Horse's namesake advises betting with caution ; Wagering: When a steed has your father's name, it seems predestined to win the race.


THE HORSE THAT RAN in Wednesday afternoon's 10th race at Laurel was no ordinary entry. His name was Joe Kelly, proudly named after my father, the Joe Kelly who resides in the Guilford Avenue house that I so often recall.

My father joined this newspaper in 1944 and soon began a lengthy career covering horse racing. One of my earliest childhood memories is the drive to Pimlico, over the spindly iron Belvedere Avenue Bridge to Old Hilltop. My father retains the same parking space today as he had in 1954, perhaps 1944.

A handful of years ago my father and I were at Sunday Mass at St. Ignatius Church on Calvert Street. I spotted a fresh face in the congregation -- and a few minutes later, at the parish hall coffee hour, I began talking with Mike Cataneo. It didn't take him long for him to mention his horses. It didn't take me long to say you've got the wrong Kelly.

My father and Mike, who met below the high altar at St. Ignatius, became immediate fast friends. They travel to Kentucky for the horse auctions. They're up before dawn for workouts. And this fall's there's a horse named Joe Kelly, a horse Mike named after my father.

Joe Kelly's (the horse) first race was one important date, Oct. 13, 1999. I arrived with my baby sister Josie, who was carrying bets for half of her Locust Point neighborhood, all on No. 9 to win.

I opened the program and spotted the name Joe Kelly. A line at the bottom said, "Is nicely bred." The track handicapper picked him second.

We found my father seated alone in the Laurel press box. He was dressed in a suit normally reserved for Easter. His mood was quiet and anticipatory. As ever, he advised cautious and moderate wagering. With 55 years in this business, he's seen a few races.

Reinforcements arrived with my sister Mimi, a former Miss Preakness. The four of us walked to Laurel's atmospheric paddock. Here, in this circular temple of Maryland racing, we got a fresh look at Joe Kelly. Mimi, Josie and I agreed that this was one beautiful and graceful steed. His dark coat glistened in the low light of an October afternoon. He was trim and ready. I thought he had winning money written all over him.

Others agreed. There was a pot of money riding on him. Edgar Prado, a winning jockey, rode him. Ann Merryman is his trainer.

The Laurel paddock is one choice piece of sporting architecture -- a vintage circular stable with raised viewing platforms for the benefit of spectators. It's a place of drama, pageantry and color, where the owners, jockeys and trainers assemble for a last close-up look at the horses before they take to the track and parade to the post.

Just then came an omen -- a homebound commuter train on the old B&O; tracks raced through behind the track and let out a loud blast on its horn -- an omen I felt surely presaged a trip to the winner's circle. I was now calculating my wagering windfall in advance.

Joe Kelly (the horse) broke out of the starting gate with authority. He charged along the back stretch for a handful of excited seconds. Our hopes crested as he battled away. Then the handsome light blue silks disappeared.

Grundlefoot charged across the finish line first; Joe Kelly was eighth in the 10-horse field.

It was all over.

I asked for an immediate ride home with my sister Mimi. On the way back to Baltimore, we avoided any depressing commentary. We chatted lightly about the race and about how well everyone looked and felt. It was otherwise a perfect Maryland afternoon. The trees along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway caught the day's last light.

Finally, Mimi broke through the chatter.

"It's only a race," she said.

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