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Harness Racing: Top Canadian trainer O'Sullivan sending string to U.S.
Mohawk’s leading trainer Tony O’Sullivan is coming to America. The man who sits sixth on the wins leaderboard in Canada this year is not coming for the reasons you may think, nor is he predicting the end of the world for racing as we know it on what has been his home turf since 1999.
O’Sullivan came to New Jersey in 1996 and began working as a groom. He learned his trade under veteran trainer Ross Croghan, and when the trainer had some horses that needed to go to Canada in 1999, O’Sullivan elected to stay north of the border.
“Croggie influenced a lot of how I train,” said O’Sullivan, who still trains Croghan’s horses when they leave the States. “I was only with him two years, but I watched and listened.”
Continuing the trend of working for top horsemen, O’Sullivan worked for Nat Varty in 2000 while training one horse of his own and managed Mark Harder’s Canadian operation from 2001 to 2004 before going off on his own in October of that final year.
O’Sullivan had steady success right off the bat, winning between 40 and 70 races through the 2010 season. But his career took an upswing in 2011. He sent 680 horses behind the gate (his previous high was 406) and won 123 races along the way. This year his stock continues to rise, with 105 winners through Monday.
“It took a long time to pick up clients,” said the well-spoken O’Sullivan. “I always had really good clients but during the last few years I’ve had a chance to work with some of the bigger ones.”
Those big owners include John Fielding and Frank and Joe Bellino, who are among the top owners and spenders in the sport.
O’Sullivan, who currently trains 50 head and considers upper-level conditioned horses to be his “nuts and bolts,” is about to take a big step. The New Zealand native will soon be sending 6 to 10 of his trainees across the border to take up U.S. residence at Mark Ford’s training center in Middletown, New York.
Unlike many Canadian horsemen who are scared of possible retraction and loss of slot revenue, O’Sullivan is not making the move in fear. He takes a very positive view of the Slots at Racetracks program and its future prospects.
“In March, when the announcement was made, I thought, ‘What am I going to do next’,” admitted O’Sullivan. “I am a bit encouraged, though. I think it is going to work out. I don’t know for sure, but I think there will be changes and everything will be okay.”
O’Sullivan calls his move to New York an expansion. He simply wants to give his clients an opportunity to race where they want and where their horses fit best. Once the Breeders Crown commences on Oct. 27, he will start shipping a few horses down with an eye on success at Yonkers and eventually the Meadowlands in 2013 when they reopen.
While the move to the States could open some doors for O’Sullivan and help him get more exposure, he is simply looking to service his existing clientele. Though, the 36-year-old conditioner wouldn’t mind expanding his horizons with younger horses.
“There is lots more I want to accomplish,” said O’Sullivan, who began the year with 10 babies. “I’m in Lexington at the moment and I hope to have around the same amount. You have to hit with one and get your name out. I just keep learning and hope for some luck.”
Hand in hand with winning races is having the wherewithal to afford top horses. O’Sullivan’s new alliance with the Bellino family has afforded him that luxury. On Tuesday night the Bellinos purchased three yearlings at the Lexington Selected Sale for O’Sullivan to nurture and teach.
She’s Da Bomb, a New York-bred filly by Art Major, was a $100,000 purchase. She is a full sister to Major Bombay ($373,819). New Jersey-eligible Muscle Massacre was a $67,000 buy with a maternal line linked to Fern and Self Possessed. Finally, O’Sullivan gets a bargain basement $10,000 possible steal to train in Maximus Deo, the first foal from an unraced mare who is from the great producing broodmare D Train (Donato Hanover, Here Comes Herbie, Dream On Hanover).
“He loves the sport as much as we do and has become like part of the family,” said Joe Bellino about O’Sullivan, who trains 21 horses for his family. “We have been trying to stock up on horses to bring to New York for Tony to train because he’s a great guy with a great attitude.”
While New York will be home to a good portion of his stable, O’Sullivan is not planning on making permanent residence in the Empire State. He will send some of his staff down to care for the New York contingent on a day-to-day basis.
“Canada is my base,” said O’Sullivan, who would not rule out a move if things take a turn for the worst in Canada. “I’m not planning on getting out of the business,” he quipped.
On the contrary, O’Sullivan’s star is rising and the sky could be the limit.
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