The Dean of Maryland Turf Writers

On Saturday, February 16, 2013, the Maryland equestrian community will gather to honor Joe Kelly, the “Dean of Maryland Turf Writers,” as the 2012 Maryland Horseman of the Year. Unfortunately, Mr. Kelly unexpectedly passed away while plans were being finalized for the commemorative dinner, but the organizer, the Maryland Horse Council, is fortunate that several of Mr. Kelly’s children will attend, with son Jacques accepting the honor on behalf of his father. Mr. Kelly would have celebrated his 95th birthday on Feb. 13, 2013.

Each year the Maryland Horse Council honors one state resident with the distinction of Horseman of the Year. The intention of the honor is to highlight that the Maryland horse industry is – indeed – an industry: a dynamic ecosystem in which dedicated individuals actually strive to earn a living while being in, around and among horses and horse people. Thus the award is presented each year to someone who has had a long and outstanding career in the industry. 

Everyone knows about the champion horses, the Olympic riders, the dedicated owners and the philanthropists. They are in the headlines, on the front covers and the featured speakers at every seminar or event.

This award, however, recognizes the everyday horseman working behind the scenes to keep the wheels of this industry lubricated and turning. Over the last two decades, the Maryland Horse Council has saluted veterinarians, farriers, tack store owners, riding instructors, trainers of Walking Horses and steeplechase horses, professional riders…a variety of individuals who not only enjoyed a long and successful career in their chosen professions, but who also inspired, mentored or nurtured the next generation of professionals. Some have been hands-on with horses, and others have not been hands-on. Regardless, each was an icon in his or her chosen profession and each left an indelible mark on his or her segment of the industry.

Joe Kelly, a.k.a. “Mr. Kelly,” was one of those individuals who did not work hands-on with the horses, but whose work played a critical role in shaping the Maryland horse industry, particularly the racing community during its glory days. Known as the “Dean of Maryland Race Writers,” Mr. Kelly was unarguably the longest serving, hardest working and most prolific equine journalist in Maryland’s horse history. 

Many decide early in their lives that they want to build their career in the horse world, but Mr. Kelly came into his horse-industry career indirectly, first as a journalist. In fact, it is darn hard to even earn a living in the horse world, so just having a career and making a living is, in and of itself, an accomplishment. Funny thing is, the same can be said of journalism, so for someone to have a successful career as an equine journalist (of any breed or sport) is a singular and worthy achievement in and of itself. 

Mr. Kelly’s story goes well beyond his success in journalism and his success in the horse industry, as one of his many protégées, Vinnie Perrone, tell us.

Durability, heart, class and grace
What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

by Vinnie Perrone
(Appeared in the February 2013 issue of The Equiery)

After he won Pimlico’s Old Hilltop Award for lifetime racing achievement and before he won it a second time, Joe Kelly again showed what lay within him.
The Maryland Racing Writers Association had established a $1,000 backstretch scholarship for college students, funding it through placement ads from its annual crabfeast program. My presidency had elicited within the group’s 40-odd members all the pep and initiative of drywall––at a meeting in 1992, no one readily offered to sell the ads, even for a small commission. 

Joe Kelly with news industry colleagues, circa 1970/1971. Standing L-R: Bill Phillips, The Daily Racing Form; Joe Kelly, The Baltimore Sun; Clem Florio, The Baltimore News-American; [unknown] The Washington Post; Dale Austin, The Batimore Sun; Gene Wittington; William Boniface, The Baltimore Sun. Seated L-R: Joe Brocator, The Washington Post, Charles Lamb, The Baltimore News-American. Photo courtesy of Jacques Kelly, a writer with The Baltimore Sun.

Then a 74-year-old hand went up, the oldest at the meeting, the one that had so enriched the state racing industry and the people in it, the last in the room that should have risen. Joe’s.
Within a few years, his robust ad sales had hiked the endowment to $2,000. “I’m glad to do it,” Joe said after politely rejecting a higher percentage. “It keeps me in the game.”

For nearly seven racing decades, Joseph B. Kelly was the game. Born in 1918, the year after Man o’ War, he too left an imprint deeper and different than his contemporaries––as a humble and tireless writer, historian, pioneer, editor, organizer, publicist, philosopher and mainstay of the Maryland turf.

Talk about getting the distance: In the summer of 2011, the Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred planned a spread on the Laurel Park centennial and asked Joe to write a short memoir on its once-signature race, the Washington, DC International. Editors fretted about overloading him and wondered how much usable grist he might produce at 93.

The answer arrived as six utterly enchanting essays, each a toast to Joe’s lilting prose and gentle style.

“I had fun doing them,” he said, ever grateful for the acknowledgement.

Where Joe had shrugged at his own accomplishments, history nods. After graduating from Loyola College in 1939, he officially began his beneficent doings as a Baltimore welfare department social worker. But he’d tasted the newswriting zest at the college paper and, in 1943, became a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

Soon immersed in fetlocks and furlongs, Joe covered his first Preakness in 1946, chronicling the unlikely deeds of club-footed Triple Crown winner Assault. The following April, he covered the racing debut of Citation, barely a winner at Havre de Grace. And that fall, four months shy of 30, Joe helped document another seminal episode: he and fellow Sun scribe Jim McManus served as on-air reporters from Pimlico as part of Baltimore’s first-ever television broadcast. The city counted some 1,400 TV sets at the time.

As Joe deemed the black-and-white certainty of newspapers best to support wife Stew and their six kids, McManus chose a career on camera––as Jim McKay.

The upshot often brought Joe a laugh with self-effacing candor. A wiser man, he said, would have acted on an odd encounter in Hutzler’s department store soon after the telecast. A woman on an escalator pointed to him excitedly and shouted, “I saw you on TV!” Joe spelled out the metaphor: she was taking the escalator up, he down.

Like the most versatile racehorse, Joe flourished regardless of plane or circumstance. He spent four years as regional secretary for the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, then became racing editor, columnist and principal turf writer of The Washington Star for nearly 30 years, until the paper folded in 1981. “I was 63 and out on the street,” he’d say drolly.

Not for long. Wise to The Star’s shutdown, Laurel owner Schapiro offered Joe a position as publicity director. After the track sold, Joe handled communications for the Maryland Million, teaming anew with former colleague and longtime pal Jim McKay.

In the late ’80s, Laurel and Pimlico looked to create a bona-fide media guide and turned to Joe for historical narratives about the tracks and the Preakness. As a man, Joe exhibited the qualities he deftly wrote of those Triple Crown winners: durability, heart and class.

Well into his nineties, Joe served with insight and flair as the Maryland Jockey Club’s historical consultant, fusing altruistic insights and organic goodness. Every Preakness and beyond, media types would make like gold-rushers to Joe’s Pimlico office, mining him for information, leaving richer.

How he endowed us––in ways open and obscure. By 2008, the year he turned 90, Joe no longer sold advertising for the racing writers: but his deeds resounded. The annual scholarship fund had surged past $30,000, a possibility preserved by Joe Kelly’s giving, graceful hand.

For more about the life and times of Mr. Kelly, please see Vinnie Perrone’s article in the January 2013 issue of the Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred. A former Washington Post race writer, Vinnie Perrone is an Eclipse award winning journalist who now divides his time between screenwriting and writing for racing-related journals. His first documentary (which Vinnie co-wrote and co-produced), about the famed Washington, DC nightclub The Bayou, will appear on Maryland Public Television Feb. 25 at 9 p.m.