Wind the clock back a few years and Tuscan Fire was on the outer with his owners after an inglorious start to his racing career. Today, the seven-year-old starts in one of Australia’s biggest races, the Caulfield Cup. TIM O’CONNOR took the time to catch up with his trainer and tell the rags-to-riches story ...
HORSE racing is an expensive game. After all, it’s the sport of kings.
So it’s not without reason that when your galloper has won just one race from his first 16 starts, you’d consider moving him on and looking for a new project.
Tuscan Fire was that horse – a talented individual, who just wasn’t putting it together on the racetrack.
So it came as no surprise when his previous owners decided it was time to sell up and spend their hard-earned on another investment with a little more scope for success.
But there was something nagging in the back of trainer Dan O’Sullivan’s mind that told him to take a chance and give this bush battler a little more time.
So O’Sullivan forked out the $7000, gathered a new group of owners and there began a dream run that has seen the horse emerge as one of the most improved stayers in the land.
Today he runs in one of Australia’s greatest races – the Caulfield Cup (2400m).
“(The previous owners) felt that he had got to the stage where he had plateaued and might not be what they were looking for,” O’Sullivan recalled.
“He had won one from 16.
“Most horses you get rid of that have won one race from 16 starts.
“You are not going to see the improvement that this horse has made since then.
“I made an offer to buy him with the view of him going hurdling and they agreed to that.”
Make no mistake, the seven-year-old is one of the outsiders for today’s group 1 feature, but the fact that he is even a starter never looked possible once upon a time.
“I just felt he hadn’t matured. I felt he was one of these slow-maturing horses,” O’Sullivan said.
“I just thought he needed some more time and it has been vindicated.
“We just thought we would have some fun jumping and might pick up a couple of flat races along the way.”
That jumping career did take place – winning two from six over the hurdles – but was quickly shelved once Tuscan Fire strung together back-to-back wins at Flemington in January of this year before an emphatic victory in the listed Mornington Cup (2400m), which booked the horse a ticket into the Caulfield Cup.
“I can remember speaking to (jockey) Glen Boss earlier in the year when he first rode him and said how I was thinking about going to the Mornington Cup and Adelaide Cup and what was his view on that,” O’Sullivan said.
“He said he didn’t think I was kidding myself at all and that sort of gave me some more confidence.
“When he won the races in the summer, they weren’t the strongest of fields but he was running good time.
“That sort of showed me that he had raised the bar again that time in.
“I would never, ever have thought he’d get (to a Caulfield Cup), but it’s just been amazing how he has kept improving.”
Tuscan Fire came to the end of that preparation with a last placing in the group 2 Adelaide Cup (3200m), before returning to the races with a slashing first-up win at Flemington over 1400m in August.
His progression this campaign has been slow and steady, with an honest performance in a 1500m event at Moonee Valley before down-the-track finishes in the group 1 Makybe Diva Stakes (1600m), group 2 Naturalism (2000m) and the group 1 Underwood (2000m).
Today is Tuscan Fire’s grand final, so to speak, before he will look at picking off a few more suitable races towards the back end of a spring campaign that could conclude with a start in the listed Ballarat Cup (2200m).
These races loom as more likely pay days for the excited group of owners, which include a couple of O’Sullivan’s staff – foreman Damian Hanrahan and stablehand Tim Beggs – as well as long-time family friends, Terry and Elaine Kenna from Terang. The Kennas played a big part in O’Sullivan’s life as a youngster, helping look after him and his siblings when their mother died at an early age. The Kennas’ son, Gavin, purchased them a share in Tuscan Fire.
O’Sullivan clearly takes a great thrill from piggy-backing the couple along for the ride.
“It’s the first horse they have been involved in and they just can’t believe how much fun they are having and how much hype it is bringing up around the town of Terang,” he said. “For me it is a good reward for people who helped us out as kids growing up and they are now having the ride of their life late in life. It’s a bit of repayment for them.”
Tuscan Fire may be O’Sullivan’s first runner in a Caulfield Cup, but the Ballarat horseman is no stranger to big races.
He has spent a lifetime in the industry, leaving home at the end of year nine to take up a job with Jim Moloney. He was foreman for John Sadler for 14 years before a long association with Aquanita Racing ended when he embarked on his own training business in November of 2007. So Gorgeous has been O’Sullivan’s best horse over the years, with the star filly winning a string of feature races before failing as a short-priced favourite in the group 1 Thousand Guineas.
Walker is just thankful to be on any horse in today’s Caulfield Cup.
The New Zealander was without a ride until Thursday night when regular jockey Luke Currie was stood down from the mount on Tuscan Fire after returning a positive urine sample to the prohibited dietary supplement didesmethylsibutramine.
Walker has never partnered Tuscan Fire before, but was chosen by connections from a shortlist of about a dozen jockeys that were keen on taking up the ride.
As O’Sullivan’s foreman for the past three or four years, Hanrahan has a close affinity with Tuscan Fire.
The experienced horseman has a share in the seven-year-old and has been the track rider for much of his career.
Hanrahan, a top junior showjumper, says the horse’s recent success has been a massive thrill to share with friends and family.
“I didn’t think he’d get to this level. When we purchased him I said he’d probably win one or two on the flat before he went jumping,” he said.
Beggs has spent a few years with the O’Sullivan team and has been Tuscan Fire’s regular strapper in recent times.
He prepared the horse, of which he also owns a share, for his win in the listed Mornington Cup earlier this year.