Make us your home page

Get the quickest, smartest news, analysis and photos from the Bucs game emailed to you shortly after the final whistle.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Odessa's Kathleen O'Connell tries to become the first female trainer to win the Kentucky Derby

Trainer Kathleen O’Connell, who lives in Odessa, is in her first Kentucky Derby with Tampa Bay Derby winner of Watch Me Go.

Associated Press

Trainer Kathleen O’Connell, who lives in Odessa, is in her first Kentucky Derby with Tampa Bay Derby winner of Watch Me Go.

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."

Kentucky Derby draw

Post, HorseTrainerJockeyODD
1ArcharcharchWilliam FiresJon Court8-1
2Brilliant SpeedTom AlbertraniJoel Rosario30-1
3Twice the AppealJeff BondeCalvin Borel17-1
4Stay ThirstyTodd PletcherRamon Dominguez25-1
5Decisive MomentJuan AriasKerwin Clark45-1
6Comma to the TopPeter MillerPat Valenzuela40-1
7Pants on FireKelly BreenAnna Napravnik25-1
8Dialed InNick ZitoJulien Leparoux3-1
9Derby KittenMike MakerJavier Castellano40-1
10TwinspiredMike MakerMike Smith40-1
11Master of HoundsAidan O'BrienGarrett Gomez30-1
12SantivaEddie KenneallyShaun Bridgmohan30-1
13Mucho Macho ManKathy RitvoRajiv Maragh10-1
14ShacklefordDale RomansJesus Castanon8-1
15Midnight InterludeBob BaffertVictor Espinoza12-1
16Animal KingdomH. Graham MotionRobby Albarado25-1
17SoldatKiaran McLaughlinAlan Garcia8-1
18Uncle MoTodd PletcherJohn Velazquez6-1
19NehroSteve AsmussenCorey Nakatani5-1
20Watch Me GoKathleen O'ConnellRafael Bejarano50-1

Odessa's Kathleen O'Connell tries to become the first female trainer to win the Kentucky Derby 05/05/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 5, 2011 10:46pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Aaron Hernandez had severe CTE; daughter sues NFL, Patriots


    BOSTON — Tests conducted on the brain of former football star Aaron Hernandez showed severe signs of the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and his attorney said Thursday that the player's daughter is suing the NFL and the New England Patriots for leading Hernandez to believe the sport …

    Aaron Hernandez's lawyer says the former New England Patriots tight end's brain showed severe signs of the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy. [AP photo]
  2. Bucs' Josh Robinson excited for return to Vikings


    For much of Josh Robinson's four seasons with the Vikings, there was excitement leading up to the arrival of the $1.1-billion U.S. Bank Stadium, which opened last season, just as Robinson signed with the …

    Josh Robinson (26) tackles Chicago punt returner Eddie Royal (19) during a game between the Bucs and Bears in 2016. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
  3. For starters: Rays at Orioles, meeting up with ex-mate Tim Beckham


    UPDATE, 6:05: Cash gave both CF Kevin Kiermaier and SS Adeiny Hechavarria a day off, noting they have been playing pretty much everyday. ... That also gave them a chance to look more at two of their younger position players, OF Mallex Smith and INF Daniel Robertson. ... Cash said he was happy for Beckham that he …

    Tim Beckham made a smashing debut with the Orioles, hitting .394 with six homers and 19 RBIs in August.
  4. From the archives: Account of famed Riggs-King match heightens Tampa mob intrigue


    With the Sept. 29 opening of "Battle of the Sexes" — the movie starring Emma Stone and Steve Carrell about Billie Jean King's landmark 1973 tennis win over Bobby Riggs — we thought there might be renewed interest in this 2013 Peter Jamison story from the Tampa Bay Times.

    Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs in "Battle of the Sexes."  [Melinda Sue Gordon, Fox Searchlight Pictures]
  5. It's not a game, but the names are all the same in this football family


    TAMPA — A coach yells across the field into a scrum of blue-and-white clad football bodies at Jefferson High: "Kim Mitchell! Kim Mitchell, come here!"

    These twins are not only identical, but they have almost identical names. Kim Mitchell III, left, and Kim Mitchell IV are  talented football players at Jefferson High with Division I-A college offers. Kim  III wears No. 22 and plays cornerback while Kim IV wears No. 11 and plays safety. (Scott Purks, Special to the Times)