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Longtime Derby Lane kennel owner Rod Connell dies

ST. PETERSBURG — The passion that Rod Connell had for greyhounds was second to none.

Lonnie Boyle knew that better than anyone.

So in December, when the longtime kennel owner — who was in declining health — wanted to move from Eustis to St. Petersburg to be closer to his kennel at Derby Lane, Boyle, a longtime friend, didn't let the veteran dog man down.

"My wife (Jamie) and I moved him into a condo right across the street from (Derby Lane)," Boyle said. "He just wanted to be close so he could feel like — even though he couldn't go in the kennel any more — he was part of it. He could have done the same thing on the telephone, but that was his life, and we helped him … so he could watch the replay of the races"

Mr. Connell, who raced at Derby Lane for more than three decades, died Monday. He was 79.

The native of Columbus, Ga., spent much of his life in Lake Mary and Eustis. He was an electrical contractor who once worked for NASA at John F. Kennedy Space Center, but greyhound racing became part of his DNA.

"(Dogs) were in his blood," said Boyle, 61, who assisted Mr. Connell in running his operation in recent months and will take over the kennel roster spot on July 1 under the Tri-State kennel brand. "(People) stay in it, because it's been their life. It's 24-7, and Rod was like that.

"He loved to fish, too. It was ridiculous, but he must have had 1,000 fishing poles. Why … so many, I wouldn't have a clue."

In a 2015 interview, Mr. Connell said: "I'm a competitor. … I look at myself as a coach, and I hire a quarterback to run things like a ball of fire."

He said he had raced at Derby Lane for more than 30 years before leaving in 2007 for bestbet at Orange Park near Jacksonville. He returned to St. Petersburg in 2015 and also had a booking at Daytona Beach Kennel Club. Mr. Connell did it all in the sport, from breeding to booking kennels.

"He was pretty successful," Boyle said. "He won lots of stakes races and had real competitive kennels, and then things went down for him. The last few years, he hadn't been able to take care of business the way that he had before (because of health issues)."

Derby Lane racing secretary Les Robison said Mr. Connell "was like a Southern gentleman with a kind heart and a firm handshake."

Mr. Connell is survived by wife Arnell Connell of Eustis; son Mark "Bo" Connell of Philadelphia; daughter Melinda Van Doren of Eustis; grandsons Casen Connell and Rodney Van Doren III; and granddaughters Kaitlyn Connell and Kylie Connell. A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. Sunday at Collison Carey Hand Funeral Home, 1148 E. Plant St., Winter Garden.

MORE DOGS: The $8,000 T.L. Weaver Memorial Challenge is Race 10 tonight.

HORSES: Lorraine King, a former vice president of administration and general manager at Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar, died Tuesday in Palm Harbor. She was a native of Hartford, Conn. No date has been announced for a memorial service.