11/14/2013 4:37PM

Staying the course: Strong juvenile program keeps top trio on Calder backstretch

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Kathleen O’Connell won five of the six divisions of the Florida Stallion Stakes this year.

MIAMI – Bill White has been stabled at Calder Race Course since 1986 and, in his 27 years at the south Florida oval has won 15 individual training titles. It is easy to understand why White decided to keep his large outfit bedded down at Calder while so many of his colleagues migrated across town to Gulfstream Park at the beginning of the head-to-head conflict between the two south Florida Thoroughbred facilities that began in earnest July 1.

White, who won his 2,000th career race last month at Calder, is one of a trio of big-name trainers who resisted the temptation to make the eight-mile move from Calder to Gulfstream over the summer. Kathleen O’Connell, a Calder mainstay since 1990, and Stanley Gold, who developed 2010 Eclipse Award champion 2-year-old filly Awesome Feather, also opted to remain at Calder, with the hope that the two tracks will reach an amicable solution to their differences sooner rather than later.

White, O’Connell, and Gold originally settled at Calder on a year-round basis for the same reason – the outstanding 2-year-old program the track has developed over the past several decades. The track has been the home or starting point for a long list of champions that, along with Awesome Feather, includes Spend a Buck, Princess Rooney, Smile, Unbridled, Hollywood Wildcat, and more recently, Musical Romance, Big Drama, and Trinniberg.

White, who launched the careers of both Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man and 2012 Arlington Million and Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Little Mike, realized early on that obtaining stalls at Calder could open doors to the major breeding factories in Ocala. He fears those doors might start closing if the quality of 2-year-old racing in the area begins to suffer as a result of a prolonged race-date conflict between the two tracks.

“Calder was always known as a track that, if you were able to get stalls and took good care of your horses, you had an opportunity to hook into one or more of the big outfits in Ocala,” White said. “And a couple of years after settling down here, many of the top breeders in Ocala – John Franks, Fred Hooper, Eugene Melnyk, and Double Diamond Farm – eventually came to me.”

White won eight consecutive Calder summer training championships from 1997 through 2004 and several more Tropical at Calder titles during that same period. He said he first began to see red flags for the industry when other forms of legal gambling began popping up in the area.

“I noticed a change real quickly down here with the advent of the Florida lottery and again once the Indian gaming came along,” White said. “For the longest time, Calder was the only legal gambling in town for seven or eight months a year. There was no competition, both from a gambling and racing aspect. But since then, competitive forces have taken their toll.”

White received approval for stalls at Gulfstream this summer, but said the size of his barn was a major factor in his decision to remain at Calder, at least for the time being.

“My stable fluctuates in numbers throughout the course of the year,” he said. “It can go anywhere from 40 to 20 horses during the winter, and I know stabling at Gulfstream can be tight, so I prefer to keep myself in a situation at Calder where stalls are easier to come by and I can expand when I need to expand.

“To tell the truth, I’m really surprised this conflict between the two tracks has lasted this long. I thought it would be a three- or four-week confrontation and be settled one way or another. Now, it looks like it could last indefinitely.”

Easy decision to stay

O’Connell said her decision to stay at Calder this summer was an easy one.

“I came into the Calder meet this spring with 40 horses, 26 of them being babies, and not only do they have a great 2-year-old program, but the [Florida] Stallion Stakes [series of races] were all being held there this year,” said O’Connell who ultimately won five of the six stallion stakes this season, with Scandalous Act (three) and My Brown Eyed Guy (two). “I’m not pro anything or against anything. I just want to do what’s best for my horses.”

The Stallion Stakes, for Florida-bred juveniles and inaugurated in 1982 with three races each for fillies and for males, will be run at Gulfstream for the first time in 2014.

Like White, O’Connell’s chief concern is that a change of the landscape in south Florida racing could spell an end to the outstanding 2-year-old program she and her colleagues have grown accustomed to over the years.

“I settled in Florida because of the babies and have had a great career developing 2-year-olds,” said O’Connell, whose principal client since she became a Calder regular 23 years ago has been Ocala-based owner-breeder Gil Campbell. “Calder has been the Mecca for 2-year-olds during the spring and summer. It’s a great track to train over, and it’s like a baby nursery for young horses.

“But as a result of the conflict, and the loss of the stallion series next year, Calder management said they may have to re-evaluate their 2-year-old program. I haven’t heard anything yet from Gulfstream regarding their willingness to step up to the plate, and without a good 2-year-old program, there is no incentive for Mr. Campbell to race down here.”

Gold has worked at Calder in one capacity or another since the 1970s and went out on his own in 2005. His principal client over the past eight years has been owner-breeder Fred Brei’s Jacks or Better Farm, which bred and originally owned Awesome Feather. Gold and Brei combined to pull off an unprecedented feat when sweeping a division of the stallion stakes three years in a row, with Awesome Feather (2010), Jackson Bend (2011), and Fort Loudon (2012).

“I stayed here at Calder because they treat me well,” Gold said. “I have my own barn and I really thought the two tracks would settle their differences long before now. I’m not really sure what direction this conflict is headed. When it does conclude, it will probably be for the better, but with a lot of collateral damage in between. I can understand Calder’s stance 100 percent. Neither side wants to be a training center for the other, but having free access to run at both tracks is the key. I try not to make waves either way, just do what’s best for my horses and my clients.”

White, O’Connell, and Gold are all in agreement that if Gulfstream continues to race year-round, that track’s management must come up with a viable plan for 2-year-old racing during the summer, and that both tracks need to sit down at the bargaining table and hammer out some type of agreement to put an end to head-to-head racing on the south Florida circuit.

“I don’t know what the blueprint is going to be for the immediate future around here, let alone for future years,” Gold said. “There is the potential to have a lot of horses stabled here year-round to run in a lot of races, if they can find a way to stop fighting for the same horses to run in the same type of races. The key then would be free access, to be able to ship and race between the two tracks no matter where a trainer is stabled.”

O’Connell said she fears Florida racing could be in jeopardy if cooler heads don’t prevail.

“At the moment, I don’t think anybody is really focusing on what’s best for racing here in Florida,” O’Connell said. “Right now, the main goal seems to be to kill each other off. And unfortunately, the horsemen have been caught in the undertow.”

For the time being, White and Gold will continue to run their stables out of Calder, while O’Connell plans to ship the majority of her 42-horse string to Tampa Bay Downs for the winter.

“I’m betting six months from now, this will all be resolved, everybody is going to find their place on the circuit, and there will be a happy ending to all this,” White said.

It’s a bet he, O’Connell, Gold, and everyone else connected with Thoroughbred racing in south Florida cannot afford to lose.