Friday, January 27, 2012
Kathleen O'Connell, Trainer
Kathleen O’Connell has been a mainstay at Tampa Bay Downs since she arrived in 1976 to gallop horses for trainer W.R. Harp. Since starting her own stable in 1981, she has saddled 1,398 winners with purse earnings in excess of $22.5 million, but more impressive is her consistency: her runners have earned more than $1 million for 13 consecutive years. Known as one of the hardest workers on the track, she shows no signs of slowing her breakneck pace. O’Connell splits time between Tampa Bay Downs, where she has about 30 horses, and Gulfstream, where she trains about 15. Last March, she won the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby with 43-1 shot Watch Me Go for her long-time client, Florida owner-breeder Gilbert Campbell. Other top O’Connell horses include Grade II winner Blazing Sword, the precocious filly Ivanavinalot, Shananie’s Beat, Lindsay Lane, Shananie’s Finale, Sheer Bliss and Fly by Phil. O’Connell won the 1998-99 Tampa Bay Downs training title and shared it two seasons ago with Jamie Ness. Also in 2009-10, she became the first woman to capture a training title in the 39-year history of Calder Race Course in Miami.
I have to agree with the guy who said ‘Until you go to Kentucky and with your own eyes behold the Derby, you ain’t never been nowhere and you ain’t never seen nothing.’ Going there with Watch Me Go was a wonderful experience, something I know I’ll never forget.
I was really happy for the owners, Mr. Campbell and his wife, because they’ve been in the business a long time and raised a lot of good horses. Even though the outcome wasn’t what we wanted, it was a phenomenal eight or nine days.
I can’t believe how quickly the week went. It sounds ridiculous now, but I thought I was going to have all this free time because I was dealing with one horse. I even brought a book with me, but I never opened it, because there was so much going on.
It’s non-stop action all week – the media, events and dinners for the trainers, just getting back and forth between the track and everywhere else. I saw people at Churchill Downs I hadn’t seen in 20 years, folks who used to work for me. And I was still doing the entering and scratching at Tampa Bay Downs and Calder via telephone, so that part of my world didn’t change.
The Derby walk is everything I thought it would be, and then some. You look at the grandstand packed to the rafters, and it’s like a sea of heads. You just can’t believe there can be that many people packed into a space like that. I worried about my horse acting up, but he was a pro. And there was such a small area to saddle the horses in the paddock – I think God protects all, because they are still 3-year-old horses that are not used to massive crowds and prone to act up.
You have to have a lot of luck in this business just to win a race, much less to get a horse to the Kentucky Derby. First, your horse has to stay healthy to get to the gate. Then you need a decent post, the pace has to unfold right and the jockey has to help your horse.
There is so much that goes into it that it is amazing to contemplate. This is the only business where you can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week and do things right and still not get lucky.
I’m pretty sure the day is long gone when people refer to me as a ‘female trainer.’ But it sure wasn’t like that when I started in the business. I still have my first racetrack license from Detroit Race Course in 1970, and it says ‘Pony Boy.’ There were no women jockeys or exercise riders. The business has come a long way, but things used to be a lot different.
Even though I had a 3.8 grade-point average in high school and graduated in the top 15 percent of my class, and had four years of 4-H experience, I got turned down when I applied to veterinarian school at Michigan State. It never crossed my mind I wouldn’t be accepted, but I learned they only took two girls a year. I tried community college and took a job with Guardian Photos developing 8 millimeter movies, and I hated it.
So I decided I would go to the racetrack until I figured out what I wanted to do. Here it is 40 years later, and I’m still here.
You give up a lot when you work with Thoroughbreds. I used to get on 8-to-10 horses a morning, but I’ve got so much arthritis in my neck and back that I can hardly move from side to side. Blazing Sword, I galloped him his whole career. I’ve gotten on a lot of nice horses, and I really miss that aspect of training, getting up on my horses and exercising them on the racetrack.
Health is always an issue – both mine and the horses. I’ve had pneumonia three times, twice in Michigan and once in New Orleans. When you gallop in the winter, you breathe in all that cold air and it’s a struggle taking care of yourself.
The biggest sacrifices I’ve had to make, though, are my personal relationships. My parents are coming down from Michigan next month – my dad is 87 and my mom is 84 – and they don’t fly, so the trip is a concern. From this end, if I get home once a year for four days, that’s a miracle. And that’s just not right. They’re in pretty good shape for their age, but they are not going to be around forever. I wish I lived closer to spend more time with them.
