OLDSMAR — Kathleen O'Connell had no outside issues to deal with when she saddled Watch Me Go in the 2011 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
Back at Tampa Bay Downs, her home track, assistant trainer Brian Smeak and other staff members had things well under control.
"The (track) backside is important. It's the whole backbone of our industry," said O'Connell, a two-time Oldsmar training champion with more than 1,400 lifetime wins. "People don't realize without grooms, hotwalkers, pony personnel and gallop people, there is nothing left. Without them, you don't have horses going to the big dances. They're the unsung heroes."
O'Connell is a regular attendee of the Hearts Reaching Out fundraiser, an annual event sponsored by Race Track Chaplaincy of America, Tampa Bay Downs Division. It benefits hundreds of backside workers who care daily for the horses. Computers, English classes, worship services, sports and other activities for backside help are funded by the event.
The March 5 fundraiser begins at 11 a.m. with a four-person scramble golf tournament at Cheval Golf and Country Club in Lutz. A dinner and auction with racing and sports memorabilia follows at 5:30 p.m. at the Downs pavilion tent near the paddock.
Former Bucs running back Michael Pittman, jockeys and trainers are expected to play in the tournament. The fundraiser is open to the public. For information, call Sharyn Wasiluk at (813) 494-1870 or (813) 298-1576.
Smeak, 57, has been in the thoroughbred business for 35 years, the past 13 with O'Connell.
"(Backside workers) allow Kathleen to have a 40-horse outfit," he said. "Grooms take care of the horse from the feet up to the mouth seven days a week starting at 5 in the morning. They clean stalls, brush the horses, give them baths and take care of their legs. You have to make feed, come back for night-time feeding and check on the horses until the next morning. Without a good groom, your horse is not going to be happy and healthy.
"You have to have good grooms, good exercise riders and a trainer that's knowledgeable in watching what's going on both on the race track and in the barn."
MORE HORSES. Duke of Mischief goes for his fifth career graded stakes victory in the Grade III $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes today (Race 9, 4:10 p.m.) at the Downs. … Sunday, Kentucky Derby contenders Algorithms, Discreet Dancer and Union Rags are entered in the Grade II $400,000 Fountain of Youth (Race 11, 5:13) at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach.
Dogs: Third-round qualifying in the $64,000 Sprint Classic resumes tonight in Races 6 (8:55) and 10 (10:11) at Derby Lane in St. Petersburg. … Maria Mandalena, who began her career with J.E. O'Donnell Jr. kennel at Derby Lane, won the $75,000 World Classic on Feb. 17 at Mardi Gras in Hallandale Beach.