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Racing News

Published Apr 28, 2024
by Mike Henry
Kathleen O'Connell with jockey Antonio Gallardo before their first-race victory with Dreaming of Abba

Handicappers looking for clues into first-time starter Dreaming of Abba’s potential before today’s first race at Tampa Bay Downs weren’t going to discover much from her workouts.

Of her seven Oldsmar breezes leading to her debut, only one – a 3-furlong work from the starting gate on March 30 – was among the top one-third of all published workouts at the distance, being third-best that day among nine. And the time of 37 3/5 seconds gave no outward indication of the 3-year-old Florida-bred’s race-readiness.

But bettors who know how little fast workout times mean to trainer Kathleen O’Connell weren’t scared away. They made Dreaming of Abba the 13-10 favorite in the six-horse field, and the Carolin Von Rosenberg bred-and-owned lass responded with a rousing 12 ¼-length triumph under jockey Antonio Gallardo in an impressive 6 ½-furlong time of 1:17.29.

O’Connell, the sport’s all-time leader in victories in North America among women trainers with 2,481, considers mornings a time for getting her horses in a comfort zone and sharpening their competitive instincts, not pushing them to their limits.

“A horse is bone and flesh and blood, and I’ve never been impressed by fast works,” said O’Connell, who has sewn up the 2023-2024 Tampa Bay Downs training title with 52 winners. “The most important thing to me is a good, productive work and a great gallop-out. I don’t want them where they’re so eager when they get to the pole (where the work starts) that they’re desperate to take off, because that’s not how a race usually unfolds.

“Training horses is like raising kids, and everybody has their own ideas of how it should be done. But the whole thing about a workout is that it shouldn’t be stressful. It shouldn’t be where they’re desperate to break off at the pole and go fast, and then they fizzle out.”

Like the horses that have prospered from her attention to detail and respect, O’Connell has always focused on the long haul, providing numerous blessings for her owners and the betting public. Her horses have posted more than $1-million in earnings in 26 consecutive years, and her quick start in 2024 gives her a shot at surpassing her high-water mark of $2,720,264 set in 2015.

O’Connell has trained the winners of nine graded-stakes races, including 2011 Grade II Tampa Bay Derby winner Watch Me Go and 2019 Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes winner Well Defined. Watch Me Go, a homebred owned by late longtime client Gilbert G. Campbell, delivered O’Connell to her lone Kentucky Derby.

And in 2015, she came this close to Breeders’ Cup glory, saddling 3-year-old filly Lady Shipman for a second-place finish by a neck to Mongolian Saturday in the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Keeneland. That followed a sensational season in which Lady Shipman won six stakes and set two course records.

This year’s title is O’Connell’s third at Tampa Bay Downs and her fourth overall. Her previous Oldsmar crown came in 2009-2010, when she tied Jamie Ness for the top spot with 51 winners apiece, and her first here came in 1998-1999.

Except for the presence of Ness, who won a Tampa Bay Downs-record nine consecutive titles from 2006-2007 through 2014-2015, and Gerald Bennett, who won eight in a row before this season, O’Connell might easily have won another half-dozen Oldsmar titles. From 2010-2011 through last season, she finished second or third in 12 of 13 seasons.

As good as this meet has gone, her horses were far less productive during the winter meet at Gulfstream Park, capturing only five victories. “If you haven’t got the right horse to fit the race that is being offered, it’s like you’re on an island, and you try to get the horse out of there if there is no place for them,” said O’Connell, who added that she did not place extra emphasis this season on going for a Tampa Bay Downs title.

“It’s no fun for me to run a horse where I think that if he’s at his best, he might run fourth. That is no way to handicap a race.”

When you have been at it as long as O’Connell and Bennett, you share an appreciation for what it takes to “meet with triumph and disaster/and treat those two impostors just the same,” as Rudyard Kipling put it.

“I’m happy for her. She’s a hard worker who puts in the hours and doesn’t miss a day, going back and forth between both tracks to keep it going,” Bennett said. “She’s a great person and a good friend, and we’ve known each other a long time, since our Michigan days (in the 1980s).

“If there was anybody I wanted to see beat me, it would be her.”

