Trainer Kathleen O’Connell has had an outstanding Calder career in which she has won numerous stakes races, has been the only female conditioner to earn a training title at Calder and earlier this year became the first female trainer to be inducted to the Calder Hall of Fame .
Many of her successes have come with stable runners that have shined as 2-year-olds. She looks to add to that success with victories in the first legs of the Florida Stallion Stakes Series at Calder Casino & Race Course this Saturday.
“When I moved from Michigan I decided on Florida because of the 2-year-olds and the 2-year-old program, so I hope it continues - not just for me but for the breeders and really everybody that’s involved,” O’Connell said. “It’s a mainstay in Florida.”
The Detroit, Michigan, native sends the gelding My Brown Eyed Guy from the rail in the $75,000 Dr. Fager Division, and also has In Luv With Willie breaking from the rail and Scandalous Act breaking from post three in the $75,000 Desert Vixen Division for fillies. Both races are run at six furlongs.
“The 2-year-olds are the future in the industry, so to speak,” O’Connell said. “They’re the ones that are our future stars and I’ve always had a real fondness for 2-year-olds because I broke horses for years. To me they’re a lot like children. They learn at different paces. You can’t do the same thing with all of them. To me it’s just designing some sort of individualized program more or less for each one of them.”
While owners and trainers would love for all of their horses to be major players on the stakes scene, only a select group meets stakes qualifications based on individual circumstances.
“They have to have talent to start with. There’s no two ways about it,” O’Connell said. “They have to be decently bred and everything and then they have to be brought along. It’s like playing poker. You have to know when to hold and when to fold. How much they can handle without burning them out.”
O’Connell has become known as a major trainer of 2-year-olds, especially on the Florida circuit. Her large clan of 2-year-olds is one of the first groups of babies that hit the track at Calder each year. She currently has 26 2-year-olds out of 39 horses stabled in all at Calder, while she also maintains a string at Monmouth Park in New Jersey and Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania.
“I do like to train in groups to get them used to running,” O’Connell said. “I think it’s a lot better that they do train in groups as far as horses inside, outside, behind, and in front of them and they always have a sense of security walking to and from the racetrack, too, so it’s better for them.”
When she is not out-of-town to oversee her other divisions, O’Connell is here at Calder aboard her pony Lucky, a registered Palomino Quarter Horse. They go to the track together with each set.
“He’s my main man and my main helper. He works as hard as I do, and he’s a good babysitter for the 2-year-olds.,” O’Connell said.
The pair frequently make trips to the starting gate many mornings along with the 2-year-olds.
“I think they need to be comfortable with (the gate) and they need to know that they can stand in there without being totally on edge as far as breaking, so we try and stand a lot, we break and flop out in between, we bring them back to stand them. At the end of the day usually it pays off,” O’Connell said.
Sometimes however, even the most preparation cannot foresee what may happen during race time even for future stars, as was seen by one of O’Connell’s most notable horses in her career, Blazing Sword.
“Naturally Blazing Sword was one of my favorites. Not only did he go on to have a great career but he was such a gawky 2-year-old and with these 2-year-olds it’s amazing; he had a lot of speed and he broke from the gate good, he was kind in the gate and yet the first time I ran him – this was going 4 ½ furlongs – it was like he got stone left,” O’Connell said. “He was standing in there so good and when they broke it was like everybody was six in front and it was like ‘Oh, I’m supposed to go,’ and then he takes off out of there…but when he got into gear and got himself together he was flying down the lane and he got beat a nose first-time out. Then he came back to win 5 ½ then he came back and won another, then he came back and won the first two legs of the stallion stakes and he had a horrible trip in the route round and he lost by a head which was crushing. It happens.”
Blazing Sword went on to become a multiple graded stakes winner and was multiple stakes placed in Grade 1 races.
O’Connell has stabled at Calder since 1990 and has been based in the Sunshine State since the 1980s. Her longtime client has been Gilbert G. Campbell, who bred and owns all three of O’Connell’s runners for this Saturday’s Stallion Stakes and has owned other successful stakes runners that have raced with O’Connell throughout the years such as Two T’s At Two B, Scandalous Act’s older half-brother, who won the Dr. Fager Division of the Florida Stallion Series and placed in the final two legs last year.
“We’ve been really blessed,” O’Connell said. “Mr. Campbell’s been a very big supporter of the game and I get a majority of his 2-year-olds and it’s great because now you’ve got the family, you’ve got the mother, and you had the grandmother – it’s great. He really has done a lot for the industry. Florida and Calder has had one of the best 2-year-old programs. I hope it can continue on because a lot of good 2-year-olds come out of Florida to be 3-year-olds.”