April’s Horsemen Profile: Kathleen O’Connell

Each month we plan to profile a different horsemen in Journeyman Journals. This will allow novice fans and current racing enthusiasts the opportunity to get to know people behind the scenes. A little background information can go a long way in attracting a fan base.

With the close of the Tampa Bay Downs meet quickly approaching, it seems appropriate to profile a horsemen that has continually made her presence known during this meet.

Kathleen O’Connell is one of four women to capture a training title at the Oldsmar oval and she is the only woman to ever hold the title at Calder Race Course in Miami Gardens Florida. Kathleen struck out on her own in 1981 and saddled her 1,500th winner this winter during the Tampa Bay Downs meet.  More impressive than her number of winners is her consistancy her runners have earned more than $1 Million annually for 13 consecutive years. Dubbed “the barn rat” she is known as one of the hardest workers on the backside and shows no signs of slowing down her breakneck pace.

Known affectionately as KO to Brent and Crystal Fernung, Kathleen has been a longtime trainer but more importantly a friend of the Fernungs. “KO is a true horseman and consummate professional” says Crystal.  “KO will give every ounce of herself for every horse and every client. I have long admired her not only as a trainer but as a woman and a professional in her arena.”

In 2011, she won the Grade II $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby with WATCH ME GO at 43-1 for long time client Gilbert Campbell a Florida Owner and Breeder. Through this win she was given the opportunity to take WATCH ME GO to the Kentucky Derby and attempt to be the first female trainer to win “the run for the roses”. While she did not win the Derby, she did became the first female trainer to capture a training title at Calder Race Course in its 39 year history.

The days of being labeled a “female trainer” seem long gone but the business has changed dramatically for her over the past 40 years. She still has her first racetrack license which reads “pony boy”. While she graduated in the top 15% of her high school class and finished with a 3.8 GPA she was turned down when she applied for Vet School at Michigan State. She never thought she would not be accepted, but later learned only two girls were accepted each year. She decided to give community college a try and started working in a photo shop which she hated. The race track seemed like the place for her so she decided she would give that a try until she knew what to do; here 40 years later, she is still at it and the rest is history.

Kathleen O’Connell

Q; How and when were you introduced to thoroughbred racing?
I grew up in Detroit so I went to Detroit Race Track in 1970 and I started out as a hot walker and groom. I gravitated to the racetrack when I unsuccessfully tried to gain admittance to Vet School.

Q; What’s your favorite track?
Tampa Bay Downs

Q; What’s your favorite thoroughbred race meeting?

Q;  What challenges are you faced with being a woman in a male dominated industry?
The most difficult aspect is trying to gather up enough people to have faith in you and then have those people send you good horses. Anyone faces that whether you are male or female.

Q; What would you like to see more of in racing?
The most important thing I would like to see in racing is Uniform Medication Laws across the country. In Florida, I would like to see larger purses to support the quality of thoroughbreds that we are producing. Florida thoroughbreds, especially two-year-olds at Calder, have gone all over the country and made names for themselves, yet they are competing for a pittance at their home tracks.

Q;  What would you like to see less of in racing?
I would like to see the media stop capitalizing on the negative aspects of racing. I would instead like to see racing promoted for the positive stories so that the game can grow in it’s following.

Q;  How did it feel to reach your 1,500th win?
It was very very gratifying. It was an accumulation of a lot of hard work between the staff and a lot of good owners who allow you to place the horses in the proper spots. I run a blue collar operation without a lot of stake horses and with having no family in the business it became an even bigger accomplishment. It truly is a joint effort and without my owners and team I could not have done it.

Q; What was your personal best or most meaningful moment?
I have been blessed for several years getting the most wins with Florida breds. It was also a huge honor to have my horse, WATCH ME GO, give me the opportunity in 2011 to be a part of the Kentucky Derby, while he did not finish as we would have liked it was an honor just to be there.

Q;  Who is your hero?
There are a lot of heroes in this business. For me it is the people on the breeding farms and the people who do the every day labor and the vets that help get horses well. Without these people who are behind the scenes none of us would be where we are.

Q;  Do you follow any sports other than racing?
No. I eat, sleep and live horses. I have been dubbed “the barn rat”.

Q;  Best Racetrack food?
I really could not say because I eat like a bird.

Q;  Favorite animal other than a horse?
I really love my dogs.

Q; Twitter Handle?
Nope. I have 957 emails on my computer and do not do Facebook. I do not have enough time in the day, and I am not the technologically advanced (laughs).

Q;  How many times have you been leading trainer?
Twice at Tampa Bay Downs and once at Calder. It is very difficult because most of the horses that come to me are via breeders or a person who wants to have one or two to have fun with. I do not have a lot of horses or a lot of turnover which makes my titles that much more meaningful.

Q; How does it feel for you to be the only female trainer to win a training title at Calder which is now finding you inducted into their 2013 Hall of Fame? 
It is a monumental achievement in my life. It took a long time to get there but it means a lot and there have been a lot of sacrifices along the way. I eat, sleep and breathe horses so my personal life has suffered. I never got married or had children, but at least I have been able to make a living and receive recognition for something I have such a passion for.


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