SOUTH OZONE PARK, April 20, 2013—I suppose it was appropriate that when Tom Durkin reached my cell Friday morning “with some sad news,” I was on the Cross Island Parkway heading towards Belmont Park.

I remember where, but can’t remember exactly when it was that I first met one of the heroes of my horseplaying youth, Thomas J. Kelly, who died Friday morning in Hialeah at St. Catherine’s Hospital at the age of 93.

I know it was his Belmont Park barn but can’t recall the horse or the race. I first heard his name in 1961 when he trained Globemaster to win the Wood, seeing the black and white stretch run on Movietone News.

My best guess is that it was the misspelled Plugged Nickle who won the 1979 Remsen Stakes and took the following year’s Wood Memorial at the Big A but his speed was no match for the pretty tomboy Genuine Risk in Louisville two weeks later.

But his record was plenty good enough to be named Sprint Champion of 1980. The Wood was one of seven stakes won by Plugged Nickle that year including the Vosburgh and Tom Fool over older that fall.

I was a Newsday columnist for less than two years but Kelly treated me as if I were some Italian Red Smith; patiently and deferentially. I was impressed by that, but more so when I heard he treated everyone that way.
The hero worship probably dated back to Droll Role, who would have been a turf champion in any generation. He won the 1972 Canadian International and the Washington D. C. International, back then about the biggest grass race in the country.

Noble Dancer II was another talented runner and Topsider was a cool, classy and brilliant grass sprinter.

And thanks to a current Saratoga Grade 1 for three-year-olds, everyone’s heard of King’s Bishop. Kelly took his time and developed them all.

Contemporary fans probably know him best as a breeder-owner, in partnership with long-time friends Joe and Mary Grant on the very popular New York handicap horse, Evening Attire, who raced eight years and was trained by Kelly’s son, Pat.

Anyone around the game long enough will tell you that T J Kelly was a consummate horsemen who did things the right way, with hay, oats, water and carrots. I can never forget the carrots.

Every August since his retirement in 1998, T.J. and his wife Frances came to Saratoga to visit their racetracker family; Pat and Timmy and Karen and Tara and a gaggle of grandchildren. But he had other reasons, too.

He loved wearing his Hall of Fame jacket to the annual induction ceremony and showed up at daybreak each morning at Pat’s to shave the carrots clean. He wouldn’t leave the tack room until the job was done.

Reporter turned publicist Jenny Kellner recalled this morning, just as retired Newsday handicapper Mark Berner did via e-mail on Friday, that she met T J for the first time at the Wishing Well in Saratoga.

“I was meeting a friend but walked in alone,” Kellner said. When T. J. first saw me he said ‘well you can’t eat alone so please join us for dinner’.” Berner’s recollection was similar, but different:

“He was just leaving the bar and had a scotch in each hand as did I. I introduced myself; we started talking and became fast friends.”

The social side of Kelly never was more evident than at the New York Turf Writers’ dinner dance in Saratoga. Kelly would buy a table every year for the family, was the first man on the dance floor and the last to leave.

But the most cherished memory is the role he played when Toni and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. Since we were married on the afternoon of Super Bowl III, we used that date to celebrate each year.

Super Bowl XXIII was in Miami that year, NBC had the game and Durkin was able to secure four good seats. T J, meanwhile, arranged a great getaway for all of us in Islamorada.

Ocean Reef is a gated community so exclusive that you never needed something as crass as cash. Lucien Laurin and Maje Odom were next door neighbors. You signed as you went but be prepared for the mega-bill to come at the end of the month.

We spent over $200 for a takeout brunch one afternoon. We grazed on stone crabs and washed them down with Pina Coladas.

Not only did T. J. insist that we use the house as a vacation getaway but he arranged a dinner party on Super Bowl eve, drove 90 minutes south from Miami Springs, prepared some of his legendary Maryland crab cakes. After serving the fare, the Pikesville, Marylander got back in his car and drove home.

Twenty-four years later, the memory is indelible, overwhelmingly humbling. A member of the greatest generation, T.J. was a great story teller but I never heard about the two Purple Hearts he earned in WW II until I read it in a NYRA press release.

T.J. is survived by Fran, brother John, sons Pat, Timmy, Danny and Larry, who “Pop” liked to call Laz, and daughters Patricia and Jean Marie-- Jeannie.

I will always picture him standing and smiling during the annual Hall of Fame roll call. Then I’ll remember that he was a Hall of Fame person long before he became a legendary horseman.