March 10, 2010

Q & A with Calder’s First Lady - Kathleen O’Connell

It was my pleasure to sit down recently with the first woman ever to win the training title at Calder Race Course, Kathleen O’Connell. O’Connell has been at her trade for a long time, more than 40 years, and currently she is enjoying all the hard work and dedication she has put into the sport. She lives and breathes Thoroughbred horses and it comes out plainly in our discussion. We got a chance to talk about the current stable star and a few from the past, as well as being a woman in what has traditionally been a man’s game. Enjoy the interview, and by the way, she is still on a roll. At the time of this discussion, Kathleen O’Connell has a commanding lead in the trainer standings at Tampa Bay Downs. No longer known simply as a woman trainer, she is now a star who happens to be a woman.

Photo by Jim Lisa
ZATT- You recently became the first woman ever to win the training title at Calder Race Course, would you call it the most satisfying accomplishment in your career?

KO - I wouldn’t say it is the most satisfying, it is right up there. It is an accomplishment.

ZATT- The horse that clinched the training title was Fly by Phil, in winning the Tropical Park Derby, did that make it even more special?

KO - Yes, it did. I had been training with Mr. Campbell for 19 years. We have had a long and very successful relationship and I am appreciative that I’ve been with him that long. He raises a lot of horses.

ZATT - Where can we expect to see Fly by Phil run next?

KO - I can not say right now. We had a minor set back and he has had three weeks off and will be back in training this week.

ZATT- Is he still a potential Derby horse?

KO - It depends on how much he has lost in the three weeks he has had off. He is a very, very nice horse. I think he can run on any type of surface, which real nice horses do. Dirt, turf, broken glass…

ZATT - The first time you became well known nationally was in 1996, with Blazing Sword, what are your memories of that millionaire?

KO - He was a really, really nice horse and a really, really nice individual. It was great, considering that I had been training with Mr. Campbell for just five or 6 years. You get to know some of the mare lines and their breeding, from working Calder. Blazing Sword showed the talent at short distances, early as a baby. He gave me tremendous hope, and then as he became a rising star…there were no two ways about it.

ZATT - Was he the best horse you ever trained?

KO - Yes, probably so. He had a serous illness that kept him out for a while, but when he returned, he did a lot of good things. I also liked the filly Ivanavinalot.

ZATT - With the success of people like yourself and Linda Rice, it seems that female trainers are reaching new heights, do you consider yourself a pioneer?

KO- Not a pioneer, but I’ve been at it a long time. When I first got my license, they would not allow women to be the named trainer. I had to train under other people’s names, times have changed for the better since.

ZATT - It would seem that women as horse trainers is a natural fit, why do you think it still such a male dominated career?

KO - It’s a tough business because, it is very time consuming. Male dominated, because women still have a big part of the upbringing of children. I think that is why women are not as involved to a certain degree. It is a very devoted thing, it is 24/7 thing, it’s not like a business that you lock up and come back the next day.

ZATT - Do you have any advice for young ladies with dreams of becoming a trainer?

KO - Be willing to sacrifice a lot. I sacrificed relationships, my family…you still go through guilty periods. My mom and dad are in their 80s and I really don’t get see them as often as I Like. They are still in Michigan… I have been in Florida since 1976. Moved Lock, Stock and Barrel out of Michigan in 1984. Its been a big sacrifice. Thank God they are still in good health. Up until two years ago they drove all the way from Michigan because mom hates to fly. They spend time, but is always around racing.

ZATT - How big is your current stable?

KO - I maintain 70 head, between 60 and 70 head the last few years. Split between Tampa and Miami and then Colonial and Miami. Pretty much every Monday, I leave South Florida after training and I’m in Tampa Monday afternoon, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Thursday evening I travel back to Miami and back on Friday. When Colonial starts it is just the opposite.

ZATT - For all thoroughbred owners who read this, what do you consider to be your biggest strengths that set you apart from other trainers?

KO - I like communication. Communication is the key to any good relationship. We live in a realistic world. I try to do the best for the horses and let the owners know how they are doing. It is so important to be realistic and open. The horses, attitude wise and everything, they are flesh and bone and blood and they get injured and sick and you have to make every race count. That is such a key part of it. You don’t know when they are gong to get sick or when they are going to have a setback. You have to utilize the races that are available.

ZATT - OK, Kathleen, one more question…With the year you had in 2009, what kind of expectations do you have for 2010?

KO - Everyone has high expectations. You have to more or less deal with cards that are sent to you and take it from there. We had a great 2009 and we are having a great run in 2010. It is a great experience. I’m blessed with a solid team, owners and my parent’s work ethic. I love what I do and I love where I do it.


Anonymous said...

beautiful soul,hard worker,great knowledge and feel for horses definitely on the rise after all these years and like everything else you take out what you put in....destined for better as time goes on.......all the best misss k.......

Gary Lee Sexton said...

Kathleen is classy and I wish her the best of racing luck.

D.P. said...

A true unsung hero in the sport. I have always liked betting on a Kathleen O'Conner trained horse. Thanks Zipse, for letting us know her a little better.

The_Knight_Sky said...

Co-inky dink. Mr. Z.

A few weeks ago I featured her "trainer bio" at my own blog. ;-)

Ms. O'Connell's work with 2 year old maidens (especially off the shelf) is unmatched.

Brian Zipse said...

TKS, Kathleen deserves all the write-ups she gets and more.

C T Coleman said...

one of the best trainers in the game she dose well with claimers, allowance and stakes horses on both dirt and turf. classy trainer with a clean record and a must watch at Tampa

william said...

hi brian....interesting interview....her name is not very familiar with me but to be compared with linda rice means she continues training on a high level, zatt will continue to write wonderful things about her

Jennifer said...

Great interview. :)

LDP said...

Very nice interview. I'm happy times have changed. I'm hoping more women will get involved in the sport and succeed.