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  1. Sports

Connell kennel aims to change fortunes at Derby Lane

ST. PETERSBURG — The hours kept piling up and so did the losses.

Alex Hall simply stayed the course.

His diligence and 70-hour work weeks are beginning to pay off for Connell kennels, which starts two greyhounds today in the $80,000 Distance Classic at Derby Lane. The track's richest stakes event features four qualifying rounds with the 660-yard championship race on April 11. First place pays $32,000.

Hall, 22, is trying to give Connell its first stakes finalist since Derby Lane's newest operation returned in January. Kennel owner Rod Connell of Eustis left St. Petersburg in 2007, moving his greyhounds to bestbet Orange Park near Jacksonville. His previous stint at Derby Lane extended more than three decades, he said.

"I'm a competitor, and my owners have some good dogs," Connell, 77, said. "I look at myself as a coach, and I hire a quarterback to run things like a ball of fire."

Hall, Connell's manager-trainer, carries the same duties he had with two-time track win leader Red Oak Racing. Hall has won a stakes race in each of the past three years, including the 2013 Distance Classic with Se's Home Owner.

Connell's entries in the Distance Classic are Kiowa Tree Spot (Race 6, 8:39 p.m.) and Mohican Gidja (8, 9:13).

"I'm outgunned, that's for sure," Hall said. "But we need to get one (in the final) to prove that we can run against the quality, quality dogs."

Hall's biggest challenge has been getting the greyhounds acclimated to a new surface.

"The dogs would go wide in their first four or five starts (at Derby Lane)," Hall said. "I had to get back to the basics of what works for me. Slowly, but surely, they started coming around."

Connell lost its first 94 starts before Kiowa Red Brook won on Jan. 14. It took 501 starts before the kennel recorded its only Grade A victory with Kiowa Mat Marty on March 10. Entering Friday, Connell ranked last among 16 kennels with 58 wins. Burk Greyhounds leads with 136.

Last week was an eventful one for Hall. Amanda Cardinal, his fiancee, was hired to assist in the kennel. Victor Hall, his father, was recognized as the best trainer and having the most improved kennel at Southland Park Gaming and Racing in West Memphis, Ark. Victor Hall began Derby Lane's four-time leading kennel Patriot in 2009, losing his first 63 starts.

"Dad told me going in (to Connell kennels), 'You've got to understand it took me so many starts to win my first race,' " Alex Hall said.

HORSES: Tampa Bay Downs-based Divining Rod was a late nomination Tuesday to the Triple Crown series.

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