11/10/2005 1:00AM

O'Connell's $1K buy nears six figures


VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Brian O'Connell says he's having his best year as a trainer, and it could get even better Saturday when he sends the $1,000 purchase He's Good to Go in the final leg of the $40,000 Pacific Customs Broker Starter Handicap Series.

O'Connell has only a few horses in his barn, and from 25 starts at the meet he's won 6 races.

"I probably had a few better years with Dad," he said wryly. "But I was drinking back then, so I can't really remember."

O'Connell was referring to his deceased father, Sonny O'Connell, a trainer who was a longtime president of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and is a member of the local Hall of Fame.

He's Good to Go will be either the favorite or the second choice behind All Is Calm in Saturday's 2 1/8-mile race. If He's Good to Go wins, he'll go over the $100,000 mark in earnings.

"He's the best $1,000 horse I ever bought," said O'Connell. "Actually, the breeder twisted my arm to buy him at the sale. He's just a big, god-awful ugly horse, and I can see why nobody wanted him. But I figured if he didn't work out I might be able to sell him as a show horse because show people like big horses."

For a while it looked like O'Connell was going to have to try and unload He's Good to Go. A 4-year-old gelding, He's Good to Go didn't really show much in his first seven races. O'Connell was hoping he would improve when he stretched him out to a route for the first time. He was defeated by almost 20 lengths.

"After he got beat so badly I thought I might have to pack it in," O'Connell said. "I was all in and things weren't going well. I had to go to the bank and borrow money. I thought I might have to regroup and start all over."

O'Connell decided to give He's Good to Go one more chance going long, and to his surprise he won. He's Good to Go also won his next two starts, and since then things have completely changed for O'Connell.

"We've been on a bit of a roll ever since," he said. "I claimed Sunrise Serenade, and he's had a great year for us. I bought a half-brother to Ohlund at the sale, and while you never know how it's going to turn out, he looks like a nice colt."

He's Good to Go finished second in his last start. But the winner, Woody's Diamond, was 17 lengths clear, and He's Good to Go was being eased by his rider, Pedro Alvarado, at the finish of the 1 3/4-mile race. He was almost caught by third-place finisher Out of Kilter. O'Connell isn't sure how He's Good to Go will handle going 2 1/8 miles.

"Pedro took a big run with him at Woody's Diamond at the far turn, but there was no way he was going to catch him," he said. "I'm not sure, but I hope he was saving a little horse for this race. I've never trained a horse to go this far before, and it's really been quite the challenge training a horse for the endurance races."

O'Connell only has a few horses in his stable because he has a full-time job as a longshoreman. He makes a good living on the docks, and since he quit drinking nine-years ago, his mother, Kathy O'Connell, who works at Hastings in guest services, has only one concern.

"She wants it to be fun for me, but she doesn't want me to hurt myself," he said. "She's worried that I'll overextend myself and buy too many horses. I call it a hobby, but it's really an obsession. I grew up here, and really this is where I want to be."

If O'Connell keeps buying horses like He's Good to Go, his mom won't have too much to worry about.

Non-profit group challenges slots

The Hastings Park Conservancy, a local non-profit group, has filed a motion with the British Columbia Supreme Court to stop the City of Vancouver's recently approved bylaw allowing slot machines at Hastings.

The application claims the city council didn't satisfy it's own self-imposed conditions when it approved the slots application.

Council member and mayoral candidate Jim Green doesn't think the application has much chance of succeeding.

"As far as I know, we did everything we were required to do," he said.

Management at Hastings is hoping to begin construction of the slots floor at the end of the racing season.

* Justin Stein will be riding at Woodbine next week. He rides Bull Ranch in the Woodbine Slots Handicap next Saturday. Trapper Barroby, Stein's agent in Vancouver, will be joining him on the trip and will book his mounts.