Thursday, March 13, 2008

O’Connell’s Local Hero Takes On Zito’s Star

OLDSMAR, FLA., Mar. 12, 2008---Tampa Bay Downs, the little track that could, is laying in wait three more days for the Festival Day star to arrive.

When Street Sense shipped here last year, followed very closely by Any Given Saturday, the Tampa Bay Derby, the centerpiece of this quaint country track on the West Coast of Florida, was raised to a higher level.

This year it’s the same, only different. Last year everyone knew that Street Sense was a very good horse. Indeed, he, too, was a champion juvenile champion, coming to town to prep for the Derby that’s run in Louisville early each May.

But with such a sharp, proven rival in tow, no one knew what to expect of Street Sense. It was the champ’s first start of the year, and his trainer, Carl Nafzger, is the master of pointing to an ultimate goal to be named later.

So, was he 80 percent ready? Was it more, less? And if it were more, was that some guarantee that he would win?

This year it’s the same, only different. The star of this Festival, like any celebrity, will arrive fashionably late. Juvenile champion War Pass is coming to town with something to prove. He’s in town for a mini-coronation, confirming to all that he, not Pyro, is at the head of this class.

At barn 25 on the Tampa backstretch, trainer Kathleen O’Connell and Cigar Man are also awaiting the star, but there is no sense of awe. Like everyone in racing, O’Connell learned the game the hard way, from the ground up, while working for trainer Frank Seremba at her hometown track, Detroit Race Course.

A member of the National Honor Society, O’Connell, the daughter of a Detroit policeman, tried to enroll in veterinary school and was denied. But she wanted horses to be a major part of the rest of her life, so she walked hots, groomed, repaired tack and exercised racehorses, gaining experience for the latter as a show-horse rider.

“She was just great,” Seremba said, “and she could tack with any man,” her former mentor said, simultaneously giving O’Connell a hug. O’Connell smiled at the notion, accepting Seremba’s comment for the compliment it was meant to be.

After getting a license, her early years in South Florida were tough. She couldn’t get stalls at Calder so she bedded her horses down at Tampa and shipped her better stock to South Florida, a 10-hour van ride away. She remembers making 36 trips in one year.

O’Connell may not be a major player on the national stage but she knows her craft very well. She is best known for her work with Blazing Sword, a winner of two divisions of the Florida Stallion Stakes as a 1996 juvenile.

After a stomach ailment nearly took the horse’s life that winter, O’Connell nursed him back to health and subsequently won the Calder Derby before finishing second to Pulpit in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. She kept Blazing Sword going and he won the Washington Park Handicap at age six to become an equine millionaire. In 1999, O’Connell was Tampa’s leading trainer and last May saddled career victory 1,000.

Today O’Connell has 58 horses in training, 30 here and 28 in South Florida. After having lost stakes-winning Check It Twice via private sale earlier this year, Cigar Man is the best horse in her barn, though she has some highly promising two-year-olds.

But her current focus is Saturday and she knows that defeating War Pass won’t be easy. “It’s tough finding a ‘one other than’ for your horse and I don’t want to go to turf with him yet. We’ve got no other place to go right now. Sometimes you’ve got to step up to the plate and see where they’re at.”

Cigar Man’s two best races were a placing to Wise Answer in the In Reality division of the Florida Stallion Stakes and a close-up fourth after making the lead in the Ocala Breeders’ Championship behind talented Halo Najib. Following that effort, O’Connell and owner Charles Spence were expecting big things from Cigar Man on Feb. 26, his Tampa debut.

“There were only six horses and we were sure that someone would go to the lead, but when that didn’t happen, we were in front after breaking sharply. The race didn’t unfold like we thought it would. We were all devastated when we got beat,” O’Connell said.

And by no means is she conceding Saturday’s race to Zito’s champion.

“War Pass is a very good looking horse,” O’Connell admitted. “They were lucky to have the race go and he sure got a good confidence builder.” And the strategy for taking War Pass on? “There’s not much we can do. [Cigar Man] needs to stalk and make one run.”

Will that be effective against a colt some observers have mentioned in the same sentence with Seattle Slew?

“At this point, that might be a little premature.” Spoken like the daughter of a Detroit cop.

Written by John Pricci

Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
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BallHype: hype it up!

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