Imagine you're an 18-year-old girl in Detroit in the late 1960s. It's your senior year of high school, where you've accumulated a 3.8 GPA and are in the top 15 percent of your class. You have four years of 4-H and any number of after-school sports on your resume.
Your dream is to go to veterinary school, but it turns out Michigan State only accepts two girls per year, and this year, you aren't going to be one of them. What are you going to do?
Kathleen O'Connell was that girl.
“I guess I thought I was a shoo-in,” she said. “People asked me why I didn't re-apply the next year, but I'd realized that going to school wouldn't be the right fit for me. I decided to go to the racetrack until I figured out what I wanted to do. Forty years later, I'm still here.”
Last Saturday, O'Connell saddled Stormy Embrace, who put in a dominating performance in the Grade 2 Princess Rooney Stakes at Gulfstream Park, winning by six lengths at odds of nearly 16-1. In so doing, the 4-year-old daughter of Circular Quay earned an expenses-paid berth to the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. She'll have to be nominated, but a trip to Louisville appears to be in the cards for Matt and Lona Vuskovich's homebred filly.
“She's a late-maturing filly, for sure,” O'Connell said. “I knew she was doing well, but the way she exploded away from them at the top of the stretch, wow.”
It's been seven years between graded stakes wins for the self-described “blue collar” trainer. If Stormy Embrace enters the starting gate, she will be O'Connell's third Breeders' Cup starter – the most recent was Lady Shipman, a very close second to Mongolian Saturday in the 2015 Turf Sprint.
The veteran trainer, based at Tampa Bay Downs for the past few decades, knows how to slow down and soak it all in. She's paid her dues and has the aches and pains to prove it. O'Connell talks easily about the hard years of riding through sub-freezing winters and pneumonia in Michigan, galloping alongside future Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, and working for trainers like Hall of Famer Jack Van Berg.
Arthritis in her neck and back keep O'Connell from galloping her own horses any more, but she is still out on the pony with each set of her 60-odd horse stable at either Tampa, Gulfstream West, or Monmouth, depending on the season. Between sets, she can be found in the shed row, running her hands over her horses, applying bandages, pitching in where she's needed.
“Some people would say I'm a bit anal that way,” she laughed. “I just want to be very hands-on with my horses, and when I can't do it the way I want to anymore, I'll know it's time to retire.”
O'Connell still has her first license from Detroit Race Course in 1970 – it reads “Pony Boy.” She was one of only two females on the backside, first as a hotwalker, then ponying and galloping. It's different these days, she explains, suggesting the fact she's a female is no longer a serious barrier to entry for owners in the sport. When O'Connell first took out her training license in 1981, however, it was in the midst of a different world.
She started with two horses in her own name, galloping and picking up odd jobs for other trainers to support those two. Her first win was with a $5,500 claimer named Saint I Ain't at Michigan's now-defunct Hazel Park, but O'Connell was one of the first to see the tides changing in her home state.
“I could already tell that the racing industry was going downhill,” O'Connell said. “I decided to stay in Florida year-round in 1984, partly because of the weather, but the program here has been good to me.”
The 10-time leading trainer of Florida-breds has developed a reputation of dedication to her horses as well as to her staff, most of whom have worked with her for over 10 years now. As she nears the threshold for 2,000 wins, O'Connell can't help but express the fulfillment training has brought to her life.
“I'm extremely proud of my team and the effort they all put in each and every day,” said O'Connell. “We've built the kind of operation that has sustained more than a million dollars in earnings every year since 1999, and we've done it with horses at all levels.”
Some of the best have been graded stakes winners Blazing Sword and Ivanavinalot, both for owner and breeder Gilbert Campbell, with whom O'Connell has had a solid working relationship for over 20 years. She even saddled a Campbell-bred colt in the Kentucky Derby in 2011: Tampa Bay Derby winner Watch Me Go.
Stormy Embrace's progression typifies O'Connell's training ideals. The filly started out in a $50,000 maiden claiming event, which allowed the option of starting in some starter allowance races when she seemed to struggle a bit in Florida-bred stakes company. Stormy Embrace has been running consistently since April of 2017 but really came into her own this season, winning four of her five starts.
“We won't make any major plans with her until she goes back to the track,” O'Connell said. “I'll let her tell me when she's ready to go again.”
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