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Hall of Fame Trainer Tommy Kelly Dies at 93

Hall of Fame trainer Tommy "T.J." Kelly was recognized as one of the great trainers of his era. He was cherished as a friend and worshiped as a father and husband, but to everyone fortunate to have known him, he was one of the good guys.

Hall of Fame Trainer Tommy Kelly Dies at 93
Photo: Skip Dickstein
Hall of Fame trainer Tommy "T.J." Kelly

Kelly, 93, died April 19 at St. Catherine's Hospice in Miami, Fla.

As his son Pat said, "They don't make them like that anymore. He fought a hard battle for 93 years and he continued to fight right to the end. Now, he's upstairs and he's happy."

It seems as if the soft-spoken T.J., as most people at the track knew him, was always happy and was rarely seen without a smile on his face and a kind word to say about someone.

According to Pat, he had been in and out of the hospital since Christmas.

"It started as the flu and developed into pneumonia, but to be honest we don't even know what he died from other than just plain old age," Kelly said. "It's a very sad day."

Kelly is survived by his wife of 66 years, Frances; a brother, John; four sons, Pat, Larry, Tim, and Dan; two daughters, Patricia and Jean Marie; 16 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Funeral services will be held Tuesday, April 23, at Blessed Trinity Church in Miami Springs and a viewing will be held Monday afternoon April 22, at Caballero Rivero in Hialeah.

"I don't have to tell you what a great guy he was," Larry Kelly said. "He's the last of that era, along with John Nerud. Those old racetrackers were a tough breed of guys."

Pat, Larry, Tim, and Dan, along with their sister, Patricia, have also left their mark on the Sport of Kings, either as a trainer, racing official, assistant clocker, assistant starter, or in the horse transport business.

Kelly, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993, trained for prominent owners such as John Schiff, Dan and Ada Rice, Michael Phipps, Brookmeade Stable, Leonard P. Sasso, Townsend B. Martin, and Charlotte Weber.

Among his top stakes winners were Pet Bully (Woodward Stakes), Noble Dancer II (two-time winner of the United Nations Handicap, Hialeah Turf Cup), Droll Role (Washington, D.C. International and Canadian International Championship), Globemaster (Wood Memorial and Arlington Classic, and second to Carry Back in the Preakness), champion sprinter Plugged Nickle (Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, and Vosburgh), Limit to Reason (Champagne and Pimlico-Laurel Futurity), and Storm and Sunshine (Test Stakes).

Other major stakes winners were Misty Gallore, Colonel Moran, Dubassoff, and Sunrise County. He also has a special place in his heart for Topsider, one of the gamest horses he ever trained.

In 1980, Kelly was the leading stakes-winning trainer in New York with 14 victories and was named the outstanding trainer in the Big Apple, along with Joe Cantey, by the New York Turf Writers Association. Not only did he saddle Plugged Nickle that year for John Schiff, he orchestrated Misty Gallore's eight-race winning streak, which included six stakes victories. In 1977, he finished in a tie with Laz Barrera as the leading trainer at Saratoga Race Course.

Kelly's most recent pride and joy was 2002 Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) winner Evening Attire, whom he bred and owned in partnership with Joseph and Mary Grant. Racing until the age of 10, Evening Attire, under the care of Pat Kelly, earned over $2.9 million, adding victories in the Saratoga Breeders' Cup (gr. II) twice, and the grade III Aqueduct, Queens County, Discovery, Red Smith, and Stuyvesant Handicaps. In his final career start, he won the 1 1/2-mile Greenwood Cup by 8 1/4 lengths.

"I can't put it into words what it's been like owning and breeding a horse like Evening Attire," Kelly said at the time. "After some of his races, I went home and cried. How lucky can one person get?"

Kelly flourished in an era of legendary trainers, jockeys, and horses, and characters that have disappeared from the sport. Kelly's help over the years had names such as Broom Sweeping Charlie Herbert, Gatemouth Sullivan, Willy Bird, Crazy George Gaines, Wilber the Diabetic, Maestro, and Hammy from Bowie.

The late Harry Donovan, of Thorncliff Farm, was Kelly's first owner. His son, the late Bill Donovan, made headlines in 1987 and '88 as trainer of Lost Code.

