08/24/2004 11:00PM

T.J. Kelly finds tonic at the Spa


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Saratoga offers many things. Misty mornings to keep photographers in business. The spring water, which is supposed to be good for you. The best racing in the country. And there are those meetings. On a good day, you can see and talk to at least 12 Hall of Famers, not to mention sure-fire first-balloters Azeri, Todd Pletcher, and John Velazquez.

Go by Barn 23 in the woods behind the main track and meet Tommy "T.J." Kelly. Be ready - he tells stories with ease.

Once, in 1999, Kelly went to see his Black Tie Affair yearling.

"How's my colt?" Kelly asked a man at Ocala Stud Farm.

"Your colt?" he said. "Mr. Kelly, you don't have a colt, you have a gelding."

And that's how the story of Evening Attire, super gelding, came to be. There were no testicles to be seen. The big gray horse would go to the races as a cryptorchid or a ridgling - definitely not a colt.

After he hopped out of the gate like a "chicken on a roof," Kelly and his son Pat decided something needed to be done, so they found the horse's testicles, somewhere inside, and castrated him.

Two million dollars later, he's still going strong. So is his co-breeder and co-owner, Tommy Kelly, who will be 85 in September. Evening Attire upset Funny Cide in last Sunday's Saratoga Breeders' Cup. And Kelly, now retired but a veteran of 54 years of training, comes to the barn of his son Pat every day. He would have been at the races Sunday, but he said he's a "superstitious old Irishman." He and his wife, Fran (equipped with rosary beads), were watching at home.

Kelly's Kroops paddock boots are polished as they were when he was training Topsider, Noble Dancer II, and Plugged Nickle. Khaki pants crisp and clean. Plaid shirt neatly tucked in. He drinks coffee, watches race replays on the office television, and does his chores.

"He's at the barn every morning. Sometimes he beats me here," Pat Kelly said. "Cuts the carrots, gives Evening Attire blood tonic, peppermints. I've got a Hall of Fame carrot-cutter."

Age is a determined foe for both man and horse.

At 6, it seemed Evening Attire was slowing down this year, stumbling to an 0-for-6 start.

Kelly had a heart attack while dancing at the Travers Ball in 1993. He retired from training in 1998. Every day brings its physical battles. He broke his right wrist the other day when he fell down. His left hand has a permanently disabled finger. His back bothers him. But his mind is strong. So strong.

"I was 100-1 to make it when I was a kid caddying for 70 cents," he said. "Now my back's bad. My legs are bad. You should see me with a razor in my hand. If you stick around long enough, everything will go. My mind's the last thing I have left, thank God."

A visit to Pat Kelly, Evening Attire, and Tommy Kelly is like going back in time. Pat Kelly is a no-nonsense horseman who tells you the truth whether it's positive or not. He would be better served in a different time. Tom Smith, anyone?

Evening Attire is built like a horse of a past era: a long, lean, old-style English Thoroughbred. Tommy Kelly, he came to Saratoga as a groom in 1935 for Man o' War's trainer, Lou Feustel. They built fires to eat by and lived in the barn lofts. Sixty-nine years later, he drives his Buick Roadmaster to the barn every morning. You know the one - a long, white station wagon with wood on the sides. It's either Clark Griswold or Tommy Kelly.

Kelly bought Concolour, Evening Attire's dam, when Sir John Thouron's horses were dispersed. She had won one race for Kelly's son Tim, who now works in the New York Racing Association racing office. He spent $15,000 on Black Tie Affair, the biggest stud fee he and his partner Joe Grant ever paid.

"He's a miracle horse," Kelly said. "Things just don't happen that way. It still takes a little sinking in. I was 100-1 to make it and so was he."

Kelly started as a hotwalker at Pimlico and kept rolling the dice until he was in the Hall of Fame. The Kelly family, led by brothers E.I. and T.J. Kelly, became a racing institution. But don't think it came naturally.

"People would always say to me, 'Your dad must have been a great horseman, raising two trainers like that,' " Kelly said. "I'd tell them, 'My dad was the best bartender in Baltimore City.' He used to tend bar at the old hotel where Max Hirsch came and drank."

The closest his father came to a horse was filling out bookie slips.

Tommy Kelly's mom was as strong-willed as her son. She once told Maryland writer Joe Hickey, "You can write about the boys training the horses, but remember I trained the boys."

She trained them, all right. Tommy Kelly would make his mom proud. Just like Pat Kelly makes his dad proud. And just like Tommy Kelly makes his son proud.

"Saratoga is as close to heaven as you're going to get," Tommy Kelly said. "We've done so good with this horse, and we'll keep going. Horses keep you young."