On Saturday afternoon, the "barn rat" will leave her comfort zone.
Kathleen O'Connell will make the renowned walk that begins on the Churchill Downs backside. She will depart Barn 41 and head to the paddock with Tampa Bay Derby winner Watch Me Go, a 50-1 shot in the Kentucky Derby.
The two-time Tampa Bay Downs training champion will go by 150,000 horse-crazed fans and the Louisville track's iconic Twin Spires. The spotlight has never been brighter on O'Connell, who is saddling her first Derby starter.
No female trainer has won the Derby; 13 have tried before. O'Connell, 59, is one of two in this year's field. Kathy Ritvo, 42, trains Mucho Macho Man.
"I think it would be a great honor, whether I was male or female, to win the Derby," O'Connell said. "Gender shouldn't have a lot to do with it. As far as (media requests) going on, I'm not looking forward to that. … I'm kind of a barn rat and private person."
Treating horses, not training them, was O'Connell's original plan. Four decades ago, the Michigan native wanted to be a veterinarian. She attended high school in Livonia, a suburb of Detroit, was a member of the National Honor Society and graduated in the top 10 of her class with a 3.8 grade point average. She was denied entry into vet school.
"I grew up in the era where they really didn't think women were going through the whole (vet) program," she said. "As far as they were concerned, you were just taking up space. … You would just meet a guy and get married."
O'Connell, who is single and owns a home in Odessa, galloped and broke horses at Detroit Race Course. Her first license in 1970 said "exercise boy" because there was no listing for "girl." She migrated to Florida in the mid 1980s.
She has more than 10,600 starts, 1,300 victories and $21.5 million in earnings. In 2009-10, she became the first woman to win a training title at Calder in Miami Gardens.
O'Connell began a partnership 20 years ago with Watch Me Go owner Gilbert Campbell, a Massachusetts native and breeder who owns Stonehedge Farm South in Williston. In 1997, Blazing Sword gave them Derby fever with a second-place finish behind Pulpit in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach. Three horses from that race — Captain Bodgit, Jack Flash and Pulpit — started in the Derby. Blazing Sword did not. He incurred an unknown illness that nearly cost him his life.
"We still really don't know what happened," O'Connell said.
Blazing Sword eventually returned and became a Grade II winner and millionaire. His retirement was announced 10 years to the day that 43-1 shot Watch Me Go punched his ticket to Louisville with a victory in the Tampa Bay Derby, Oldsmar's first Grade II race in 85 years.
"People do everything to keep their kids well, but they still get sick," O'Connell said. "These horses are the same way. Everything has to go perfect, and you can't skip a beat."
Watch Me Go will start from post 20 under Rafael Bejarano. The 3-year-old Florida homebred colt is by West Acre, who stands for $2,500 at Campbell's farm.
"My horse has a very good mind, and he can get the distance," O'Connell said. "That 1 1/4 miles (in the Derby) separates the men from the boys."
Watch Me Go comes off a sixth-place finish on a wet surface in the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne in Stickney/Cicero.
"On an off track, he's like Bambi on ice," O'Connell said. "I think you'll see the horse that was in the Tampa Bay Derby if we have a good, fast track."
Oldsmar racing secretary Allison De Luca said O'Connell is the ultimate professional.
"You won't find anybody that works any harder," De Luca said. "She cares a lot about her horses and owners. And when she sees something that she thinks is wrong, she does try and do something about it. If she won the Derby, I couldn't think of a more deserving person."