Tom Pedulla is interviewing prominent owners, trainers, and jockeys for America’s Best Racing as they travel the Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on Saturday, May 4, at Churchill Downs.
In the latest installment, he speaks to Kathleen O’Connell. She is bidding to become the first woman to train a Derby winner after 7-1 Well Defined controlled the $250,000 Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes by 2 ¾ lengths on Feb. 9 at Tampa Bay Downs.
Well Defined is a gelded son of With Distinction bred in Florida and still owned by Gil and Marilyn Campbell of Stonehedge LLC. He won the In Reality Stakes as part of the Florida Sire Stakes series as a 2-year-old. He finished a distant 12th in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with Hall of Famer Mike Smith aboard and ran fifth in the Jan. 5 Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream Park before his Sam F. Davis breakthrough with Pablo Morales in the irons.
O’Connell, affectionately known as “K.O.” around the barn, has won more than 2,000 races since she took out her trainer’s license in 1981. She was identified as a hotwalker and “pony boy” when she obtained her first license, at old Detroit Race Course, for the 1979-1980 season.
O’Connell is attempting to reach the Derby for the second time. Watch Me Go broke from outside, in post 20, and finished 18th in 2011.
PEDULLA: What did you think of Well Defined’s performance in the Juvenile?
O’CONNELL: The whole performance was compromised by the start. I throw out the whole race. His rear end fell out from underneath him and compromised good position early. Mike did the best he could under the circumstances, but the horse doesn’t like to be trapped in on the rail like that.
PEDULLA: What was your reaction to the fifth-place finish in the Mucho Macho Man?
O’CONNELL: If you watch the race, basically for a small field the same thing happened. I don’t think this horse necessarily has to be in front, but he has to be a free-running horse. It was just the way it unfolded and sometimes those things happen.
PEDULLA: Did you have a sense he would perform as well as he did in the Sam F. Davis?
O’CONNELL: He’s always trained well. He trained up to the Sam F. Davis super good and I think the addition of blinkers really helped. It was a remarkable performance. It’s always good to win a race like that at Tampa, because it’s kind of like my transplanted home.
PEDULLA: Had you been contemplating blinkers for some time?
O’CONNELL: I had been contemplating blinkers actually before his first start. But he had so much raw, natural speed that I opted against it because I was worried about him relaxing and stretching out two turns. He’s kind of like a Dennis the Menace horse. He was young and immature. He’s growing up every day. I’m happy with the way he’s coming around.
PEDULLA: Were blinkers a huge difference-maker in the Sam F. Davis?
O’CONNELL: Well, I just think they helped him focus more. He got off to a good start. We know he needs that. And the rest is history.
PEDULLA: Have you been associated with Gil and Marilyn Campbell for a long time?
O’CONNELL: Twenty-five years, I’m proud to say.
PEDULLA: What has that relationship been like?
O’CONNELL: It’s always a great relationship. They’ve invested a lot in the business and it’s great to see them get rewarded.
PEDULLA: I see that Well Defined is a Florida-bred. Do you think Florida-breds get the respect they deserve?
O’CONNELL: No, I don’t think Florida-breds truly get the credit they deserve. I’ve had over 2,000 winners and I would say more than half of them were Florida-breds. They can run with anybody and I couldn’t be happier having them.
PEDULLA: What is next for Well Defined?
O’CONNELL: Whatever he seems to fit into will be our next start. We have a lot of options available. The (Lambholm South) Tampa Bay Derby certainly makes sense, but we’ll go with enough spacing that he is back to a happy horse, which he is right now, and just decide which race comes up best for him.
PEDULLA: Did he come out of his last race well?
O’CONNELL: Very well. I couldn’t be happier with the way he came out of it.
PEDULLA: Do you intend to stick with Pablo Morales as his rider?
O’CONNELL: That is the owners’ decision. I like discussing all of the options with the owners because it is their horse.
PEDULLA: What was your first Derby like?
O’CONNELL: The Derby, as far as crowd-wise and everything, was really a unique experience. It’s just very different. It’s special, as I am sure it is for everybody.
PEDULLA: What would it mean if you could become the first woman to train a Derby winner?
O’CONNELL: It’s not about being the first woman. I don’t think that horse knows if I’m a girl or a boy. I would like it especially for Mr. Campbell, because it’s been a long relationship and a good relationship. He’s battled through the ups and downs. Through good communication and loyalty, we’ve had a good relationship.
PEDULLA: There is a historic aspect to this, but you seem to almost discount the gender issue.
O’CONNELL: The gender issue has been around since I first came on the racetrack and my license said “pony boy” because there was no girl category. So it really doesn’t make much difference one way or the other to me. I’d just be proud and honored.