"I could write a book full of T.J. Kelly memories and there would not be enough room for all the praise and respect I have for him," Bill Donovan said a few years ago. "He is dedicated to a fault, honest as the day is long, and faithful to his family and friends. The game is a better one for having had men like T.J. Kelly. My dad and mother loved him until the day they died. Besides all those accolades, he was an astute horseman with a loving lady behind him, as Fran raised the boys with the very same attributes."

Kelly, was always modest to a fault. When interviewed for a feature in 2006, he prefaced it by saying, "The bottom line is, you can put in whatever you want about me, but give the boys a shot once in a while, because I'm over the hill. I'll be 87 in September and nobody else really knows I'm alive. Don't make a big deal about anything. These guys that are training horses today are kicking (butt) and they've got 200 horses. I don't know how the hell they do it. I'm just an old country boy that came up the hard way.

"I never thought I had a chance of making the Hall of Fame. When you have to scratch out a living as a kid and tear the back of your pants trying to climb over the fence at Pimlico, believe me, it's hard for something like being in the Hall of Fame to sink in."

Long after his retirement, he followed the sport closely from his home in Miami Springs, Fla., and loved reminiscing about the old days and his yearly visits to Saratoga.

One of his favorite stories was about Globemaster, whom he bought for Leonard Sasso.

"Mr. Sasso asked me to go to the 1959 Saratoga yearling sale to buy him five colts for about $10,000 each," Kelly recalled. "I'm looking and looking and I keep coming back to this one colt, whose half brother had won the Futurity. I made up my mind I was going to buy that s.o.b., and I got him for $80,000. That night, I met Sasso and he said, 'Well, did you get me five nice colts?' I said, 'Yes sir, in fact, I got them all rolled into one.' He asked me what I was talking about, and I told him I had to spend a little more than $50,000, and that I got him one horse for $80,000.

"Someone had gotten Sasso a room at the Reading Room and I took him up there, and by this time I had gotten some bourbon into him. He told me, 'Just take him back in the morning and get my money back.' I told him I couldn't do that. We kept it up from midnight until two in the morning. Then there was a knock on the door. It was C.T. Chenery, standing there in his bathrobe, holding a checkbook and a pen. He said, 'I'm gonna make this quick because I'm losing sleep and I have to get my rest. I'll buy a quarter, a half, or the whole horse right now, just as long as you shut that man up and you go home.'

"Sasso agreed to sell him a quarter-interest, so Chenery made out a check for $20,000 and gave it to Sasso and got me off the hook. That horse was Globemaster."

Globemaster went on to soundly defeat Carry Back in the 1961 Wood Memorial Stakes. After finishing sixth to Carry Back in the Kentucky Derby, Kelly decided to try him again in the Preakness. The night before the race, Kelly was at the stakes barn and could smell something emanating from Carry Back's stall.

"The two horses were stabled right next to each other," Kelly said. "It was just before dark, and Carry Back had a flake of hay in his stall. It was decomposing and smoking from the gasses. The smell was awful. Before he had a chance to eat it, I went in there and pulled the hay and threw it in the manure pile. It was so moldy it had turned white. I said to Carry Back, 'Well, I don't know whether you're gonna beat me tomorrow or not, but you're not gonna die with the colic tonight.'

"Sure enough, he went out there the next day and beat me. Hitting Away had been pressing us the whole race, and when Globy put him away and opened a four-length lead at the eighth pole, I said, 'Man, he's on his way.' And then here comes Carry Back and just nails him at the wire (winning by three-quarters of a length)."

Another story Kelly liked to tell was about the time his horse Byrd Park, owned by Harry Donovan, was bitten by an alligator while coming down the stretch at Tropical Park.

"The sun was going down and the alligator was heading from the turf course across the main track to the other side of the rail where this old guy fought chickens," Kelly recalled. "It was the last race, and the horse in front hit the gator. By the time Byrd Park got to him the gator had his mouth open and bit my horse on the leg."

Kelly's barn at Belmont was a family-run operation known for its warmth and hospitality. After the Belmont Stakes each year, they always threw a party and Kelly would make some 850 crabcakes and have around 400 people—from grooms to owners—lined up outside the barn. The parties were stopped after John Campo's barn burned down.

