OLDSMAR — The workday for trainer Kathleen O'Connell is sunrise to sunset. It used to be longer.
Two decades ago, O'Connell shipped horses from Tampa Bay Downs or a nearby training center to race on the same day at Calder Race Course. Her schedule: Leave for Miami Gardens at midnight and return 26 hours later.
"It was 286 miles by Alligator Alley and 276 by the (Florida) Turnpike," she said. "And I can tell you where every palm tree was."
O'Connell, 58, a Detroit native, still motors along. She is coming off a career year, highlighted by a trainer championship at the Tropical at Calder meet. She also won the nation's first graded stakes this year and entering today is tied with Anthony Pecoraro as the Downs' leading trainer.
"I train for a lot of breeders," O'Connell said. "It's just the right stock coming together and staying healthy. I'm not a real claiming trainer, (so) to get these kinds of stats is pretty incredible."
Her statistics were striking in 2009: a personal high 107 victories from 662 starts, $1,521,518 in purse earnings and a No. 40 national ranking, second among females. Her crowning achievement came last week at Calder, where she became the first woman to win a trainer title in the track's 39 years.
Her final Calder winner was Fly by Phil in the Grade III $100,000 Tropical Park Derby on Jan. 1. Fly by Phil is owned by Gilbert Campbell, a Massachusetts resident and Ocala farm owner who is O'Connell's major owner. The 3-year-old gelding may be entered in the Grade III $225,000 Sam F. Davis on Feb. 13 at the Downs. O'Connell's only other title came in the 1998-99 meet at Oldsmar.
Patience is paramount to O'Connell's success.
"Young horses come around at a different caliber," she said. "Some that are bred to go long, you train for a long time before you even run them. And the babies, mentally and physically, can't take the every two- to three-week pounding that an older horse might take."
MORE DOWNS: Big Truck, the 2008 Tampa Bay Derby winner, is among 10 entries in today's $65,000 Pelican Stakes (Race 8, 3:43 p.m.). … Jockey Daniel Centeno, hospitalized after being kicked by a horse in the paddock Sunday, returned to action Wednesday with four wins. "I got (kicked) right in the middle of my chest, close to my heart," he said. "But thank God, everything is okay." … Apprentice rider Kristina McManigell scored her first career win Thursday aboard Real Stormy ($32.60).
GREYHOUNDS: Kennel owner-trainer Mick D'Arcy said Sovereign Lord is "now legit" after winning the 85th Inaugural Stakes on Jan. 2 at Derby Lane in St. Petersburg. It was Sovereign Lord's first stakes win in a career-best time of 30.54 seconds at 550 yards. He is out of the first litter from 2006 Derby Lane Million winner Greys Calibrator. His sire is track 550-yard record holder Trent Lee.