IN Racing
Farewell to a Legend - Dave O'Sullivan OBE
Dennis Ryan | April 29, 2024
Dave O'Sullivan with the horse he rated the best he ever trained, Mr Tiz. Photo Brenda Collins taken late 2009.

The Matamata and wider racing community lost one of its greatest achievers when Dave O’Sullivan passed away peacefully at his home last Friday aged 90.
Thus ended a life in which the man known universally by his initials ‘DJ’ set new benchmarks and garnered huge respect in thoroughbred racing circles. Seventeen years after swapping his jockey’s licence for that of a trainer, the founder of Wexford Stables claimed his first premiership with 62 wins in the 1978-79 season, and over the ensuing two decades he and his son Paul won another 10, the most ever by any New Zealand training operation. The triumvirate of Dave, Paul and stable jockey Lance O’Sullivan became a potent combination during the 1980s and ’90s, winning a stack of feature races throughout the country and complementing them with numerous others in Australia.  
However, their crowning glory came thousand of miles away in Japan, when they combined with the tough as teak racemare Horlicks to win the 1989 Japan Cup, running a world record in what at the time was one of the elite races on the global calendar. When he retired at the end of the 1997-98 season with his 11th trainer’s title in the bag, Dave O’Sullivan had trained 1,877 winners in New Zealand, while his offshore tally took his career total past 1,900.
In 2006 Dave and Lance were recognised for their respective achievements as a record-breaking trainer and jockey with induction to the New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame. They were joined last year in that celebrated pantheon by Paul, in recognition of his combined New Zealand and Hong Kong feats, along with O’Sullivan protégé Mike Moroney, whose record includes two New Zealand premierships as well as a long list of Australian wins headed by the Melbourne Cup with Brew.
Dave O’Sullivan grew up in Waihou as the son of a publican, just down the road from the Te Aroha racecourse where the seeds of an ambition to become a jockey were sowed. But first he had to convince his parents that would be a worthwhile career, and his first job was in a Te Aroha menswear shop. After six months’ persistence he convinced his parents that he should begin a jockey apprenticeship, which led to him signing up with Takanini trainer Norman Cunningham. His biggest win came towards the end of his apprenticeship on Te Awa in the 1953 Railway Handicap at Ellerslie, witnessed by the newly crowned monarch Queen Elizabeth II on her first royal tour. 
By then he was struggling to keep his weight in check and recently married to Marie, he decided to move south to Palmerston North where there would be less competition for raceday rides. But by the time the first of their five children, Debbie and Paul, had arrived, he needed to find alternative employment to pay the bills. That’s when the chance arose to take over the small Matamata stable run by his father-in-law Clarrie Davis, whose health was failing. Dave was to later recount that his options at the time weren’t great – “Maybe become a barman or a taxi driver” as he put it – so he packed up his family and what possessions they owned and moved to Matamata. By no means was it a case of never looking back, as he struggled initially to gain a foothold at the rapidly-growing training centre, but gradually the wins began to flow.
That led to buying a larger stable, on the northern boundary of the racecourse, before making the career-defining move to purchase a bare block of land on the opposite racecourse boundary and establish Wexford Stables. A big gelding named Oopik provided a key breakthrough when he won the 1973 Hawke’s Bay Guineas and was to add the Sydney Cup in 1976. “Oopik was a horse that remained dear to his heart,” says Paul. “Mr Tiz was the best and Horlicks was also very special, but what Oopik did led to better horses and more of them coming into the stable.” 
That upsurge also led to Paul leaving high school to work at Wexford, eventually rising to foreman and ultimately training partner in 1981. “Being the boss’s son certainly didn’t mean any favours for me or Lance; he was a hard taskmaster but very fair with it. He was so good with the way he developed horses, if he identified one that he thought was capable of winning decent races, he would set it for a certain race six months out. He never trained a horse week by week, there was always a plan.”
Lance, whose apprenticeship began with a win in his very first race ride in mid-1980, shared those sentiments in describing his father’s uncanny knack with horses as well as his devotion to family. “He was a world class horse trainer and highly competitive, but most of all for us, he was a wonderful family man. He worked hard and expected others to as well, but he was always very fair. I would describe him as one of the last living legends of the old school.”
On Saturday at Te Rapa, Lance and his training partner Andrew Scott honoured the founder of Wexford Stables with a double headed by Gr. 3 Cambridge Stakes winner I’munstoppable. That took them to 50 wins for the season, their best in a decade of training together. Other local trainers to credit Dave O’Sullivan with influencing their careers and who made their mark on weekend racing included Graham Richardson, who with Rogan Norvall saddled up Snazzytavi and Channel Surfer to finish first and third in the Gr. 3 Manco Easter, and Mark Walker, who took his and partner Sam Bergerson’s season tally to 144 with two wins, including a narrow defeat by Freeze Frame over Karman Line, who carried the famous yellow and blue Wexford colours. 
Dave O’Sullivan’s funeral will take place at the Church of the Holy Angels at 11.30am on Thursday, followed by a gathering at the Matamata racecourse. – Dennis Ryan
*Along with his raft of training achievements, Dave O’Sullivan also served on the committee of the Matamata Racing Club followed by a term as President, after which he was granted Life Membership of the club.