10/20/2002 11:00PM

Talkin' about two generations


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Not a day goes by without Dee Poulos thinking about Black Tie Affair. Her office walls at Arlington Park are covered with his photographs. Her name is synonymous with his reign 11 years ago as Horse of the Year. Trained by her husband, Ernie Poulos, and owned by Chicago car dealer Jeff Sullivan, Black Tie Affair was an Illinois folk hero who rose from relative obscurity to Breeders' Cup fame.

"They're naming a race for him on the day of the Breeders' Cup," Poulos said last month in her Arlington backstretch office, where she has continued the Ernie Poulos Racing Stables. "I wanted so badly to have a horse for that one."

Then the next best thing happened, and Black Tie Affair's son Evening Attire won the Jockey Club Gold Cup to earn his way into the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic this Saturday. Evening Attire was barely bedded down in Arlington's Barn 16 last week when Poulos drove up in the welcome wagon.

"He's beautiful," said a smitten Poulos. "You can really see his daddy in him. I wish he could stay in our barn."

The Kelly connection

There are no coincidences in horse racing. Just the occasional twist of fate. Tommy Kelly grew up a stone's throw from Pimlico, in the heart of the Great Depression, and promised himself that someday, somehow, he would find a way to get inside the fence and next to a Thoroughbred.

"I had no more experience than the next guy," Kelly said. "I remember a guy giving me a compliment, telling me that my father must have been a great horseman. Nope, I said. He was a great bartender."

Kelly made an early stop in his Hall of Fame career at Arlington, where he trained the horses of Dan and Ada Rice and got to know Poulos. From then on, whenever he had a good horse to ship from New York to Arlington for a stakes race, Kelly would make a beeline for the Ernie and Dee Poulos barn, with its accommodating crew and its panoramic view of the Arlington grandstand.

"And every time I won a race, Ernie would throw us a big party," Kelly recalled. "I loved that guy. I was so happy when they came up with Black Tie Affair. Then I was glad I finally had enough money and a mare good enough to breed to him."

The result was Evening Attire, a foal of 1998, which was about the time heart valve replacement surgery convinced Kelly to end his career of more than 60 years. Never fear, though. If you are anywhere east of the Appalachians, it seems as if there is a Kelly training somewhere, either descended from Tommy (sons Larry, Tim, and Pat) or his brother, Eddie Kelly (sons Mike and Eddie Jr.).

In fact, the game is temporarily down to only one training Kelly - at least from this particular clan. Tim had Evening Attire early in his career, but left the profession to take a position as an official with the New York Racing Association. Pat Kelly, who took Sultry Song and Solar Splendor to various Breeders' Cups, inherited Evening Attire in 2001.

Now Pat Kelly and Evening Attire are at Arlington, poised to win the big one if opponents such as War Emblem, Came Home, Medaglia d'Oro, and Rock of Gibraltar make the slightest mistake.

"It's a miracle to me," said Tommy Kelly, who bred and owns Formal Attire in partnership with Joseph Grant. "Let everyone in this game know. They shouldn't ever give up, because the good one will come along."

Evening Attire has caught the elder Kelly's fancy, and not just because the horse earned more than a million dollars. Tommy Kelly spent most of the Saratoga meet at Pat's barn, feeding his gray horse apples and admiring his generous demeanor.

"He's a kind sucker," Kelly said. "I have never once seen him with his ears pinned. What does that tell me? It says he's with the show. Always going forward. He's the kind of horse who wants to know what's around the next corner."

Black Tie Affair bade farewell to racing with his victory in the 1991 Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. Evening Attire is a gelding, so win, lose or draw he figures to be in the game for awhile.

"He's earned a shot," Pat Kelly said. "I do know that he will show up, and his best race puts him right there. I don't suppose it hurts that his sire was such a star around here."

More like an icon. Last month, Dee Poulos was looking through some of her late husband's elegant haberdashery, much of it on display during Black Tie Affair's 1991 campaign. She was preparing a high-class care package for her friend, Arlington Park starter William "Blue" Knott.

"I just thought Blue would like to choose from few of Ernie's ties and handkerchiefs, as long as he's going to start his first Breeders' Cup races," Poulos said. "I'm letting him wear these, too."

With that, she opened a small jewel box containing the diamond encrusted "EP" cufflinks worn by Ernie Poulos on the day Black Tie Affair won the Classic. When Tommy Kelly heard the tale, he sighed.

"That's it," he said. "I guess we've got no excuses now."