O'Connell enjoys new domestic record for wins by female trainer

O'Connell enjoys new domestic record for wins by female trainer
Photo: Eclipse Sportswire

Kathleen O’Connell is unsure what she will do for an encore after overtaking Kim Hammond as racing’s all-time winning female trainer in the U.S. and Canada on Sunday.

“I haven’t had time to think about it. It’s been business as usual,” O’Connell said Wednesday.

The question might have been unfair, given all that she has accomplished since joining the training ranks in 1981. And although the term “woman trainer” still carries a hint of the resistance female conditioners faced in Thoroughbred racing, and throughout the country, over the decades, O’Connell and her crew deserve all the plaudits that marked career victory No. 2,386, one more than Hammond.

“It’s been a ride. It’s been a long ride, and it intensified in the last few weeks,” O’Connell said. “I would like to give special thanks to every person who supported me in the industry, and all my help, especially. This is not just about me. It’s about the people who work for me and the owners who trust me to run their horses in the correct spots.

“It’s a combination of a lot of things, just a huge team effort.”

O’Connell’s achievement boosted her into a tie for sixth place in the Tampa Bay Downs standings with 16 winners.

Given the success she has enjoyed with horses produced by the Stonehedge operation of the late Gilbert G. Campbell, it was fitting O’Connell broke the record Sunday with a Stonehedge-bred runner.

O’Connell took over the top spot from Hammond with a victory by 3-year-old gelding My Eagle Soars in the fifth race, touching off an emotional ceremony in the Tampa Bay Downs winner’s circle. Campbell, who died in 2021 at 91, named My Eagle Soars – a son of top Florida sire Khozan, out of the Rock of Gibraltar mare Silver Rock – before passing.

Campbell’s contributions to O’Connell’s record, and her efforts in bringing out the best in his horses, are well-documented in Florida racing annals. Their first big horse together was the Campbell-bred and owned Blazing Sword, whose graded triumphs included the Calder Derby (G3) in 1997 and the Washington Park Handicap (G2) and Widener Handicap (G3) in 2000.

Together, Campbell and O’Connell also campaigned graded winners Ivanavinalot, Fly by Phil, Watch Me Go and Well Defined. Watch Me Go’s victory in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) in 2011 earned O’Connell her lone runner in the Kentucky Derby.

Meanwhile, after winning on O’Connell’s first-time starter Dream Concert, a daughter of the O’Connell-trained stakes winner Spanish Concert, jockey Antonio Gallardo approached his assignments for O’Connell on Sunday with heightened anticipation. After failing to win on Gratia Prince in the fourth, Gallardo reminded himself that opportunities to lift a friend and benefactor are few and far between.

Ten years earlier, Gallardo was a virtually unknown 25-year-old from Spain struggling to gain a foothold in the United States. O’Connell gave him the mount on 14-1 shot Flatter This in the Challenger, and the upset victory marked, in a way, the beginning of Gallardo’s run of dominance at Tampa Bay Downs, with five titles in seven seasons and a record-setting 147-victory meet in 2014-2015.

Gallardo was also runner-up in the U.S. and Canada in victories in 2015 and 2016. He is the first to say a lot of his success derived from O’Connell’s belief in him.

“I was talking to my wife (Polliana) and I said I really want it to be me, because she has done a lot for me and my family,” Gallardo said. “She has been like my mom. I’m pretty excited.”

So, what can O’Connell do for an encore? First and foremost, she considers herself a teacher. Perhaps nothing brings her more fulfillment than developing the Thoroughbreds in her care for competition.

“We have enough young horses that we can keep them together, and that’s the best way that they learn,” said O’Connell. “It’s difficult to have just one young horse, because they are not used to company. My joy is watching them go through all the stages and simulating what it’s going to be like in a race.

“This accomplishment helps recharge everybody, just like winning a race. It’s maybe a little easier to get up, gives you a little more spring in your step.”

She plans to keep moving forward, making it more difficult for the next woman to pass her.

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