07/18/2002 11:00PM

Trainer's job her passion


MIAMI - Ask trainers on the Calder backstretch to name the hardest-working of their peers and the answer might be unanimous: Kathleen O'Connell.

When asked what the secret to her success was during the current session, O'Connell replied, "Working harder."

Working harder?

That just doesn't seem possible, since training horses has been almost a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job for O'Connell from the time she began her career 20 years ago.

"Racing is just a passion to me," said O'Connell, who entered Friday's program with 18 winners, tied for fifth in the standings with Joe Calascibetta. "Some women collect jewelry. Some women collect cars. Some even collect men. My passion just happens to be horses."

O'Connell, a Calder regular since 1985, cracked the top 10 in the trainer standings for the first time in 1996 and has been a mainstay among the leaders ever since. She finished sixth during the Calder session and fifth during the Tropical meet in 2001, but says thus far this may be her best meet yet.

"I think I have a better group of horses this year than in previous years and a lot who just happen to be fitting the right conditions," said O'Connell. "Hopefully I'll be able to keep it going, although it won't be easy since the majority of my stable are young horses. Calder has a great 2-year-old program. Most of the people I train for are breeders, and that's what they are here for."

Among the top breeders O'Connell has worked for over the years is Ocala's Gil Campbell. She won two divisions of the 1996 Florida Stallion Series, the 1997 Calder Derby, and the Grade 2 Washington Park Handicap with Blazing Sword, a horse bred by Campbell who earned over $1 million in a career slowed by a near-fatal stomach ailment during the winter of 1997. Now Campbell and O'Connell have another talented juvenile on their hands named Ivanavinalot, a 2-year-old filly by West Acre, who won her career debut by 11 1/4 lengths.

"She trained like a very nice filly from the start," said O'Connell. "She's also a half sister to Shananie's Beat, who won five or six stakes for me down here and a couple more after I sent her north. Like Blazing Sword she's an early developer, is very professional, and I think she'll handle a distance of ground."

O'Connell entered Ivanavinalot in a 5 1/2-furlong allowance dash on Saturday as a final prep for the opening leg of the Stallion Series, the six-furlong Desert Vixen Stakes, on Aug. 10.

O'Connell has also recently taken over the training of Pharmstar for another prominent Florida breeder, Vern Heath's Centaur Farms. Pharmstar won the 2001 Desert Vixen Stakes and finished second in the Susan's Girl while under the tutelage of Ralph Ziadie. She finished fourth in the Lady Sonata Stakes, her first start since moving to O'Connell's barn earlier in the meet.

"I had a horse for Mr. Heath in Tampa and he's given me four to train here right now," said O'Connell. "Three 2-year-olds and Pharmstar."