“Grandpa,” “Old Whitey,” “Mr. Old Gray,” “Old Man” and “Mr. Poppy,” are nicknames given to Evening Attire by those closest to him. To New York racing fans, Evening Attire is known as a sterling gelding with a heart of gold.
He once sported a steely gray coat that has now faded with age, but the near-white 10-year-old is still making headlines.
Evening Attire rumbled through the stretch of Philadelphia Park to win the 1 1/2-mile Greenwood Cup by 8 1/4 lengths in track-record time last month. The win earned him a starting berth to the inaugural running of the $500,000 Breeders’ Cup Marathon at Santa Anita Park Oct. 25. Will he go to the Breeders’ Cup and become the oldest horse to race in the championship event? His trainer, Pat Kelly, isn’t ready to make that decision yet. Does it matter? No. If Evening Attire never raced again, the impact he has had on his ‘family’ at the Kelly barn will never be erased.
Around the barn, Evening Attire is revered. Not just because of his hard-knocking ways; but because he is a gentle horse who likes to please.
Danny Vogt, Evening Attire’s exercise rider, simply said, “He’s my hero.”
The 60-year-old Vogt came to the racetrack in 1965 and began galloping horses at Suffolk Downs. Later, Vogt, a native of South Carolina, arrived in New York and galloped standouts such as Drumtop, Numbered Account and Riva Ridge.
In his races, Evening Attire has been ridden by 13 jockeys. In the mornings, almost without fail, it has been Vogt on his back since the first day the son of Black Tie Affair came to the track as a 2-year-old in 2000.
“He is the horse I have worked around for the longest,” Vogt said.
Vogt, who also works in the afternoons as a white-cap for the New York Racing Association, said he has been getting on horses for the Kelly family for “35 or 40 years.” First he worked for Hall of Fame trainer Tommy. Kelly, Evening Attire’s co-owner and breeder, and Pat’s father. Vogt also worked for Timmy Kelly, Pat’s brother and Evening Attire’s first trainer.
Tim Kelly trained Evening Attire for the first five starts of his career, before he left the backstretch for life on the front side as a racing official for NYRA. Tim Kelly still has a soft spot for Evening Attire, and was spotted a couple years ago in a Long Island grocery store buying a gargantuan bag of carrots. “Who’s that for?” he was asked. “Who do you think?” was the answer. No additional questions were necessary.
Evening Attire made his career debut July 16, 2000, at Belmont Park and finished second. He earned his first career victory in his following start, Aug. 6, 2000 at Saratoga.
Evening Attire was a bit of handful as a youngster, but gelding took care of that as a 3-year-old. Not that he was gelded because of his feisty nature; he’d been a ridgling. In any event, a calmer Evening Attire was the result.
Blacksmith Joe Campbell has been part of the Evening Attire team since he came to the track as an unraced freshman.
“When he was a 2-year-old, he was a little crabby,” Campbell recalled recently. “He was always a little stiff behind when you had to do work on him. After he was gelded, he was definitely a lot better and more comfortable.
“I shoe him right outside of the barn, and he just stands here. He doesn’t like you to rub him on the head too much. He likes it more to the side, rather than the top of his head. He has had very few problems over the years. No caulks, no bends, no turndowns; just toe grabs. That’s it. I don’t think we ever had a quarter crack with him. He really has been an iron horse with his feet. “
He’s also been an iron horse on the track. He’s raced 69 times, making it to the winner’s circle in 15 of those races, including 11 stakes. Evening Attire has earned $2,977,170 for Tommy Kelly and partners, Joseph and Mary Grant. The apex of Evening Attire’s career came in 2002 when he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup by 2 3/4 lengths. That effort earned him his first trip to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, where he finished fourth at Arlington Park. He made another start in the Classic the following year, and finished seventh at Santa Anita Park. It was hotter than blazes that day in California, (In fact, fires were blazing in the San Gabriel Mountains), and Evening Attire has never been one for heat. Then again, he won the Greenwood on a pretty sultry day. Suffice to say, Evening Attire is full of surprises.
In 2006, Evening Attire began getting lethargic leaving the gate; as if were still deciding if he wanted to participate. He didn’t always win after those tardy starts, but he usually closed like a locomotive to pick up a piece of the purse. And on occasion, he did win after a sluggish start.
Vogt thinks Evening Attire just got wise to the business of racing. He said that in the mornings, Evening Attire still flies out of the gate like a horse on a mission.
