04/19/2013 2:49PM

T.J. Kelly, Hall of Fame trainer, dead at 93

Benoit & Associates
T.J. Kelly wipes a tear away at his 1993 Hall of Fame induction ceremony flanked by his wife, Frances, and brother Eddie.

Thomas J. “T.J.” Kelly, a Hall of Fame trainer and the patriarch of one of foremost racing families in the United States, died on Friday after a long illness in Miami, Florida, where he lived in retirement. He was 93.

Kelly was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1993, following his mentor, Louis Feustel – the trainer of Man o’War – for whom Kelly groomed and walked hots when first starting out. Kelly went on to train more than 70 individual stakes-winning horses, including Plugged Nickle, who won the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial in 1980. He finished seventh in that year’s Kentucky Derby to Genuine Risk.

Later that year, though, Plugged Nickle won the Vosburgh and Tom Fool and won the Eclipse Award as champion sprinter.

Kelly’s other major stakes wins included the Washington D.C. International, United Nations, Woodward, San Luis Rey, Arlington-Washington Futurity, Laurel Futurity, Remsen, Test, Gotham, Champagne, and Jim Dandy.

Kelly was born in Pikesville, Maryland, on Sept. 23, 1919, the son of a bartender who was a horseplayer. Both T.J. and his younger brother Eddie (E.I.), became trainers. Eddie Kelly, who died in 2004 at age 83, trained 1959 sprint champion Intentionally.

Kelly ran away to the racetrack as a teenager after his father died from tuberculosis, leaving his mother widowed with four children.

“These long-faced gals from St. Mary’s Industrial School started showing up at the house. They would come and take poor children and orphans to the school, and I didn’t want to go there,” Kelly told Daily Racing Form in 1993. “That’s why I left home when I was 13 to work on the racetrack and get away from there.”

After working for Feustel, and then serving in the Army in World War II, Kelly started training on his own. His won his first stakes race in 1953, and won his first major stakes race that year with Pet Bully in the Washington Park Handicap. The following year, Pet Bully won the Woodward.

In addition to Pet Bully and Plugged Nickle, Kelly’s best runners included Colonel Moran, Droll Role, Dubassoff, Globemaster, King’s Bishop, Misty Gallore, Noble Dancer, Sauce Boat, and Sunrise County.

After retiring in 1998, T.J. Kelly was a visitor to Saratoga every summer to renew acquaintances with family, friends, and fans. A sweet, humble man, he always had a warm smile and a gracious welcome. Owing to his health, last summer was the first summer Kelly was unable to attend Saratoga.

Three of his sons – Patrick, Larry, and Tim – followed Kelly into training.

“He lived a great life,” Pat Kelly said Friday from Miami. “He left with a smile on his face.”

In addition to Pat, Larry, and Tim – who now works as the clerk of scales at New York Racing Association tracks – Kelly is survived by a fourth son, Danny, as well as daughters Patricia and Jean, his wife of 66 years, Frances, numerous grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

According to Pat Kelly, there will be a viewing Monday at Caballero Rivero Woodlawn Funeral Home, 373 W. 9th St., Hialeah, Fla. A funeral mass will be held Tuesday at 10 a.m. at Blessed Trinity Catholic Church, 4020 Curtiss Parkway, Miami Springs. Fla. Kelly will be buried at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Cemetery in Doral, Fla.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Backstretch Employees Service Team (BEST), 2150 Hempstead Turnpike, Elmont, NY, 11003.