Kearney Chases Win for the Ages With Kathleen O.

When you’re 84 and you own “the horse of a lifetime,” it’s the kind of story that tugs at heartstrings.

But when that fortunate sportsman bought his first horse when he was 83 and owns just two horses, it becomes a racetrack tale with a far more unique and astonishing feel to it.

“I’m ecstatic about this,” said octogenarian Pat Kearney. “It’s unbelievable. I never could have dreamed this could happen.”

In reality, who could have envisioned what would happen after Kearney purchased his first two horses at the venerable age of 83?

It all started innocently enough when, through the help and trained eye of Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, he bought a pair of unraced juveniles at the 2021 Ocala Breeders’ Sales Spring Sale of 2-Year-Olds in Training in April.

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His first purchase at that April sale was a filly that he named Katheen O. after his wife, whose maiden name is Kathleen O’Boyle.

A little more than a year later that filly has given Kearney the biggest surprise and most electrifying thrill of his life. She owns a 4-for-4 record, highlighted by a win in the Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2), and is heading into the May 6 Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) at Churchill Downs As one of the favorites in America’s premier race for 3-year-old fillies.

Photo: Coady Photography

Kathleen O. trains April 26 at Churchill Downs

“It’s a miracle is what this horse has been.” said Kearney, who races under the banner of Winngate Stables. “It’s like hitting the lottery. It’s that rare, as far as I’m concerned.”

The 71-year-old McGaughey, one of the sport’s most successful and popular trainers, has been a part of many a famous and historic moment at the races yet even he marvels at how someone’s first purchase could yield such amazing results.

“It’s quite a story,” said McGaughey, whose biography fills up two pages in the New York Racing Association media guide. “The odds of this happening are through the roof. I told Pat that something like this doesn’t happen.”

Yet, despite the odds stacked against Kearney and his 3-year-old filly, it is indeed happening and if all goes well in the next week-and-a-half, Kearney, his wife Kathleen, or Kathy as he calls her, Their daughter Katie and her husband, Clarke Devereux, will all be at Churchill Downs soaking in all of the pageantry and color of the Oaks and the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) on the following day during a magical stay in Louisville.

“There’s a lot of great horses in the Oaks and win, lose, or draw, I’m just thrilled about it,” said Kearney, who splits time between his homes in Surfside, Fla., and Winnetka in his native Illinois. “I’ve never been to the Oaks or Derby and I am absolutely looking forward to it. It’s like the Super Bowl.”

The COVID-19 pandemic set in motion the series of events which led to a newbie such as Kearney showing how 84 is the new 40 as far as horse ownership goes.

He had been going to the races since he was teen and would head to Arlington Park with his father, who had a box at the Chicago-area track.

“I loved horse racing, though I was never a good handicapper,” Kearney said.

After a prosperous career in marketing and selling financial securities, Kearney retired several years ago and spent his days playing golf and making occasional visits to the racetrack. He also enjoyed a weekly poker game with about nine friends that came to an abrupt end in 2020 when the pandemic gripped the world and prompted him to find a new outlet for his free time.

“I just wanted to find something that I could really enjoy and have a lot of fun while not having many obligations like going to a meeting,” he said. “I never would have thought of buying a horse 10 years ago. It was just a spur of the moment thing. I wanted to do something different than just play golf.”

Through membership in the Indian Creek Country Club in Florida, Kearney had met McGaughey years earlier, and he and Kathy have enjoyed rounds of golf and some dinners with McGaughey and his wife, Alison. After giving it some thought, in February of 2021 he approached McGaughey about a buying a racehorse.

“I asked Shug, ‘How do a I get a horse?'” Kearney said. “He said, ‘You get two horses: a colt and filly.'”

McGaughey also warned him.

“I told Pat he shouldn’t get into this to make money,” the trainer said. “It’s about having fun.”

Kearney signed on and put everything in McGaughey’s hands.

“It was all Shug. I imposed on him to pick the horses and he suggested it be a filly and a colt. I’m really a novice at this. When it comes to having some insight on this, you’re talking to the wrong guy,” Kearney said. “I’m just along for the ride.”

Their first attempt at buying a horse came a few months later at The Gulfstream Sale, Fasig-Tipton’s select sale of 2-year-olds in training in South Florida. A few days after they watched the horses breeze, McGaughey started bidding on a filly, but backed out when the price became too steep.

“I was disappointed we didn’t buy the filly,” Kearney said. “I was ready to get a horse but Shug said, ‘There are going to be a lot of other horses for sale.'”

Indeed there were, and at the OBS sale the economics worked out.

For $275,000, they bought Kathleen O., a daughter of Upstart and the first foal from the Blame mare Quaver, consigned by Niall Brennan Stables and bred by Gainesway Thoroughbreds and Bridlewood Farm.

