OLDSMAR — From Barn 25 on the Tampa Bay Downs backside, Kathleen O'Connell has an unobstructed view of the main track. She can watch races and tend to her 30-horse stable without missing a beat.
Rarely has her position been any better.
O'Connell, an Oldsmar fixture since 1976, stands atop the Downs trainer standings. She is pursuing a second track title and holds a 48-45 win lead over three-time champion Jamie Ness. Six racing days remain in the Downs' 84th season that concludes May 2.
"It would be wonderful if we could pull it off," O'Connell, 58, said. "We're trying to do the best with what we have to work with."
O'Connell won her first Downs title in 1998-99. No female has worn the Oldsmar crown twice since 1980, when records began. Her stable has been stable. O'Connell has lost seven horses at the claiming box and claimed two, reacquiring Rational Velvet both times. She has 233 starts, 89 more than any of the track's top 20 trainers. O'Connell says success wouldn't be possible without her 38-member staff. "They've done a wonderful job," she said. "Most of the people have been with me quite a while."
Many of O'Connell's horses are supplied by breeders. One is Dazzlin Dr Cologne, a 5-year-old gelding owned by Luis de Hechavarria of Ocala. The claiming sprinter ranks second at the Downs in victories, winning all four starts. "He's a hard-knocking horse, and we've just tried to manage him where he can be productive," she said.
Momentum has been with O'Connell in 2010. The Detroit native ranks first nationally among female trainers, and 15th overall, with 44 wins. In March, O'Connell was recognized by the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association as the top winner of Florida-bred horses in 2009. In January, she tied a Downs record she previously shared with Ness by saddling four winners on one card; and her Fly by Phil became the nation's first graded stakes winner of the decade by capturing the Grade III $100,000 Tropical Park Derby at Calder. That victory sealed the Tropical at Calder title for O'Connell, the first female to be leading trainer in Miami Gardens track history. Fly by Phil, a Kentucky Derby hopeful, hasn't raced since with health issues.
MORE HORSES: The Thoroughbred Retirement of Tampa will hold a benefit walk at the Downs' track on May 1. The walk begins at 11 a.m. and is limited to 300 individuals. For information, call (813) 298-6165 or go to tampatrot.org. … Gulfstream Park ends its 2010 meet today with six stakes at Hallandale Beach. On Sunday, Calder begins its 40th season with a 101-day meet. … Churchill Downs opens its meet today in Louisville with the final prep race for the May 1 Kentucky Derby: the Grade III $200,000 Cliff's Edge Derby Trial (Race 10, 5:17 p.m.).