In an era when sports betting threatens to overtake Thoroughbred racing in popularity, even at the tracks, and young people are demanding to be heard above the din emanating from politicians and television “news” hosts, Bob Dylan’s song The Times They Are a-Changin’ seems as relevant now as when he wrote it 60 years ago.
Change is one of life’s few constants, but there is something reassuring, almost mystical, about watching an individual rage against the system by taking it on with a stoic, unwavering sense of purpose. That kind of drive and ambition helped trainer Kathleen O’Connell overcome numerous obstacles in a male-dominated sport when she arrived on the racetrack more than a half-century ago, and it fuels her today as she continues to manage two prominent racing stables at Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream Park.
In the years since starting her own stable in 1981, O’Connell has accepted change as an inevitable condition of staying competitive. But her love for racing and her horses, along with a tireless spirit devoted to getting the best from herself and her runners, haS remained rock-solid.
All of which is perhaps too flowery a way to simply report that “K.O.” has earned the first Boot Barn Trainer of the Month Award for the meet – yet hardly hyperbolic.
O’Connell runners won five of eight starts over a period of five racing days, including four in a row in one stretch, to help her outdistance her rivals for the honor.
“I think we had the right horses for the right races, and that always helps the situation,” said O’Connell, an Oldsmar training champion in 1998-1999 and 2009-2010 and third last season. “But you have to be motivated in this sport (to succeed). I’ve always said that I’m like a junkie looking for the next win.
“We’re off to a good start, and I’m hoping we can build off this. We’re usually a blue-collar stable, and we have some young horses we’re hoping develop. I’m very happy for my staff and my owners, and I’m thankful to everyone at Tampa Bay Downs. It’s a great track to train on and I can’t thank them enough for always seeming to take care of the owners.”
O’Connell is excited about being reunited with long-time assistant Brian Smeak. His understanding of the challenges involved with managing two stables helps smooth the waters when the unexpected happens.
“I gave him a signing bonus and a multi-million dollar contract,” she joked. “We’ve always made a good team.”
O’Connell has had plenty of significant moments in racing. She has nine graded-stakes victories (including the then-Grade II Tampa Bay Derby in 2011 with 43-1 shot Watch Me Go and the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes in 2019 with Well Defined). Watch Me Go took her to the Kentucky Derby, and she trained an excellent multiple stakes-winning filly in Lady Shipman, who came within a neck of winning the 2015 TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Keeneland.
That’s just scratching the surface, of course; O’Connell has trained numerous other excellent horses and became the sport’s all-time winningest female trainer in North America in March at Tampa Bay Downs when she saddled 3-year-old gelding My Eagle Soars for her 2,386th winner, moving her ahead of still-active Kim Hammond. My Eagle Soars is a product of her long-time client Stonehedge’s breeding program.
O’Connell picked up victory No. 2,430 (and sixth at the meet) in today’s sixth race with 2-year-old Florida-bred gelding Louie the Sun King, a homebred racing for owner Endsley Oaks Farm and ridden by Antonio Gallardo.
“Tampa has always been a special place for me,” she said, but resisted any inclination to grow reflective. “I think it will be a very competitive meet, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Two stakes on tap Saturday. Dean Delivers, a 4-year-old gelding who won the Grade III Smile Sprint Stakes on July 1 at Gulfstream Park, is a 4-5 morning-line favorite in a field of seven Florida-bred colts and geldings in Saturday’s $100,000 Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association Marion County Florida Sire Stakes.
A homebred son of Cajun Breeze racing for the late Gilbert G. Campbell’s Stonehedge LLC enterprise, Dean Delivers is trained by Michael Yates and will be ridden by Emisael Jaramillo in the Marion County FSS, which at 7 furlongs is an eighth of a mile farther in distance than the Smile Sprint Stakes.
The Marion County FSS is the sixth race on a 10-race card beginning at 12:16 p.m. Saturday’s other stakes race is the $100,000 FTBOA City of Ocala Florida Sire Stakes, with seven fillies and mares set to compete at the 7-furlong distance.
The City of Ocala is the seventh race on the card. The 8-5 morning-line favorite is the 7-year-old mare Bluefield, who is owned by her co-breeder Edward A. Seltzer and trained by Saffie A. Joseph, Jr. Leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Samy Camacho has the riding assignment. Bluefield is 7-for-19 in her career but still in search of her first stakes victory.
Both the Marion County and the City of Ocala are for FTBOA-registered Florida-bred horses 3-years-old-and-upward that are sired by an FTBOA-registered Florida stallion and have paid all Florida Sire Stakes eligibility fees.
Dean Delivers, who is 5-for-18 lifetime with career earnings of $474,060, followed his Smile Sprint Stakes victory with a third-place finish on July 29 at Saratoga in the Grade I Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap, which was won by Elite Power, the 5-year-old who is certain to be crowned Eclipse Award Champion Male Sprinter and is also a candidate for Horse of the Year honors after winning the Qatar Racing Breeders’ Cup Sprint for the second straight year.
However, Dean Delivers finished sixth in his most recent start, the 1-mile Gil Campbell Memorial Handicap on Oct. 21 at Gulfstream Park, and his six rivals Saturday – including 2022 Smile Sprint winner Willy Boi and two-time Tampa Bay Downs stakes winner Zydeceaux – are legitimate candidates for the winner’s share.
Likewise, Bluefield and Camacho will be required to turn in a top-quality performance to turn back the likes of the Kathleen O’Connell-trained 3-year-old Dream Concert, winner of her last two starts at Parx Racing, and Charlie’s Wish, a stakes-winning 3-year-old trained by David Fawkes who has been first or second in eight of her 10 career starts.
Antonio Gallardo will ride Dream Concert, while Joe Bravo is slated to come from Gulfstream to ride Charlie’s Wish, as well as the Fawkes-trained Shaq Diesel in the Marion County.
Around the oval. Gallardo and Kevin Gomez each rode two winners today. In addition to his triumph on Louie the Sun King for O’Connell, Gallardo captured the fifth race on the turf on Ninja Star, a 2-year-old Florida-bred gelding owned by Donald L. Ming and trained by Kevin Rice.
Gomez won the second race with Amirati, a 2-year-old filly owned by Amira Chichakly, Transfiguration Stable, LLC and Toga Party Racing Stable and trained by Wayne Potts. Gomez added the seventh on the turf on Heavenly Appointed, a 3-year-old filly owned by Alex G. Campbell, Jr. Thoroughbreds and trained by H. Graham Motion.
Tampa Bay Downs currently races on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with Sundays added to the mix on Dec. 24. The track is open every day except Christmas, Dec. 25, and Easter, March 31, for simulcast wagering, no-limits action and tournament play in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.