As Kathleen O’Connell prepares two starters for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, she laughs when she reflects on her uphill climb in Thoroughbred racing. Her first license, obtained at old Detroit Race Course for 1979-’80, identified her as a hotwalker and “pony boy.”
O’Connell, a former exercise rider, has come far since her “pony boy” days. As of Oct. 30, she ranked second among female trainers in career victories with 2,012, trailing only Midwest trainer Kim Hammond (2,219). She will saddle Well Defined in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on “Future Stars Friday” at Churchill Downs and will send Stormy Embrace to the Filly and Mare Sprint on Championship Saturday.
“It has been a long road,” she said, “and a good road.”
For O’Connell, it has always been about the horses – and winning.
The Florida-based trainer eagerly anticipates going to the barn every day.
“You are doing something you love,” she said. “It is not even like you are going to work every day. It’s been very fulfilling.”
Well Defined and Stormy Embrace will be her third and fourth Breeders’ Cup starters. She debuted on the championship stage when Scandalous Act ran sixth in the Juvenile Fillies in 2013. She endured an anguishing defeat when Lady Shipman, a 3-year-old filly opposing older males in the Turf Sprint, missed by a head bob against Mongolian Saturday in 2015.
Another trainer might have been exasperated to absorb such a narrow defeat. O’Connell still swells with pride.
“For a 3-year-old filly to compete at that level against older males,” she said, “you can’t be disappointed.”
The outcome led her to push herself all the harder. “You want more,” she said.
Brian Smeak, O’Connell’s assistant for almost 20 years, marvels at her relentless work ethic.
“She is hands on,” he said. “She works harder than all of her employees, so it is hard to keep up with her and hard to complain. She’s 24-7. She loves her horses.”
And she loves winning.
“I’m like a junkie looking for the next win,” she said. “They are all important. The little horse that runs for $6,250, you have to be proud of him, too.”
She admits, though, that there would be nothing quite like a Breeders’ Cup victory.
“It’s the top tier, so it would mean a lot,” O’Connell said. “It would be like winning the World Series, or something on that order.”
It has to be a great sign that Well Defined, a With Distinction gelding bred and owned by long-time client Gil Campbell, attracted Mike Smith to ride him. Smith ranks as the most successful jockey in Breeders’ Cup history with 26 victories.
“With these 2-year-olds, it’s important they come around at the proper time. And it just seems like he is putting it all together,” O’Connell said. “With his tactical speed, it’s worked out over a route of ground. I’m really happy with the way he’s coming into it.”
Well Defined won his career debut on June 2 at Gulfstream Park. He was most impressive in his last start, asserting himself out of the starting gate and drawing off to a 7 ½-length romp in the In Reality, part of the Florida Sire Stakes Series, on Sept. 29 at Gulfstream.
The In Reality was run at the Juvenile distance of 1 1/16 miles, proving the Florida-bred can handle two turns. Otherwise, there is no comparison between the In Reality and what Well Defined will encounter on Friday. Game Winner, who has suggested early brilliance for brilliant Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, looms an imposing 8-5 morning-line favorite in the Juvenile with Joel Rosario aboard.
Four-year-old Stormy Embrace secured a fees-paid berth in the Filly and Mare Sprint when she captured the seven-furlong Princess Rooney on June 30 at Gulfstream. A 15-1 longshot in the Grade 2 Princess Rooney, she took command from the beginning and rolled by six lengths.
“We are looking for racing luck in that race,” O’Connell acknowledged. “It would definitely take luck.”
Recent weeks have been painful for the trainer who Smeak and others affectionately refer to as “KO.” O'Connell's father, Joseph, died on Oct. 1. He was 93.
When O’Connell was asked whether she feels her father’s spirit with her this week, her eyes welled with tears. No answer was needed.