Trainer Kathleen O'Connell is on the verge of saddling the 2000th winner of an enduring career marked by consummate horsemanship, unwavering perseverance, a steadfast work ethic and, most of all, a staunch dedication to her horses.
“There's an old saying: 'There's something about the outside of a horse that's good for the inside of a man.' It's very, very true,” said the Michigan native between races at Gulfstream Park recently. “I've had a great career and I've had a job I love. How many people can say that?”
O'Connell, who saddled her first winner, Kim's Lucky Spot, in 1981 at Detroit Race Course, has only been able to produce such an impressive body of work through forward thinking.
“My motto is perseverance pays. To me, it really does. You have to keep going and going, because there are a lot of low points in this business and there are a lot of high points. It's the only business in the world where you leave at night and come back the next day and everything is different. They get sick. They get hurt,” said O'Connell, who has 1998 winners through Thursday. “It's a very tough business. You've got to give it your best and persevere and always look to tomorrow.”
O'Connell, whose stable is currently based at Gulfstream Park West and Monmouth Park, had planned on taking a whole different career path and would likely be treating horses instead of training them had her application to Michigan State's veterinary program not been denied.
“I graduated 110th out of a class of 750. I graduated with a grade-point average of 3.8. I had six years of 4-H. I also had two extension courses that I had taken at Michigan State through the 4-H program,” O'Connell said. “So there was no doubt in my mind that I would get in. At the time – it was in the 70's – they would take two girls. You had to have a 4.0 or they figured you'd be wasting your time.”
Although accepted to Colorado State, she attended a community college and took a job for a year due to economic considerations before looking for employment on the backstretch of Detroit Race Course.
“I ended up working at DRC walking hots. They found out I rode, so I was riding the pony,” said O'Connell, who showed horses during her 4-H years. “I remember thinking, 'Gee, we do serpentines, changing diagonals, flying weight changes and figure-8s, and on these horses, all you have to do is go in a circle. How tough can this be?'”
O'Connell went from the racetrack to Sugar Hill Farm in Anthony, Fla., where she broke, galloped and breezed horses.
“I was in my glory. I got on horses from 7 in the morning to whenever I wanted to with an hour off for lunch,” she said.
Yet, she eventually found farm life to be “too boring” and returned to Detroit Race Course, where she galloped for three years before returning for a brief stint at Sugar Hill Farm as the main exercise rider. Back at the racetrack, she galloped several years for trainer W.R. Hart while venturing to Fair Grounds and Tampa Bay Downs during the winter months. She has returned to Tampa Bay Downs every winter since 1976.
“I was very, very blessed because I worked for a lot of good horsemen. I galloped and ponied for Jack Van Berg. I galloped for Henry Ramirez. I galloped for W.R. Harp and I galloped with Billy Mott in Detroit when he just had four horses,” said O'Connell, who moved to Florida from Detroit in 1984. “I think if you're observant you can learn from everybody and you can learn something every day. I don't think you get stagnant unless you let yourself get stagnant.”
O'Connell learned her lessons well, becoming the second winningest trainer of all time, trailing only Midwest trainer Kim Hammond, who has saddled more than 2200 winners. O'Connell, whose purse earnings are more than double those of Hammond, has saddled more than 200 more winners than Linda Rice and Christine Janks.
There has been considerable quality among the quantity of O'Connell's career successes.
She saddled Blazing Sword for multiple graded-stakes victories, including the 1997 Calder Derby (G3), the 2000 Widener Handicap (G3) at Gulfstream and the Washington Park Handicap (G2) at Arlington Park, during a career in which the Gil Campbell homebred earned more than $1 million.
She also trained exceptional turf sprinter Lady Shipman during her 3-year-old campaign in 2015 that included six stakes victories and culminated with a second-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint (G1), in which she was defeated by Mongolian Saturday by a neck at Keeneland. O'Connell also teamed for graded-stakes success with Ivanavinalot, who captured the 2003 Bonnie Miss (G2) at Gulfstream.
“I feel like I've been blessed. With some of the nicer horses, I've been to California several times. Blazing Sword took me all over. I just feel very lucky,” O'Connell said. “Ivanavinalot, as crooked as she was, was one of the soundest, healthiest horses I've had. There were no soundness issues, no feet issues. You really feel blessed when you get one like that – good boned, sturdy. Blazing Sword, Lady Shipman, they had such great minds.”
The 2011 Tampa Bay Derby (G2) victory by Campbell's Watch Me Go for her longtime client was especially memorable.
“Winning the Tampa Bay Derby for the Campbells was probably one of my biggest wins. Here are people who didn't know me other than I galloped horses and they've stuck by me for so many years,” said O'Connell, who also saddled Campbell's Scandalous Act for a sweep of the 2013 Florida Sire Stakes series. “In my heart, I knew he was a notch below that kind of horse, we got lucky and he won. Hey, I'll take it any way I can.”
O'Connell is still saddling graded-stakes winners. She sent out Stormy Embrace to victory in the Princess Rooney (G2) on the Summit of Speed card at Gulfstream Park June 30. The 1 ¼-length victory in the seven-furlong 'Win and You're In' sprint earned the 4-year-old daughter of Circular Quay a fee-paid berth in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) at Churchill Downs in November.
“I think my biggest accomplishment is that I've been consistent,” said O'Connell of her year-to-year success over the past three decades.
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