Those who know her best marvel not only at her longevity and apparent indefatigability, but at her ability to get along with everyone. She employs about 40 people between her two strings (she’ll compete this spring and summer at Gulfstream and Monmouth Park in New Jersey), and her barn always looks well-organized and peaceful, a perfect environment for high-strung horses to develop.

“She is a stickler for details, but she doesn’t yell or scream at people. It’s just a ‘doing-the-right-thing’ kind of pressure that everybody understands,” said long-time assistant Brian Smeak.

“She is open to all suggestions, whether they come from her assistants, the exercise riders, a groom or a hotwalker. She stresses communication, either by texting or calling,” Smeak said. “She hasn’t slowed down. It’s just a pure love of the horse, plus her intuition and her horsemanship. She can ride as good as anybody,” he added, although that statement might be a bit hyperbolic today.

O’Connell will be delighted to receive the Leading Trainer trophy here in a few days, but she wouldn’t mind being provided a chisel (just kidding, folks) to distribute the pieces as she sees fit.

“I’m very proud of my help. I’ve got a bunch of hard-working people,” she said. “Brian and I have worked together about 20 years, and he sees things the way I see things. And I’ve been lucky to have Cesar Pinones Ortiz as my foreman. Lucy Spalding also plays a valuable role as the glue that keeps everybody together.

“My grooms are hard-working people, and some of them have the goal to get permanent (U.S.) residencies. They are excellent caretakers and I can’t say enough good things about them.”

Similarly, O’Connell knows she wouldn’t have achieved such heights without owners who share her love of the sport and its performers. “I wouldn’t want to leave anybody out,” said O’Connell, who then proceeded to list the entire roster.

Smeak says she thrives in making her barn the most welcoming place possible for all her owners. “I would say it’s one of the happiest barns back there,” Smeak said. “Joe DiBello (DiBello Racing) brings donuts to the barn every morning, and when we win a race it’s like a cattle call to the office to pick up all the food for everyone.”

Which helps explain why, even after 14 years have gone by, O’Connell calls the training title “a bonus.” Like the toppings on a beautiful, unmeltable ice cream sundae.

“We’ve come in here every year to be productive for our owners. I’m not a ‘claiming-shaking-moving’ type trainer, so it’s become more difficult as the years go on and the size of people’s stables keep getting bigger.

“When you add that into the mix, it’s incredible, really.”

Around the oval. Apprentice jockey Mariangelys Almedina incurred a dislocated left shoulder after falling from her mount, Mrs Bradstreet, in the ninth race. She was transported to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa for observation. Mrs Bradstreet, a 4-year-old Florida-bred filly, was gathered up quickly by an outrider and appeared fine afterward.

Leading jockey Samy Camacho rode three winners today. He captured the third race on Rouki, a 3-year-old Florida-bred colt owned by Tropic Lightning Racing and Edward A. Seltzer and trained by Gerald Bennett.

Camacho next won the sixth race on the turf on Peak Earnings, a 3-year-old filly owned by Klaravich Stables and trained by Chad Brown. Camacho completed his hat trick in the ninth with Bellwether, a 5-year-old mare owned by BHMFR, LLC and trained by Saffie A. Joseph, Jr.

Bennett saddled back-to-back winners. In addition to his victory with Rouki, Bennett added the fourth with Chrome Ghost, whose winning time of 1:15.81 for the 6 ½-furlong distance was .34 seconds off the track record. The 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding is owned by J J Brevan Stable and was ridden by Melissa Iorio.

Tampa Bay Downs will wrap up the current meet with racing cards Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, May 4, which is Kentucky Derby Day.

The Oldsmar oval will offer a full slate of racing on Derby Day to accompany the simulcast excitement from Churchill Downs – which will present seven graded-stakes races in addition to the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve – and many other racetracks.

Admission at Tampa Bay Downs is $10, with children 17-and-under free. Valet parking is $25. The gates will open at 10 a.m., and the first local race will begin around noon. Automatic wagering terminals will be set up outside in front of the main Grandstand entrance for fans who decide to grab their tickets early and watch at home or elsewhere.

There will also be advance-wagering opportunities on the Kentucky Derby on Friday.


Kathleen O'Connell with jockey Antonio Gallardo before their first-race victory with Dreaming of Abba

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