09/30/2004 12:00AM

Evening Attire still trying hard for Kellys

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Evening Attire, 6, is trying to become the Jockey Club Gold Cup's ninth multiple winner.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Thomas "T.J." Kelly enjoyed many great moments during a 54-year training career that earned him a spot in racing's Hall of Fame. But winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup two years ago as the part-owner and breeder of Evening Attire was "my wildest dream come true," he said.

Kelly and his partners Mary and Joseph Grant hope to relive the moment on Saturday at Belmont Park when Evening Attire seeks to become the ninth multiple winner of the Gold Cup, and the first to win the race in non-successive years.

Perhaps Evening Attire, now 6, is a step slower than he was two years ago, but you wouldn't know it by his performance in the Aug. 22 Saratoga Breeders' Cup Handicap, when he whipped Funny Cide by five lengths. It may have been Evening Attire's first win in almost a year, but he has been one of this circuit's most consistent and durable runners.

Saturday's $1 million Gold Cup will be Evening Attire's 35th career start, his 24th in a graded stakes. He has finished in the top four in 30 of those races. Evening Attire, a gelded son of Black Tie Affair, has earned $2,269,990. His record would look even better had he not been disqualified from first in last November's Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs.

In his last 27 races, Evening Attire has run triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures 25 times. The two times he missed, he earned a 99.

"I've never been around a horse like him," said Pat Kelly, the son of T.J. and trainer of Evening Attire. "We've been able to keep him going. Part of it is him - he's a real classy horse, he doesn't make it tough on us to train, and he takes good care of himself."

Evening Attire has been a godsend for both father and son. T.J. Kelly, who recently turned 85, has undergone 48 treatments for prostate cancer, has a plastic valve in his heart, and takes blood thinner daily. A month ago, he lost his brother, the former trainer Edward Kelly, who died of a heart attack.

Yet, T.J. Kelly considers himself fortunate for the career he has had in the sport. In 1980, he trained the champion sprinter, Plugged Nickle. In 1993, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

"You're looking at one of the luckiest Irishmen who ever lived," Kelly said outside his son's Belmont Park barn. "And I know it."

Kelly bought the mare Concolour from Sir John Thouron, for whom Kelly used to train. Kelly and the Grants liked Black Tie Affair, the 1991 Breeders' Cup Classic winner, and bred Concolour to him. The resulting foal's testicles never came down, so eventually Evening Attire was castrated.

Pat Kelly received Evening Attire in 2001 after his brother, Tim, retired from training to take a job with the New York Racing Association. In the spring of 2000, Pat Kelly was fired by Live Oak Plantation, for whom he enjoyed success in the 1990's.

"If it wasn't for him," Kelly said of Evening Attire, "you probably wouldn't know I was back here."

Two of Evening Attire's worst races have come in the Breeders' Cup Classic. He finished fourth behind Volponi in 2002 and seventh behind Pleasantly Perfect last year. Kelly isn't gung-ho on making a third trip to the Breeders' Cup, but wants to see how Saturday plays out.

A bigger decision will come at the end of the year, when the Kellys and Grants have to decide whether to bring Evening Attire back at age 7.

"As good as he's been to us, I'm sure we'll take good care of him when we get to that point," Pat Kelly said. "So far he's hung in there. The longer he can hang in there, the longer we can put off that decision."

T.J. Kelly knows what he wants to do.

"I don't know what the hell else we'd do with him," he said. "If he's still got the will, there'd be no reason in the world not to run him."