The conditioner known as "K.O." keeps adding to remarkable legacy; Phantom Opening to be pointed toward Grade III, $175,000 Lambholm South Endeavour on Feb. 8.
When it comes to doling out tender, loving care at Barn 25 on the Tampa Bay Downs backside, trainer Kathleen O’Connell is an equal-opportunity distributor.
O’Connell, the Salt Rock Tavern Trainer of the Month, is attuned to the heartbeats of each of the 35 Thoroughbreds in her barn, as well as the 25 or so she stables at Gulfstream Park West in Miami Gardens.
“She is involved in every aspect of the horses’ care, from the smallest details to the biggest,” said her Oldsmar assistant, former head trainer Sharilyn Stephens. “You’re never afraid to ask her to look at a horse’s legs, or ask her over the phone what she thinks. She’s dedicated to doing the very best for every horse, and she has a good crew of people who are willing to go the extra mile to make it work.”
Patience and understanding are hallmarks of the O’Connell operation, which has produced 2,127 victories – second all-time among female trainers in North America to Kim Hammond’s 2,280. Among O’Connell’s major victories are the 2011 Grade II Tampa Bay Derby, with Watch Me Go; last year’s Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes, with Well Defined; the last two runnings of the Grade II Princess Rooney Stakes at Gulfstream, by Stormy Embrace; the 2010 Grade III Tropical Park Derby, with Fly by Phil; the 2003 Grade II Bonnie Miss Stakes, with Ivanavinalot; and a trio of graded stakes with Blazing Sword from 1997-2000.
“We try to stay very productive year after year and do well for our owners,” said O'Connell, who won today's first race with 4-year-old Florida-bred filly Blazing Brooke, whom she owns in partnership with Double T Racing. “When you work with animals, it’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s not like you shut the door at the end of the day, leave and come back and everything is the same the next morning.
“For all the rewards, there can be a lot of frustration and anxiety that go with the business,” she continued. “A horse can be prepping for a race perfectly and come up with a foot (problem), or a race comes off the turf and you have to scratch, or one can get sick and you lose valuable days of training. There are 100 other things that can happen, and it can be an emotional roller coaster.”
During the winter, O’Connell usually travels between Tampa Bay Downs and south Florida on a week-to-week basis. She approaches each situation with her eyes and ears open, searching for clues that might lead to a better performance.
“It’s a big wheel to churn,” O’Connell said of the size of her operation. “I can’t do it without people who are passionate about horses. This is a business where you constantly learn something new. I don’t care if it’s track people, a hot walker, your exercise riders or the racing office – you have to take it all in and use what works.”
O’Connell, who has won two Tampa Bay Downs training titles and one at Calder (now Gulfstream Park West), is in second place at the current meeting with nine victories. She won the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association City of Ocala Florida Sire Stakes with the unbeaten filly J P’s Delight.
She is also the trainer of 3-year-old filly Lenzi’s Lucky Lady, a Stonehedge, LLC-owned homebred who won a pair of stakes last summer at Gulfstream.
O’Connell took Watch Me Go to the 2011 Kentucky Derby for breeder-owner Gilbert G. Campbell, finishing unplaced. O’Connell and Campbell thought Blazing Sword was a Derby horse in 1997, but he became sick two days after finishing second in the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes, derailing those plans.
Once again, O’Connell’s patience reaped dividends. Blazing Sword returned to competition that summer to finish second in the Remington Park Derby; fourth in the Grade I Travers at Saratoga; third in the Grade I Super Derby at Louisiana Downs; third in the Grade III Hawthorne Derby; first in the Grade III Calder Derby; and third in the Grade I Hollywood Derby.
The gelding was even better at 6, winning the Grade III Widener Handicap at Gulfstream and the Grade II Washington Park Handicap at Arlington.
Ivanavinalot was another O’Connell trainee on the brink of stardom, having won the Florida Stallion My Dear Girl Stakes in 2002 by almost 14 lengths to put in her in position to contest the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Arlington.
She developed an infection that caused her to miss that chance, but returned as a 3-year-old to win the Grade II Bonnie Miss Stakes at Gulfstream.
In 2015, O’Connell trained 3-year-old filly Lady Shipman to six stakes victories and a pair of course records, including one at Saratoga on the turf in the 5 ½-furlong Smart N Fancy Stakes. Lady Shipman finished second by a neck to Mongolian Saturday in the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Keeneland.
Around the oval. A pair of outstanding performances were turned in today in the fourth and fifth races. First, 4-year-old gelding Mungojerrie won the fourth in his first try on dirt, scooting 7 furlongs in 1:22.14 to score by 16 ½ lengths from six outclassed opponents in the maiden special weight contest.
Daniel Centeno rode Mungojerrie, whose second race on turf resulted in a game second-place finish here on Dec. 14. Owned by Lael Stables and trained by Arnaud Delacour, Mungojerrie is out of the unraced Jellicle Song, who is a half-sister to Lael and Delacour’s graded-stakes winner and 2015 Xpressbet.com Preakness Stakes third-place finisher Divining Rod.
In the fifth race, the Endeavour Prep at 1 1/16-mile on the turf, 6-year-old mare Phantom Opening closed stoutly to record a 2 ¼-length victory from Dynatail. The winner’s time was a solid 1:43.68.
Antonio Gallardo rode Phantom Opening for the Surfside Stables operation of siblings Debbie Appel and Howard Appel and trainer Jordan Blair, who is 5-for-8 at the meeting with two seconds and a third. Blair said he will point Phantom Opening toward the Grade III, $175,000 Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes on Feb. 8 on the turf.
Phantom Opening, who finished fourth in last season’s Grade II Hillsborough Stakes, was purchased by Surfside Stables for $45,000 at the 2019 Keeneland January Horses of All Ages Sale. She had previously raced for Jim and Susan Hill and trainer Rodolphe Brisset.
Saturday’s 10-race card begins at 12:45 p.m. The fun begins at 10 a.m. on the first floor of the Grandstand with the “Morning Glory Club” Show, featuring trainer Bill Sienkewicz with announcer Richard Grunder.
Admission is free and attendees receive Grandstand passes, coffee and donuts.
The second annual High Rollers Handicapping Contest is Saturday in the VIP Room at Tampa Bay Downs. The entry deadline is noon. Players are required to deposit $1,000, of which $500 serves as the player’s wagering bankroll and $500 goes to the prize pool. Any dollar amount remaining in their bankroll at the conclusion of the contest goes directly to the player, meaning all of the prize money is returned to the entrants.
Wagers will be limited to win, place and/or show, with each player required to bet $100 on five separate races on the card. Anyone wagering on less or more than five races will be disqualified. Cash prizes will be awarded to the top five finishers, with $20,000 to the winner, or 50 percent of the prize pool if there are fewer than 100 entrants; $8,000/20 percent to the second-place finisher; $6,000/15 percent to third; $4,000/10 percent to fourth; and $2,000/5 percent to fifth.
Only races at Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday will be included in the contest, and players must wager at the contest site to be eligible.
The first and second-place finishers will also claim a seat in either of the next two National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championships in Las Vegas (this year’s event is Feb. 7-9 at Bally’s Las Vegas Hotel & Casino). Players can enter online at www.tampabaydowns.com .
Tampa Bay Downs currently races on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday schedule, as well as Thursday, Jan. 23. 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.