
As mentioned above, the Wexford Stables owner could be described as one of the country's most connected to the race. After all, he’s won it twice as a jockey, firstly in 1990 atop Surfers Paradise, and then again three years later with Popsy, one of only six fillies to have won the race in the last 60 years.
Both winning horses were trained by Lance’s father Dave, so it’s safe to say that the New Zealand Derby has always been a bit of an O’Sullivan family affair. Fast forward two decades - and together with training partner Andrew Scott - Lance O’Sullivan won the Derby for a third time with Rocket Spade, only this time sporting a trainers hat instead of silks.
It’s the kind of stuff that others in the industry could only dream of achieving in a lifetime, and when I asked Lance how it compared to the feeling of winning in the saddle, he replied "the satisfaction is far greater as a trainer. It’s such a process, from purchasing the horse at the sales, getting him home and educated, to his first trial and then raceday start. It takes two years to get a horse to a Derby.”
“Ellerslie was always my favourite track to ride on, and it’s the one you want to be winning on as a trainer. The Derby and Auckland Cup are the races everyone dreams of winning, and I’ve managed to win both as a trainer and jockey. I believe I’m the only person in modern times to be able to claim that feat.”
This is an interesting turn of events for someone who claimed they had no idea they wanted to become a trainer. “When I retired from riding, I swore I’d never train!”, says O’Sullivan, “but in 2004, my brother Paul was offered a contract with the Hong Kong Jockey Club. When he left, I took over Wexford. I retired from riding at 39 and that was a little early for me, I missed the excitement racing gives."
The family’s fondness for last year’s Derby winner Rocket Spade was evident from the minute he stepped off the truck in Matamata, with Lance admitting that “ he was a lovely horse from day one, he just needed time to mature. For us, he was the best staying horse in the sale that year and we were thrilled when the hammer came down and he was ours.”
And it came at just the right time too, “we we’re given five years by Hermitage Thoroughbreds to buy them a Derby winner. Over the years, we’d purchased them the likes of Gr.1 winner Summer Passage and Gr.1 performers Spring Heat and Dragon Leap, but the Derby still eluded us. This was our 5th year and thank goodness we got it right!”
It was a bit of a redemption story for Wexford stables, having come up short in the 2020 New Zealand Derby with Dragon Leap, who finished a commendable fourth. When asked what Lance thought the difference between the two horses were, he said “at the end of the day it came down to pedigree. Dragon Leap was too brilliant to run the 2400m, whereas Rocket Spade had a more dour family.”
“We were confident Rocket Spade would be hard to beat. His lead up form had been every bit as good as Dragon Leap’s with both horses winning the G.2 Auckland Guineas and the Gr.2 Avondale Guineas, but he just needed the right run. It was a 10/10 ride from Craig Grylls and that certainly made the difference on the day,” he says.
With Vodafone Derby Day held behind closed doors due to COVID in 2021, the connections of O'Sullivan/Scott weren't able to be at Ellerslie with them. Check out the welcome they received upon returning home however!
The family’s full-faceted approach to racing doesn’t stop there. Lance’s wife Bridgette (former Ellerslie ambassador) has also taken some of that Derby Day glory, but this time it was on the runway, taking out Fashions in the Field in 1993, the same day that Lance rode six winners including the Derby on Popsy. His only other mount of the day finished third.
Fast forward to 2022 and Wexford Stables looked to hold a strong hand again, with SkyCity Auckland Guineas winner, Dark Destroyer, and Karaka Million placegetter, Karman Line, set to take their place. Unfortunately, more recently, both have been ruled out due to minor injuries (more about that here). “It’s disappointing, but the main thing is we’re doing the right thing by the horses. We’re missing out now, but you’ve got to take a long-term view.”
Less than three weeks out from the $1million feature and a win at Tauranga from up-and-coming horse, Asterix, may mean Wexford will still have a shot at making it back-to-back Derby’s.
“We’re hoping his win will get him a start. He won’t be the most fancied horse in the field, but he’s a natural stayer and is a horse on the rise.”
Should Asterix line up in the Derby, he’ll carry the same colours that Lance wore as a jockey when he won the Derby on Popsy some 29 years ago - a good omen if we've ever seen one!
So the question hot on everyone's lips is - can the O’Sullivan’s do it again?