Kathleen O’Connell’s Racetrack Crew ‘Willing To Go The Extra Mile’

by | 01.10.2020 | 5:12pm
Kathleen O'Connell

When it comes to doling out tender, loving care at Barn 25 on the Tampa Bay Downs backside, trainer Kathleen O'Connell is an equal-opportunity distributor.

O'Connell, the Salt Rock Tavern Trainer of the Month, is attuned to the heartbeats of each of the 35 Thoroughbreds in her barn, as well as the 25 or so she stables at Gulfstream Park West in Miami Gardens.

“She is involved in every aspect of the horses' care, from the smallest details to the biggest,” said her Oldsmar assistant, former head trainer Sharilyn Stephens. “You're never afraid to ask her to look at a horse's legs, or ask her over the phone what she thinks. She's dedicated to doing the very best for every horse, and she has a good crew of people who are willing to go the extra mile to make it work.”

Patience and understanding are hallmarks of the O'Connell operation, which has produced 2,127 victories – second all-time among female trainers in North America to Kim Hammond's 2,280. Among O'Connell's major victories are the 2011 Grade II Tampa Bay Derby, with Watch Me Go; last year's Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes, with Well Defined; the last two runnings of the Grade II Princess Rooney Stakes at Gulfstream, by Stormy Embrace; the 2010 Grade III Tropical Park Derby, with Fly by Phil; the 2003 Grade II Bonnie Miss Stakes, with Ivanavinalot; and a trio of graded stakes with Blazing Sword from 1997-2000.

“We try to stay very productive year after year and do well for our owners,” O'Connell said. “When you work with animals, it's 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's not like you shut the door at the end of the day, leave and come back and everything is the same the next morning.

“For all the rewards, there can be a lot of frustration and anxiety that go with the business,” she continued. “A horse can be prepping for a race perfectly and come up with a foot (problem), or a race comes off the turf and you have to scratch, or one can get sick and you lose valuable days of training. There are 100 other things that can happen, and it can be an emotional roller coaster.”

During the winter, O'Connell usually travels between Tampa Bay Downs and south Florida on a week-to-week basis. She approaches each situation with her eyes and ears open, searching for clues that might lead to a better performance.

“It's a big wheel to churn,” O'Connell said of the size of her operation. “I can't do it without people who are passionate about horses. This is a business where you constantly learn something new. I don't care if it's track people, a hot walker, your exercise riders or the racing office – you have to take it all in and use what works.”

O'Connell, who has won two Tampa Bay Downs training titles and one at Calder (now Gulfstream Park West), is in second place at the current meeting with nine victories. She won the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association City of Ocala Florida Sire Stakes with the unbeaten filly J P's Delight.

She is also the trainer of 3-year-old filly Lenzi's Lucky Lady, a Stonehedge, LLC-owned homebred who won a pair of stakes last summer at Gulfstream.

O'Connell took Watch Me Go to the 2011 Kentucky Derby for breeder-owner Gilbert G. Campbell, finishing unplaced. O'Connell and Campbell thought Blazing Sword was a Derby horse in 1997, but he became sick two days after finishing second in the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes, derailing those plans.

Once again, O'Connell's patience reaped dividends. Blazing Sword returned to competition that summer to finish second in the Remington Park Derby; fourth in the Grade I Travers at Saratoga; third in the Grade I Super Derby at Louisiana Downs; third in the Grade III Hawthorne Derby; first in the Grade III Calder Derby; and third in the Grade I Hollywood Derby.

The gelding was even better at 6, winning the Grade III Widener Handicap at Gulfstream and the Grade II Washington Park Handicap at Arlington.

Ivanavinalot was another O'Connell trainee on the brink of stardom, having won the Florida Stallion My Dear Girl Stakes in 2002 by almost 14 lengths to put in her in position to contest the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Arlington.

She developed an infection that caused her to miss that chance, but returned as a 3-year-old to win the Grade II Bonnie Miss Stakes at Gulfstream.

In 2015, O'Connell trained 3-year-old filly Lady Shipman to six stakes victories and a pair of course records, including one at Saratoga on the turf in the 5 ½-furlong Smart N Fancy Stakes. Lady Shipman finished second by a neck to Mongolian Saturday in the TwinSpires Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint at Keeneland.

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