New Zealand trainer Gary Hennessy hopes Singapore will give him an even better memory than the one he had from his one and only visit in 1987.
It was the year New Zealand won the first Rugby World Cup, beating France 29-9.
The proud Kiwi was visiting Singapore and watched the match in a local pub, no doubt partying into the night way after the final whistle was blown.
Gary Hennessy with track rider Tui Miles and Ocean Emperor at the International Stables on Monday.
Hennessy was already a trainer then, but the 27-year-old was just passing through as a tourist to catch up with old mate Grant Cooksley, the “Iceman” as Bukit Timah and Kranji racegoers knew the popular New Zealand-born Singapore Gold Cup-winning jockey (Smart Bet in 2002).
“I was supposed to send a runner in Brisbane, but I couldn’t make it and instead came over to Singapore,” he recalled.
“At the time, Grant Cooksley was riding in Penang and Bukit Timah, so I went to the races to see him ride.
“But that was the time the Rugby World Cup final took place and I remember watching it here and we won!”
Hennessy now hopes his Ocean Emperor can give him an even greater memento of Singapore in the $1.5 million Invitational Group 1 Kranji Mile (1600m) on Saturday.
Seeing 15 men in black scrumming their way to the Cup is one thing, to see a horse he has personally trained come up roses in a Group 1 race against a stellar international field is another.
Not that the 58-year-old handler does not know how it feels. In 2012, the third generation Matamata trainer crossed the Tasman Sea to plunder the Spring Carnival riches and came away with the spoils when the Glen Boss-ridden Ocean Park won the Cox Plate.
Six years later, Hennessy is set adrift on another “Ocean” in search of more international glory.
It is no coincidence the dual Group 2 winner (Tauranga Stakes and Japan New Zealand International Trophy both over the mile) is named as such. He is raced by the same Hong Kong owners as Ocean Park – Andrew Wong and Stephen Yan, with Hennessy owning a share as well.
With only 12 horses in work, Hennessy might be considered lucky to have had so many shots at international racing – Ocean Park also raced in Dubai the next year after his Cox Plate triumph, but not with the same luck in the Dubai Duty Free (now Dubai Turf) over 1800m – but he explained that Ocean Park did set a blueprint in Ocean Emperor’s emergence as his potential next star.
“He is by Zabeel while Ocean Park was out of a Zabeel mare but they are like clones,” said Hennessy whose other good sorts include Markapura Star, a $1500 purchase, who was later sold to Hong Kong where he won numerous big races and was inducted into the Hall Of Fame.
“After I bought Ocean Park, I knew how to identify a good horse. Ocean Emperor is actually the spitting image of Zabeel.
“Both of them would never win a track gallop because they are so laid-back, nothing fazes them. Their racing manners are also the same.
“Ocean Emperor has the tactical speed to be in a good position and still find the line the more you ask him. Ocean Park was the same.
“He won his first barrier trial by five lengths. Zabeels don’t do that, and he won his first race (1200m) on debut, but then he went shinsore.
“But Ocean Emperor is still a lightly-raced weight-for-age horse and is still learning his craft, as he had an interrupted prep after we had to remove a third of his coronet. To come back and run in three stakes races and win two, it’s amazing.
“He lost one because of the heavy track. He’s actually a versatile horse who’s won on a heavy track but he is better on top of the ground.”
Hennessy, who along with Wong and Yan still own 10% of the shares in Ocean Park as a stallion at Waikato Stud, said that to have Ocean Emperor sending them on another world trip is like another dream come true.
“It feels like déjà vu. Dreams can come true more than once, even though I don’t have a big team of horses,” said Hennessy who has only 12 horses in work, but along with wife Jenny, also takes care of a breeding operation.
“Jack Petley (international agent) is the one who told me about the Kranji Mile and has been very helpful with the application.
“We are honoured to have been selected. The horse has settled in well, and I will just keep him ticking over till the race.
“I may give him a gallop on Wednesday. I’ll decide in due course.”
On his choice of rider, Hennessy said Sydney-based New Zealand jockey Jason Collett ticked not only the patriotic box, but he also fitted the international profile he was looking for.
“I wanted a jockey with international experience and who rides in the big races regularly,” said Hennessy who is also cousin to the famous O’Sullivan brothers Paul and Dave.
“Jason rides for Chris Waller and to me, he is in the same calibre as James McDonald except that he doesn’t get the same ability of horses as James does.
“I also know his uncle Jimmy well as he used to ride for me. I actually know the whole Collett family and I hope Jason can bring me luck on Saturday.”