Tommy Kelly was born on Sept. 19, 1919 in Baltimore and began working at the racetrack as a teenager, learning the business from the bottom up. Kelly served in World War II – receiving two Purple Hearts – before obtaining a trainer’s license in 1945.
Kelly trained 65 stakes winners during his career, including champion sprinter Plugged Nickle. He spent most of his career on the New York and Florida circuits. In 1954, as the new head trainer for the racing stable of Dan and Ada Rice, Kelly saw the potential in a young jockey named Bill Hartack and purchased his contract from a West Virginia-based trainer. The two met with immediate success with a 6-year-old horse named Pet Bully. Within a few years, Hartack had developed into one of the top riders in the sport and went on to his own Hall of Fame career.
Among Kelly’s top horses were Plugged Nickle, Colonel Moran, Droll Role, Pet Bully, Noble Dancer II, Topsider, King’s Bishop, Globemaster, Far Out East, and Sauce Boat.
Notable races won by Kelly horses include the Arlington Classic (2), Saranac Stakes (2), Wood Memorial (2), Sheepshead Bay Handicap (3), Red Smith Handicap (2), Canadian International Stakes, Massachusetts Handicap, Test Stakes (2), Manhattan Handicap, Bernard Baruch Handicap, Spinaway Stakes, Florida Derby, Jim Dandy Stakes, and Vosburgh Handicap.
Kelly also enjoyed success as an owner and breeder. In 1998, Kelly’s final year as a trainer, a colt he had bred in partnership with Joseph and Mary Grant was foaled in Kentucky. Named Evening Attire, his race conditioning was handled by Kelly’s son, Patrick. As a 9-year-old in 2007, Evening Attire became the oldest horse to win the Queens County Handicap. Evening Attire also won the race in 2001.
As a 10-year-old, on July 19, 2008, in his first win outside the state of New York, Evening Attire won the Greenwood Cup Stakes at Philadelphia Park by 8¼ lengths and broke the 16-year-old track record while doing so. The previous track record for 1½ miles was set on Jan. 4, 1992 by Laugh a Minute: 2:31 flat. Evening Attire did it in 2:29.90.
Tommy Kelly was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1993.