Tom Kelly sits in front of a computer screen, analyzing talent. He’s looking for a youngster who can develop into an all-star. A youngster with strength and speed, plus the stamina and character to endure a summer filled with travel and tough competition.
It’s not unlike the role he once had as the manager of the Minnesota Twins, except in this case, the talent has four legs rather than two. Kelly, who retired in October 2001 after 15 full seasons with the Twins, has thrown himself into another endeavor – or, perhaps, more accurately, passion – as a participant in harness racing. The 52-year-old Minnesota native, who grew up near Freehold, New Jersey, owns a dozen horses and is having a great time watching his stable compete, and grow.
“It’s fun,” Kelly said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s very competitive, and I enjoy the competition. Hopefully, we win a race or two to pay the bills. I don’t know that we have any long-term goals. We take it a day at a time and try to be prepared to do the best we can do. But we don’t have any aspirations to win the Hambletonian or anything like that. We wouldn’t know how to act.”
Of course, Kelly’s dry humor belies the fact that he knows plenty about winning. He bought his first Standardbred in 1985, but then, in his words, “the baseball got busy.” He took over as the Twins’ manager for the final 23 games of 1986 – and led the team to its first World Series title the next year. In 1991, Minnesota again won the championship. Kelly remains a Twins employee. This week he is heading to the Twins’ spring training site in Fort Myers, Florida, and he will spend part of the summer visiting the organization’s minor league team to make sure the parent club’s philosophy is being taught properly.
“I’m comfortable with what I do with the horses and baseball,” Kelly said. “It’s quite fun. It’s just enough baseball to keep me involved.” Kelly, who said he “got my hands dirty” working three winters on a horse farm as a teen, bought his first Standardbred in 1985, but didn’t become more active in the sport until his retirement. In fact, he purchased six horses in 2001 – all in the three months after leaving the Twins.
Because of his New Jersey roots, his horses all race on the East Coast. He uses several trainers, including Paul Jessop, Roger Plante Jr., Hal Belote, and Ray Remmen. He returns to New Jersey about four times a year. “Harness horses are so personable,” Kelly said. “You can jog one if you want, and they’re just easy to be around.”
One of Kelly’s top horses right now is the six-year-old trotter Nomar, named for Boston Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. Kelly bought the gelding last year and watched him win $81,046. Nomar has won $212,675 lifetime. Kelly also owns six New Zealand-breds, all bought within the last seven months.
“We have some good people in New Zealand who we trust and we rely on their judgment,” Kelly said. “We have a decent handle on it. They’re tough horses and they race hard.”
Kelly, who watches the races on his home computer, is moving into the yearling ranks too. Last year, he bought Hop To The Best, a filly by Cambest out of Hoptuit Hanover. He also has the yearling colt Print It, by The Panderosa out of Framed Print.
“Hopefully, we’ll get lucky,” Kelly said. “But our real goal is just to be competitive, have fun and stay above water.”
If the past is any indication, Kelly will manage just fine.