Born in Pikesville, Md., Kelly and his brother Eddie, who also went on to become a top trainer, grew up within walking distance of Pimlico Race Course. The more he walked by the track, the stronger the lure to enter this new world beyond the fence.

"My dad died during the Depression when I was 12, and I started caddying at the Maryland Country Club," Kelly recalled. "After walking by Pimlico so often, the racetrack eventually got to me. The first guy I met was an old Irishman who rubbed this horse for John D. Hertz. I loved that horse, and he'd let me walk him around the ring, and I'd bring him apples. I eventually got a job with J.W.Y. Martin, grooming and exercising horses.

"I don't know where my passion for horses came from. Someone once told me, 'Boy, your dad must have been a helluva horse trainer, Kel.' I said to him, 'To tell you the truth, my dad was the best bartender in Baltimore, at the Hotel Rennard. But that didn't stop him from betting with the bookies.' "

Kelly always took great pride in having worked for Louis Feustel, the trainer of Man o' War, for three years. "He didn't talk about Man o' War much; he was a quiet guy," Kelly said. "But I was so proud to work for him as a groom."

Tom and Eddie then went to work grooming horses for Bill Finnegan at Circle M Ranch, eventually going down to Florida with the horses.

Kelly had to put his racing career on hold while he served two years in the Army during World War II. He was told to put assistant veterinarian down as his occupation, and that got him assigned to the Medical Replacement Training Center, where he became a technical medical sergeant. He served as a medic shortly after D-Day, landing at Utah Beach. While in Germany, his jeep hit a mine and he woke up in an English hospital, remaining there for several months.

After the service, Kelly worked as an assistant veterinarian for Dr. William H. Wright before getting a job in the Pimlico receiving barn. Then came his first training job with Harry Donovan.

During this time, Kelly married Fran, who was working as a stenographer for the FBI, and was a favorite of J. Edgar Hoover's.

The Kellys have always been a close-knit family. Pat has been a successful trainer in New York for many years. Tim also trained horses and is the clerk of scales for the New York Racing Association. Larry trained for a while before becoming an assistant to D. Wayne Lukas, and now runs a successful horse transport company. Dan trained for a short while and worked as an assistant starter for George Cassidy in New York. He is now a police officer in Miami Springs. Patricia worked as an assistant clocker at Saratoga and currently works at Mercy Hospital in Miami Beach. And Jean, the only one who never became involved with horses, is a television producer.

Kelly's first big break came when he took over the Danada Farm horses of Dan and Ada L. Rice. It was for the Rices that Kelly had his first big horse, Pet Bully, who won the inaugural Woodward in 1954, as well as the Washington Park Handicap and the six-furlong Fall Highweight Handicap under 136 pounds. "Pet Bully was my jump from the half-milers to the big time," Kelly said.

The rider of Pet Bully was a young jockey named Bill Hartack. After working for the Rices for three years and having great success, Kelly was told by Dan Rice to release Hartack from his contract.

"I told him, 'Geez, Mr. Rice, we can't do that; he's won a lot of races for us. Please don't make this mistake.' " Kelly recalled. "He said, 'Don't tell me what I can do. I can fire you, too.' I told him if he felt that way then he can fire me, too, and I'll go back to Maryland. Sure enough, we both got sacked. Jimmy Jones had wanted Hartack, and he packed a lot of weight. Whatever Jimmy told Mr. Rice, he would do, and he convinced him Bill was just a sprint rider. Of course, Bill would go on to win the Kentucky Derby for Jimmy on Iron Liege, as well as four other Derbys."

Kelly and Fran have lived in the same Miami Springs house they bought in 1965. The house, located on a quiet street adjacent to a golf course and only a short distance from Hialeah Racetrack, is decorated with paintings of Kelly's favorite horses, including Plugged Nickle and Noble Dancer.

And, of course, there were the memories of the good times and the camaraderie-- the visits from Joe Hirsch, who stayed up the street at the Miami Springs Villas and would stop by with Joe Namath and Howard Cosell. And there were the times Kelly would walk a few doors down to Bill Hartack's house and cook lobsters.

Kelly might as well have written his own epitaph when he said of his life, "It's like being in heaven here on Earth. It's been an unbelievable, miracle life to have started from scratch like I did. I went up the ladder and loved every second of it."

No, they sure don't make them like that anymore.