“I watched on my computer,” Kearney said. “She walked in and 30 seconds later she was sold. I didn’t know what happened and then Shug called and said, ‘Did you see that? That was you!’ That’s how I was introduced to the ownership business.”

Later at the sale, Kearney and McGaughey bought Cloudy for $130,000. The son of Noble Mission out of the Unbridled’s Song mare Miss Exclusive was bred by Mt. Brilliant Broodmares II. In two starts, he has been no better than fifth and is just beginning to resume workouts after suffering bone spurs.

While Cloudy made it to the races before Kathleen O., it was the filly who gave Kearney a taste of the high life when she rallied from sixth in a field of seven at the eighth pole to win her debut at Aqueduct Racetrack by a head Nov. 12, which just so happened to be his wife’s birthday. Fate was also on their side that day as Kathleen O. broke from post seven, which matched the uniform number Kathy’s father, Harry O’Boyle, wore when he played football for Knute Rockne at the University of Notre Dame.

“Shug and I were in a golf tournament the day she ran and I watched the race and couldn’t believe it,” Kearney said. “It was so incredible the way she gained so much ground in the stretch. I went looking for Shug and found him at a practice tee. When he saw me, he looked up with a big smile and said ‘How’d we do? ‘ He has such a great sense of humor.”

Kathleen O.’s second start produced a much different atmosphere. McGaughey ran her in the Jan. 1 Cash Run Stakes at Gulfstream Park with Pat and Kathy and Katie and Clarke and their three teenaged children, Maeve, Mac, and Quinn, in attendance at the Florida racetrack—and the winner’s circle after the Upstart filly posted a lopsided 8 1/2-length victory.

“Katie and her family were visiting us for Christmas and the grandkids had never been to the racetrack before. They didn’t even know I owned a horse until they got to Florida,” Kearney said. “Then we’re there in the winner’s circle after a stakes race. What a great memory to have. It was really fun for me, my wife, and everyone.”

A two-length victory in the Davona Dale Stakes Presented by FanDuel (G2) and a 2 3/4-length score in the April 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks under regular rider Javier Castellano followed and lifted Kathleen O. into the top spot on the Leaderboard for the Kentucky Oaks with 150 qualifying points.

Kathleen O. wins the 2022 Gulfstream Park Oaks at Gulfstream Park
Photo: Coglianese Photos/Megan Griffin

Kathleen O. (outside) makes her winning move in the Gulfstream Park Oaks

“Shug was absolutely right about it being fun. It’s such a joy to be in the winner’s circle,” said Kearney, who put some of Kathleen O.’s $379,730 in earnings to use by recently buying a small share of a package of nine young, unraced horses with Woodford Racing. “What I like the most is that I am thinking about things I never thought I would and I am enjoying it. It’s so different than betting.

“It’s such a wonderful experience and it has gotten better and better. I don’t know how you can improve on it.”

That, of course, would be simple should Kathleen O. win the Kentucky Oaks.

It will not be an easy task in a field of 3-year-olds that also figures to include Secret Oath , Nest and the champion 2-year-old family Echo Zulu . Yet Kathleen O. stacks up with them and has a late-running style that should be suited by the 1 1/8-mile distance.

“The way she’s bred, she’ll get the distance. She’s doing great and her works have been better than ever,” McGaughey said.

As excited as Kearney may be, McGaughey is also counting down the days until the first Friday in May. While he has trained a legion of fabulous fillies, including the Hall of Famers Personal Ensign and Inside Information and four winners of the Alabama Stakes (G1), the Kentucky native has captured the Oaks only once in his illustrious four-decades-long career.

McGaughey the morning after win.<br /> Code of Honor with John Velazquez wins the Runhappy Travers (G1) at Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, New York, on Aug.  25, 2019.” src=”https://cms-images.bloodhorse.com/i/bloodhorse-images/2019/08/40d064e6c0b5426baa89ffe5348f5a27.jpg?preset=medium” style=”border-width: 0px;” title=”McGaughey the morning after win.<br /> Code of Honor with John Velazquez wins the Runhappy Travers (G1) at Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, New York, on Aug.  25, 2019.”/><figcaption><small>Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt</small></p>
<p>Shug McGaughey holds the Kentucky Oaks in high regard</p>
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<p>“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” said McGaughey, whose lone Oaks score came in 1993 with Dispute.  “The Oaks is a big race in my mind and I was lucky enough to win it once but I didn’t participate in it as much as I would have liked. It’s a race I hold in high esteem.”</p>
<p>Suffice it to say, if that second Oaks win comes courtesy of a filly with a first-time 84-year-old owner and a 71-year-old Hall of Fame trainer it will surely be one for the ages.</p>
<p>“It’s hard to expect a horse to win five in a row, but she’s such a sweetheart,” Kearney said.  “Even if she does not do well from here on out, I won’t complain. How could I? I’ve had such a tremendous experience.”</p>
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