Joseph B. Kelly, writer and authority on horse racing, dies at 94

Lloyd Fox/The Baltimore Sun - Joe Kelly, a former editor and columnist at the Washington Star dies at 94.

Joseph B. Kelly, the longtime racing editor of the old Washington Star who was a thoroughbred historian and was known as the dean of Maryland turf writers, died Nov. 26 of cancer at a hospice in Timonium, Md. He was 94.

The death was confirmed by his son, Baltimore Sun reporter Jacques Kelly.

Mr. Kelly began his career in 1943 in the sports department of the Sun, where he covered general sports for three years before joining the racing beat.

On Oct. 30, 1947, Mr. Kelly and his newsroom colleague, Jim McManus, later known as ABC sportscaster Jim McKay, made broadcasting history when they appeared on the first program televised by a Baltimore TV station. The reporters covered the fifth and sixth races from Pimlico Race Course for WMAR (Channel 2).

“I wasn’t fazed at all or the least bit nervous because TV then didn’t have the impact that it does today,” said Mr. Kelly, who described the broadcast 50 years later in a 1997 interview with the Sun.

He returned to the airwaves in 1948, when he was present at the first televised Preakness. Citation won the Preakness that year and remained Mr. Kelly’s all-time favorite horse.

Mr. Kelly left the Sun in 1951 to work for a horse racing association. In 1955, he joined the Washington Star, where he wrote a column and was racing editor.

When the paper folded in 1981, Mr. Kelly was media director at Laurel Park until 1984.

Since 1986, Mr. Kelly had served as publicity director of the Maryland Million, a stakes horse race held each year at either Laurel or Pimlico.

He was still handling the job and was a history consultant at Pimlico and the Maryland Jockey Club at the time of his death.

Mr. Kelly moved easily among the millionaires who owned and raced horses, the veterinarians and stable boys who cared for them, and the exercise riders and jockeys who rode them. He was often sought by local and national media as an expert on the Preakness and other racing matters.

In 1994, he wrote “At the Track: Thoroughbred Racing in Maryland, 1870-1973,” for a special issue of the Maryland Historical Magazine.

“Joe was a walking encyclopedia on the history of the Maryland horse racing industry,” said Ross Peddicord, executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board. “He covered racing when there were half-mile tracks at Havre de Grace, Bel Air, Upper Marlboro, Hagerstown and Cumberland and witnessed many of the great horse races from Citation to Secretariat to I’ll Have Another.

“He had a keen interest not only in Maryland racing lore, but all of Marylandia.”

Last month, Mr. Kelly received the first Robert and Anne Heighe award for excellence in equestrian journalism. Gov. Martin O’Malley proclaimed Oct. 19, 2012, as a day of tribute in his honor.

Joseph Bernard Kelly was born in Baltimore and graduated in 1939 from what is now Loyola University Maryland, where he edited the school newspaper.

He worked for several years at the city’s old Department of Public Welfare, where he met his future wife, M. Stewart Monaghan, whom he married in 1949. She died in 1993.

Survivors include six children, Jacques Kelly, Edward J. Kelly, Ellen Cora Kelly, Mary Stewart Kelly and Josephine S. O’Rourke, all of Baltimore, and Ann Rose Whaley of Ocean View, Del.; a sister; and five grandchildren.

In the 1993 Maryland Racing Writers program, Mr. Kelly wrote that he had no intention of retiring, even though the Social Security checks were regularly arriving at his home.

“Retire to what?” he asked. “I love horse racing, horse people and horse tracks.”

— Baltimore Sun