Earlier in my career, I cut some corners to make a personal relationship work, and it didn’t work anyway. So as I got older, it was like ‘This is the way I am, this is what I do –if you’re happy with it, fine, and if you’re not, that’s fine too.’ You have to find somebody unique and very understanding to put up with the schedule of a horse trainer.
I was fortunate in 2002 to meet a gentleman who lives in south Florida who is a triathlete. If you’re going to swim two-and-a-half miles, bike 112 miles and run 26 miles after that, this is a person who is consumed with what they do, just like I am with what I do. He already got what I was doing, and we still are seeing each other.
I’ve been blessed in this business to be with Mr. Campbell for more than 20 years and with Mr. (John) Franks when he was alive, and now with Larry and Vicki Stumpf, clients down south who operate Blackacre Farms.
I think one reason Mr. Campbell and I have such a lasting relationship is that he understands every aspect of the business.
He knows horses are going to get sick or hurt and things are going to happen. Some people, I think, get in this business and don’t understand you are dealing with flesh and bone and blood. You might be the best caretaker, the best feeder, have the best blacksmith and everything else, and something unforeseen happens and they get hurt. In this business, the highs are very high and the lows are very low.
I remember when we had Blazing Sword on the Kentucky Derby trail in 1997 for Mr. Campbell. He had finished second to Pulpit in the Fountain of Youth and we were on our way. Then, two days later, he became sick and instead of prepping him for the Derby, I was taking him to a veterinarian clinic. To this day, we don’t know what it was, but he almost died.
But he was an amazing horse. Later that summer, we took him to the Remington Park Derby in Oklahoma and he ran second, and he was fourth in the Travers at Saratoga. Then, he finished third in the Super Derby, the Hawthorne Derby and Hollywood Derby, and he won the Calder Derby that fall.
And as a 6-year-old, he rewarded us by winning the Widener at Gulfstream and the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington, which were both graded races. I still can’t believe all the places Blazing Sword took us.
Another great horse of Mr. Campbell’s was Ivanavinalot, who won five of her first six races. She won the Florida Stallion My Dear Girl Stakes by almost 14 lengths, and we were ready to take her to Arlington in Chicago for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.
We had made the airplane reservations and everything was on ‘Go.’ Then, two days after the My Dear Girl, I came into the barn and she had maybe a quarter-scoop of grain left in her tub. And she had never missed an oat the whole time I had her, even when she had a slight cold.
She didn’t have a temperature, but when we took her to the track and jogged her, she didn’t seem her usual self. So we ran a blood test, and her white cell count was all out of whack and she was starting to get an infection. Even though we caught it right away and nothing devastating had happened, we couldn’t get on that plane and make that race.
That is one of the toughest calls I’ve ever had to make. Nobody associated with Ivanavinalot wanted to believe she was not going to make the dance, not the way she’d been running. But you have to do right by your horses, and I was very proud the next season when she ran second in the Davona Dale Stakes and won the Grade II Bonnie Miss at Gulfstream.
I am lucky to have people working for me who understand that every detail is important. Brian Smeak, my assistant, has been with me 12 or 13 years, and I have exercise people down south who I’ve used for more than 10 years. And I have seasonal employees here at Tampa Bay Downs who come back every year, so I feel very blessed to have such a good support team.
It’s a big wheel to churn. You’re not always going to agree on everything and it is not always going to be wonderful, but everybody respects each other and that’s what is needed.
I try to match horses with the right grooms, exercise riders and jockeys, because horses have minds, too. You try to make everything click. They are out of these stalls maybe an hour-and-a-half every day, so they had better be happy because if they’re not happy, they’re not going to be productive.
I’m proud of all the people I train for – not only the Campbells and the Stumpfs, but some of the other people who have been with me for years. Those relationships are so rewarding. The Derby was a wonderful deal, and I want to take a horse to the Breeders’ Cup.
But at the end of the day, if it’s a $12,500 claiming horse that goes out and hits the board every time it runs, I mean, what else can you ask for? That’s very fulfilling too.
I want the best for all my clients, because they are also my friends. And nobody goes over there with the idea of losing – everybody wants to win.