by Mike Henry

Catalina Red and R Sassy Lass, both impressive winners here Dec. 6, vie for their second $100,000 stakes victories this month on Saturday’s Skyway Festival Day card at Tampa Bay Downs. Post time for the first race is 12:25 p.m.

Catalina Red, a 2-year-old colt owned by Anthony Lenci and trained by Chad Stewart, heads a field of nine in the $100,000, seven-furlong Pasco Stakes, which is the ninth race on the 10-race program. Daniel Centeno will again ride Catalina Red, a Florida-bred who established a stakes record of 1:09:32 in winning the six-furlong Inaugural Stakes by more than seven lengths three weeks ago.

R Sassy Lass is among the headliners for the $100,000 Gasparilla Stakes, which has attracted a field of 10 juvenile fillies set to go seven furlongs. Another Florida-bred, R Sassy Lass won the Sandpiper Stakes here with a determined stretch effort, defeating Gasparilla entrant Coco’s Wildcat by a half-length.

R Sassy Lass is owned by Averill Racing, LLC, Silver Oak Stable and Gregory Kaufman and trained by Kirk Ziadie. She will again partner with Tampa Bay Downs leading jockey Antonio Gallardo.

Saturday also marks the return of track announcer Richard Grunder’s Morning Glory Club, which begins at 10 a.m. His special guest is first-year “Paddock Preview” host Andrew Demsky, who already has made plenty of friends with his insightful analysis and upbeat personality.

Attendees will receive free donuts, coffee and grandstand passes. There is a Super High-5 carryover of $9,837.61.

Saturday is also the second day of “Calendar Giveaway Weekend,” with each fan receiving a colorful and informative 2015 Tampa Bay Downs calendar with paid admission, while supplies last.

Gallardo, Homeister shine in saddle. Tampa Bay Downs leading jockey Antonio Gallardo rode three winners today and Rosemary Homeister, Jr., notched two victories as Thoroughbred racing returned after a four-day holiday hiatus.

Gallardo, who has 25 victories through 13 days of the meeting – 12 more than runner-up Daniel Centeno – captured the third race on 3-year-old gelding Star Island for breeder-owner Robert C. Roffey, Jr., and trainer Sandy Cataldi. He added the fourth on the turf on 2-year-old gelding Crittenden for breeder-owner Darley and trainer Eoin Harty and annexed the sixth race on 5-year-old gelding Dubai Time for owner The Parting Glass Stable and trainer Derek Ryan.

Homeister was victorious in the second race on 6-year-old gelding Dreaminofthewin for owner-trainer Randy L. Klopp and ownership partner Spiess Stable, LLC. She returned to the winner’s circle after the seventh race on 4-year-old filly Polite Smile for owner William M. Backer and Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard.

O’Connell is Zerillo’s Italian Grill Trainer of the Month. Business is booming in Kathleen O’Connell’s barn on the Tampa Bay Downs backside. With 40 horses here and another 20 at Gulfstream Park West in Miami, she performs a daily balancing act that would have made the late Bobby May (once known as the world’s greatest juggler) stand up and take notice.

O’Connell, who trains for about 30 owners, vaulted to an early lead in the Tampa Bay Downs trainer standings by spreading the wealth, posting six victories for six different owners (seven to get technical, since 2-year-old filly Cardinal Cove is owned by RAP Racing and Marc Haisfield).

Her fast start has earned O’Connell the Zerillo’s Trainer of the Month award.

O’Connell is a two-time Tampa Bay Downs training champion, winning the title outright in 1998-1999 and sharing the top spot five seasons ago with Jamie Ness. She also became the first woman to capture a training title in Calder’s long history during its 2009-2010 Tropical meeting.

Yet the victories and her numerous accomplishments have always taken a back seat to her horses’ well-being. Patience may be the most important element of her ongoing success.

“She will give every horse in the barn an equal opportunity to develop,” said first assistant Brian Smeak, who has been with O’Connell since 2000. “If they need more time, they get more time. Her specialty is 2-year-olds, and she is very good with nervous horses and rank horses.”

Smeak also mentioned O’Connell’s exceptional horsemanship and her skill with the condition book as traits that have kept the “K.O.” barn humming. “She was a good rider to begin with, and she was a good gallop lady when there weren’t too many women galloping horses,” Smeak said.

Mostly, though, it is the time spent at the barn and her refusal to cut corners that make O’Connell a consistent winner. “She’s a workaholic, and she will admit she’s a workaholic,” Smeak said. “But she loves what she is doing. She is respected everywhere she goes.”

In 1970, O’Connell arrived at Detroit Race Course to work as a pony person after being turned down for veterinarian school despite graduating in the top-15 percent of her class and four years of 4-H experience.

Things were a lot different for women on the racetrack then; women jockeys still were considered a novelty by many race goers and the handful of women trainers entering the sport were lucky to scrape by. Hardly a wild-eyed radical, O’Connell played her role in breaking downs barriers the best way she knew – day by day, her responsibility as a guardian and caretaker of her equine charges first and foremost.

“It is care of the horse, and placement of the horse, that allows you to be successful,” O’Connell said in 2011, days before winning the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby with 43-1 shot Watch Me Go for her long-time client, Gilbert G. Campbell. “Your owners have to allow you to judge the horse’s ability and place the horse where, in your opinion, the horse fits.”

Since taking out her trainer’s license in 1981, five years after her arrival at Tampa Bay Downs to gallop horses, O’Connell has proven her ability to help her owners make a solid return on their investments. Through today’s card, she had sent out 1,670 career winners (and 1,673 runners-up), while saddling a Kentucky Derby starter in Watch Me Go and a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies starter for Campbell in 2013, Scandalous Act.

O’Connell has trained several other graded-stakes winners in addition to Watch Me Go, such as Ivanavinalot, Fly by Phil and career millionaire Blazing Sword. She keeps looking for her next stable star while maintaining a virtual breakneck pace, flying between Tampa Bay and south Florida several times a week to oversee both strings.

“It’s a big churn to turn, but we’ve been doing it many years,” O’Connell said earlier this week. “I can’t thank everybody enough for all the support they have given me and my horses, especially here at Tampa Bay Downs. I could not have achieved what I have without my crew, their caretaking relationship with the horses and owners who want to win and let me run their horses where they can be most effective.”

O’Connell has enjoyed splendid success the past few years with leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Antonio Gallardo, whom she stuck with while the Spaniard’s victories were few and far between. His career arc shot skyward 16 months ago when he won four consecutive stakes on a single card at Calder, the last three on O’Connell-trained horses.

“She helped me a lot at Calder, put me on a lot of good horses and gave me a lot of chances in stakes races,” said Gallardo, who said O’Connell has never second-guessed one of his rides, even if it departed from script and ended in a defeat. “She listens to the jockeys and exercise riders. I’m very comfortable riding for ‘K.O.’ ”

O’Connell’s career keeps flowing like a serene river; the disturbances are few, her constancy an affirmation of greater, unspoken truths. It is her consistency she is most proud of. Her barn has posted annual earnings of $1-million plus for 16 consecutive years, going over the $2-million mark in 2013 and 2014.

“That counts for a lot in a business in which a lot of people are here today and gone tomorrow,” she said.