Thank you, Mr. Kelly

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Veteran trainer Pat Kelly announced his retirement this week. The backstretch won’t be the same.

Here’s one of my favorite Cups of Coffee, Cans and Carrots, written July 29, 2016.

Pat Kelly parked his bike, a spray-painted, no-brand beater with a fading Free John Veitch bumper stick, a trash bag on the seat, a brass chain around the handle bars and a metal chain around the seat. The 68-year-old trainer stepped off and began transferring cans and bottles from the wire mesh basket into an oat bag nailed to the wooden wall of the bunkhouse deep in the shaded corner on the backside of the main track.

Kelly and his team gather enough cans and bottles, about $4 worth every day, to pay for carrots for the horses. Now, that’s a program, helping the environment and pampering the horses.

The 68-year-old trainer has eight horses bedded down behind mismatched webbings between Tom Albertrani and Keith Desormeaux, in the usual Kelly spot in barn 23. The numbers have dwindled, a far cry from the years of Solar Splendor, Sultry Song, Christiecat, Riskaverse and Evening Attire, but not that far off Kelly’s original numbers when he got stalls for the first time, in Tommy Gullo’s barn at Belmont Park in 1978.

Live Oak Stud gave Kelly eight horses and Fox Ridge Farm provided two horses to the fledgling trainer. Kelly still trains for Peter Schiff’s Fox Ridge Farm.

 “Table Hopper, Junction, Peace Movement, that was a bunch of nice horses,” Kelly said. “Junction ran in a maiden race against Believe it, Sauce Boat and Alydar, it was the key race of all time. Mr. (John) Schiff had given Peter a filly named Table Hopper, she was his first horse, she won a couple of races.”

Earlier that year, Kelly’s dad, future Hall of Famer Tommy Kelly had pushed his oldest son from the nest. Out of college and working for his father, Kelly needed to make room for his little brothers, Danny, Larry and Timmy.

“It was time to go out, I had other brothers moving up through the family,” Kelly said. “Pop was like, ‘Get out of here, I got to feed the other guys,’ but it worked out really well.”

Like a good racetracker, Kelly reminisced about how it had worked out, the stories jumping from his father, to Lucien Laurin to Joe Hirsch and Joe Namath. A good life, filled with good fortune and good characters.

“We just sold the house in Ocean Reef, the house Lucien got my dad to buy. Lucien had a house down the road, he took my dad down there and said this house is for sale,” Kelly said. “It’s a beautiful house, faces the west, watch the sun go down, we had some great times there for many years. Pop died three years ago, my mom died last year, we’re just settling their estate.”

A hint of sympathy was expressed for the passing of Thomas “T. J.” and Frances Kelly. Pat Kelly wouldn’t hear of it, thinking back to the days when his Hall of Fame father came to Saratoga and chopped carrots from his tackroom.

“They both made it into their 90s, they had a good run,” Kelly said. “For a guy who was on D. Day and made it back to live to be 93 . . . it’s amazing, you think about all the guys we lost that day. My dad was a medic, my uncle Eddie “E. I.” Kelly was a tank driver, he made it through the war, too.”

Tommy Kelly made it out of the war and built a Hall of Fame career through hard work, loyalty and old-fashioned horsemanship, developing the likes of Noble Dancer, Droll Roll, King’s Bishop, Plugged Nickle and Topsider. Kelly bred and co-owned Evening Attire, who won $2.9 million with Pat Kelly as trainer.

“We found some beautiful stuff when we went through the houses,” Kelly said. “He had a great house in Miami Springs, near Hialeah. Bill Hartack bought a house at the end of the street. Joe Hirsch lived right up the street at the Villas. That was the hangout. Bill Hartack had parties every weekend. One day I come home, there’s Howard Cosell, Joe Hirsch, Joe Namath and Heywood Hale Broun sitting on the couch having a blammer after the races.”

Kelly laughed at the thought of the iconic broadcaster, turf writer, quarterback and journalist sharing his living room.

“The people I met in this game . . .” Kelly said. “We still played football with Jerkens in the chute. He would get done yelling at Robyn Smith, even when she won a race for him, he would yell at her, throw the mud bucket, 15 minutes later we’d be playing football. We used to go out to his farm in Huntingdon, eat Sunday dinner and then play pick-up basketball games in the barn.”

Kelly sighed.

“I’ve been around . . . too long,” Kelly said. “Too many people call me Mr. Kelly now.”

Kelly turned from his bike, picked up a feed scoop and feed bucket and began walking down the shedrow, doling out lunch to his expectant horses.

The carrots would come next.