“Like boom; no problem,” Vogt said, with an quick hand motion to emphasize Evening Attire’s morning style. “He pops right out of there. Right before he ran at Philadelphia Park, I worked him out of the gate at Belmont Park, and he went right out of there. Todd Pletcher was there, and said to me, ‘You should ride this horse (in a race).’
So what happens when the clock goes past noon?
“I guess he is old . . . A lot of times you get a horse to the gate in the afternoon and they just want to relax and they fall asleep,” Vogt said. “He ain’t a 3-year-old anymore. He’s a 10-year-old.”
Evening Attire entered the Greenwood looking for his first win in five starts since capturing December’s Grade III Queens County Handicap at Aqueduct. Still, he showed some fire by finishing second in three of those races, including the Grade II Brooklyn Handicap.
Vogt suggested to Kelly that they shake things up with Evening Attire, who sometimes is conditioned over Belmont Park’s training track.
“Just before he ran (at Philadelphia), I told Pat, ‘Let’s take him to the main track; maybe it will give him old memories,’” Vogt said. “I worked him there, and then he galloped there a couple of days, and I guess it just worked out fine. He went down to Philadelphia and blew them away. Horses are smart. They can’t talk, but they are smart. They know what they like and don’t like. He’s a smart old cookie. “
Vogt said if he isn’t careful, Evening Attire will grab hold of the bit and take off in the mornings.
“Sometimes, like on the training track at Belmont, I don’t need the pony, but if I take him to the main track, he is smart. I need the pony because he thinks he is racing,” Vogt said. “He’s smart that way. He’ll try to get away from me. He knows on that backside on the main track, he is supposed to go. Can’t fool around with him. Once he gets that jump on you, it takes a while to get him back to you. You got to keep him under that cruise control. “
Once back in his stall, after training or a race, Evening Attire is like the rest of us after a day’s work; he’s looking for a comfortable spot to rest. He begins a ritual that involves moving his feet around to gather a nice comfy pile of straw that he will immediately plop down on, and then he will roll, from side to side. Refreshed, he gets up bucking, kicking, and squealing. Vogt said as he looks on from outside the stall, he admonishes Evening Attire to be careful. “Watch yourself, don’t get cast.”
Rosendo Lopez, Evening Attire’s groom during his 3, 4, and 5-year-old campaigns, said he had some anxious moments after the 2002 Breeders’ Cup when Evening Attire was on a van bound for Kentucky.
“Funny thing, he tried to roll in the van,” Lopez said. “I said, ‘Come on. You can’t do that.’ ”
Evening Attire is the king around the barn, and probably can get away with anything, as long as it passes the test for safety. His behavior when he was turned out on a local Saratoga farm for some rest to heal an injury to his knee in 2006 was not unlike a child who gets sent away to summer camp but wants nothing more than to come home and play with his friends.
Evening Attire had utter disdain for farm life. According to Pat Kelly’s son and assistant, Ken, the gelding would run around in the field for a bit and then would stand for long periods of time looking forlornly out of the entrance of the paddock. He was no-doubt waiting for someone to bring him back to the racetrack.
He did arrive back at Saratoga from the farm during the 2006 meet. His groom at the time, William “Junior” Void, was celebrating his 65th birthday that day, and was soon to retire. Pat Kelly called out to Void when he saw the gooseneck van pull up with Evening Attire, and said, “Hey, Junior, here’s your birthday present.”
Ken Kelly said one of the things that distinguishes Evening Attire from other horses he has been around is that he knows how to take care of himself, and perhaps that is the reason for his longevity on the racetrack.
“He never overexerted himself to the point where he would get any type of injury,” Kelly said. “He will show you if he isn’t feeling good and will show you if something is bothering him. He’s got a lot of personality. You know when he is feeling good because he has his head swinging back and forth. If he isn’t feeling good, he’s a little more docile and kind of laid back and relaxed. He is one of the easiest horses to work with because he just knows everything and does the right thing.”
Evening Attire’s current groom of one year, Juan Tapia, said the gelding gets “nipping” at him at times, but it’s in a playful way, and a peppermint will usually put a stop to that.
Karen Kelly, Pat’s wife, said Evening Attire has been around long enough that his fan mail is now all electronic. In fact, he has his own Facebook page, and you can view several of his races on YouTube. One fan has created a Web site for Evening Attire (check it out at www.eveningattire.net.)
Seems like Evening Attire’s catching up with the times; time certainly hasn’t caught up with him.