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January 02, 2019


by Mike Henry
Nine-race card Friday beginning at 12:54 p.m.; Military Appreciation Day is Saturday.

Trainer Kathleen O’Connell finished 2018 with a rush, winning with six of 13 starters from Dec. 28-30 to surpass the 100-victory mark for the third time in her career.

Five of those recent winners were at Tampa Bay Downs, earning her the Rumba Island Bar & Grill Trainer of the Month Award. O’Connell is tied for second in the Oldsmar standings with nine victories, along with six seconds.

The new year started with sadness for the conditioner, whose mother Arlene died today (Jan. 2) in Michigan with O’Connell at her bedside. Her father, Joseph O’Connell, died Oct. 1.

O’Connell, who won the 1998-1999 Tampa Bay Downs training title and tied Jamie Ness for the top spot in 2009-2010, has amassed 2,033 career victories, second all-time among North American women trainers to Kim Hammond, who is still active with 2,226 winners.

The 2018 season marked the 20th year in a row O’Connell’s horses have taken home more than $1-million in purse money. She has surpassed the $2-million mark in four of the last six years.

Career victory No. 2,000 for O’Connell, achieved Sept. 12 at Delaware Park with first-time starter Wishful Quality, represented another 2018 milestone for “K.O.” She also collected her seventh graded-stakes triumph (and first since Watch Me Go’s 2011 Grade II Tampa Bay Derby victory) when (then)-4-year-old filly Stormy Embrace won the Grade II Princess Rooney Stakes on June 30 at Gulfstream.

Stormy Embrace, who went on to compete in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint at Churchill Downs, was one of two Breeders’ Cup starters for O’Connell, along with Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile entrant Well Defined, who is slated to return to action Saturday in the $100,000 Mucho Macho Man Stakes for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream.

Three years earlier, O’Connell saddled Lady Shipman for a second-place finish to Mongolian Saturday in the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Keeneland. Besides Lady Shipman, Watch Me Go and Stormy Embrace, O’Connell has conditioned such top runners as multiple graded-stakes winner and millionaire Blazing Sword; graded stakes-winning filly Ivanavinalot; and 2013 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies participant Scandalous Act.

O’Connell has been a Tampa Bay Downs mainstay since arriving from Michigan in 1976 to gallop horses for trainer W.R. Harp. She also galloped for Hall of Fame conditioners Jack Van Berg and Bill Mott. Many of her horses, incuding such homebreds as Blazing Sword, Ivanavinalot, Watch Me Go, Scandalous Act and Well Defined, have come from the successful Florida breeding program of Gilbert G. Campbell and his Stonehedge LLC operation.

On Sunday’s Tampa Bay Downs card, O’Connell sent out three winners from four starters, along with one second.  All three winners were claiming horses, but no less meaningful to the trainer and her far-flung collection of owners.

“I’m proud of all the people I train for,” O’Connell said a while back. “Those relationships are so rewarding. I want the best for all my clients, because they are also my friends. 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, what else can you ask for?”

Brian Smeak, her Oldsmar assistant and an 18-year employee, says O’Connell’s unceasing work ethic stands as an example to her crew members.

“Her determination to win is an inspiration,” Smeak said. “She is a hands-on trainer who knows what halter each horse wears, what medication they use – it’s like there is a computer in her head.”

O’Connell has about 40 horses in training at Tampa Bay Downs and 30 at Gulfstream Park West in Miami Gardens.

Around the oval. Jockey Kevin Mendez was transported to Mease Countryside Hospital for precautionary measures after being thrown from his mount, the 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding Toss, in the eighth race. Toss, who fell on the far turn after appearing to clip heels, was not injured.

Mendez was able to stand under his own power a few minutes after the fall and was examined by paramedics in the jockeys’ room. He complained of neck pain before heading to the hospital for observation.

Leading jockey Samy Camacho started 2019 with a bang, sweeping the early daily double and going on to win three races for the third consecutive racing day.

Camacho won the first race on Burkey’s Babe, a 5-year-old mare owned by Curragh Racing II and trained by John P. Terranova, II. Camacho completed the 1-3 daily double, which paid $33.60, by winning the second on 5-year-old gelding Shacklefords Storm for owner Robin Team Show Racing Corp. and trainer Michel Douaihy.

Camacho added the seventh race aboard Wild Scat Blue, a 5-year-old gelding owned by Robson Thoroughbreds and trained by Gerald Bennett.

In today’s 10th and final race on the turf, 59-year-old jockey Jesse Garcia won for the second time at the meeting on 4-year-old filly Elusive Bae, owned and trained by Ben Colebrook. Elusive Bae paid $81.60 to win.

It marked career victory No. 2,029 for Garcia, who was the track’s leading jockey during the 1997-1998 meeting.

Thoroughbred racing continues Friday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:54 p.m. The track is open every day 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.

Military Appreciation Day. Tampa Bay Downs will admit active and retired military personnel with proper identification free of charge on Military Appreciation Day, which is Saturday. Servicemen and servicewomen will be recognized during the day’s action and races will honor branches of the military: the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard.

Tampa Bay Downs is privileged to stage a day for these heroes who defend our freedom and contribute so much to the American way of life.