10/10/2002 12:00AM

Reward for patience, hard work: Big-time filly


MIAMI - For the first 15 years of her training career, Kathleen O'Connell toiled in near anonymity, whether she was racing cheap Michigan-breds at Detroit Race Course or making 10-hour round-trip drives from Tampa Bay Downs to Calder Race Course just to race one horse.

But all those years of hard work did not go unnoticed or unappreciated. Among those taking heed of her dedication and success was owner-breeder Gil Campbell, who began sending O'Connell some of his young homebreds in the mid-90's.

One of those youngsters was Blazing Sword, who won two legs of the 1996 Florida Stallion Stakes. Blazing Sword overcame a near fatal stomach ailment during the winter of his 3-year-old campaign to win such prestigious stakes as the Widener and Washington Park handicaps while earning more than $1 million.

Now Campbell and O'Connell have Ivanavinalot, who is ranked among the leading 2-year-old fillies in the country and who will be an overwhelming favorite to win Saturday's $400,000 My Dear Girl Stakes at Calder.

"It's been a struggle over the years, but for the most part it's been enjoyable and rewarding," O'Connell, 51, said recently, taking a few minutes out of her busy schedule. Her day begins at 3 a.m. and often doesn't end until well after feed time each afternoon. "Funny thing is I never planned on becoming a trainer. My dream had always been to become a veterinarian."

That dream ended when O'Connell was turned down for veterinary school, and the course of her life changed forever.

"I was a member of the national honors society and had a 3.8 grade point average in high school and still got rejected for veterinary school," O'Connell said. "I was devastated, so I just sort of wandered over to Detroit Race Course, which was only six miles from where I lived, and took a job as a hotwalker. I'd always ridden show horses but had never even been to the racetrack before that. I figured I'd just stay there until I decided what I wanted to do with my life. That was in 1970. Thirty-two years later and I'm still here."

O'Connell galloped and ponied horses during the 70's and took out her trainers' license at Detroit in 1980. She moved to Florida four years later, stabling at Tampa Bay Downs.

"I couldn't get stalls at Calder in the early days," O'Connell said. "I made 36 trips between Tampa and Calder one year alone. I'd leave at midnight, get here at 5 or 6 a.m., work one horse, wait all day to run another, then make the return drive and get home at midnight. The next morning I'd be out at 5 galloping the eight other horses I'd left behind. It was brutal."

O'Connell was finally granted a few stalls on a regular basis at Calder in the early 90's. Now she maintains a year-round stable of 40 horses in Miami, the majority of which are either high-priced claimers, allowance, or stakes horses. During the winter, she still sends a string of 25 to Tampa.

"Most of the clients I have are good people and not all of their horses can make it at Gulfstream during the winter," said O'Connell. "And in this business, the whole key to success is running your horses where they belong. My theory is steak and lobster are great, but a ham sandwich is better than nothing. There are a lot of good things about being at Tampa, although it's physically hard on me. I still travel up and down twice a week during the winter, and thank God for my assistant Brian Smeak. I don't know what I'd do without him. He's a very crucial part of this machine."

While Ivanavinalot is O'Connell's present star, it is Blazing Sword whom she credits for taking her career to the next level.

"There was nobody like him," said O'Connell. "He was something special."

Blazing Sword won the opening two legs of the 1996 Stallion Stakes and missed a sweep when he finished third, beaten less than a length, following an eventful trip in the In Reality. He gained national attention that winter when he finished second to Pulpit in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, only to have his career put on hold by a life-threatening stomach ailment suffered just before the Florida Derby.

"They never knew what caused the problem, but he was lucky to survive," O'Connell said. "And it took him a long time to get over the effects of it. Winning the Widener and Washington Park handicaps later in his career and getting him over $1 million in earnings meant so much to me."

Blazing Sword's career finally ended two years ago after he suffered a near fatal case of founder.

"It was a miracle he survived, but he's got the good life now on the farm, and I visit him every time I'm up in Ocala," said O'Connell.

O'Connell said it is impossible to compare Ivanavinalot with Blazing Sword, other than to say they both had "a lot of talent as 2-year-olds."

"She's very crooked and has a lot more problems than he did," O'Connell said. "But she's coming up to this race like a bear. She's improved and blossomed off her last start, is growing up more with each race, and is becoming tougher and tougher just to gallop each morning."

Win, lose, or draw in the My Dear Girl, O'Connell will be up at 3 a.m. the following morning and out at the barn all day - just as she is seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

"I guess you can say I've sacrificed my life for the horses," said O'Connell. "Some people like to hunt, others like to fish or play golf. Me I just love to hang around the horses."