by Mike Henry

Thoroughbred trainer Kathleen O’Connell believes her success with young horses results, to a great degree, from letting them dictate their own rate of learning.

“I’ve worked with kids at summer camps, and they all progress at a different speed,” she said. “You have some who are ready to star in a drama production, and others who are afraid to say a word in front of a group.

“It’s kind of the same with the horses. You can’t take 10 2-year-olds and expect they’ll all be breezing or ready to race in a month,” said O’Connell, who is 5-for-16 with first-time starters at the current Oldsmar meeting, with a 63-percent in-the-money performance. “We’re just trying to bring out the best in them at a pace each horse can take, mentally and physically.

“It’s like giving kids swimming lessons,” she added. “You don’t just drop them off the back of the boat and say, ‘Sink or swim.’ ”

Few conditioners have navigated the treacherous waters of the demanding Thoroughbred game as successfully over the years as O’Connell, who has seen her horses exceed $1-million in earnings in 18 consecutive years (her runners earned a career-best $2,720,264 in 2015). Since 1997, she has averaged 79 victories a year.

Although she has flown somewhat under the radar at Tampa Bay Downs this season, with the exception of an earlier three-victory day, O’Connell was back in the spotlight Saturday. Her 7-year-old Florida-bred mare Spanish Concert, owned by James M. Chicklo of Ocala, turned in a gate-to-wire performance to win the $50,000 Minaret Stakes, setting a stakes record of 1:09.63 for six furlongs in the process under jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr.

Spanish Concert’s victory, O’Connell’s fifth of the judging period, was the impetus for her selection as the Tampa Bay Brewing Company Trainer of the Month. She is third in the 2016-2017 Tampa Bay Downs standings with 18 victories from 109 starters.

O’Connell, who maintains a 40-horse stable at Tampa Bay Downs, also trains about 30 at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach. She alternates between the two tracks from week to week, and stresses the importance of keeping team-oriented individuals at both locations.

Brian Smeak is O’Connell’s Tampa Bay Downs assistant and Jesus Herrera fills that role at Gulfstream.

“I have about 20 full-time employees at both tracks, maybe a few more at Tampa – my assistants, two foremen, a groom for every five horses, at least eight hotwalkers,” said the two-time Tampa Bay Downs training champion. “Even though I am a very hands-on trainer, I can’t stress enough how much our success depends on the help. There isn’t a day that I’m not at one barn or the other, but you still need a good group of people, and a lot of my employees have been with me 10-to-15 years.

“Everybody can notice something about a horse, from the grooms to the hotwalkers to the exercise riders, and all those little things added together make a big difference.”

O’Connell said meaningful communication is vital in keeping her owners up-to-date on a horse’s status. She has had a longstanding, fruitful relationship with top Florida breeder and owner Gilbert G. Campbell, for whom she currently trains between 8-10 horses; the remainder of her runners are spread among multiple owners.

“Thank God for texting and e-mail,” she quipped of the communication challenge. “Every trainer wants useful, productive horses that win races, because your owners have spent a huge amount of money to be in racing and you want to protect that investment.”

O’Connell, who won the Sunshine Millions Sprint Stakes at Gulfstream in January with 6-year-old Florida-bred horse Early Entry, has trained numerous outstanding horses since starting her own stable in 1981. Her most notable recent stable star was the blazing-fast turf sprint filly Lady Shipman, who finished second by a neck to Mongolian Saturday in the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Keeneland in 2015.

That effort capped a year in which the (then)-3-year-old filly won seven of 10 starts, including six stakes, while setting a six-furlong track record on the all-weather track in the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Sprint for fillies and a course record in the five-and-a-half furlong Smart N Fancy Stakes on the Mellon Turf Course at Saratoga.

Lady Shipman’s gallant Breeders’ Cup effort followed O’Connell’s first trip to the Breeders’ Cup in 2013 with the Campbell-owned homebred Scandalous Act, who finished sixth in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Santa Anita.

Two years before that, O’Connell made the most sought-after walk in racing when she accompanied Grade II Tampa Bay Derby winner Watch Me Go to the paddock for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. Although Watch Me Go defeated only one horse, O’Connell cherishes every memory from her participation in the world’s most famous horse race.

Other top O’Connell trainees include Grade II winner and millionaire Blazing Sword; Grade II winner Ivanavinalot, a $647,300-earner who is the dam of 2016 Eclipse Award Champion 3-Year-Old Filly Songbird; 2013 Challenger Stakes winner Flatter This; and Shananie’s Beat, a Campbell homebred who won eight stakes for O’Connell and trainer Edward “Ned” Allard.

Around the oval. The lightly raced 3-year-old colt Parlor turned in a strong performance in today’s fifth race on the turf, rallying from last in the six-horse field to post a 1 ¾-length victory from Musical America. The 1-mile allowance/optional claiming event was Parlor’s first start since a second-place finish in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile Stakes on the turf on Sept. 3.

Jesus Castanon rode Parlor, who is owned by Anderson Thoroughbreds and trained by Eddie Kenneally. The winner’s time was 1:36.71.

Trainer John Rigattieri and jockey Orlando Bocachica teamed for two victories today. They won the second race with Doodle Hopper, a 5-year-old gelding owned by Rigattieri and Manfred Roos, and grabbed the ninth race with Going Bold, a 4-year-old Florida-bred filly owned by Robert Susi.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Thursday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:50 p.m. The track is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action and tournament play in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.