In 2015, nearly sixty years after Sir Barton entered the Hall of Fame in its inaugural class, Billy Kelly, his stablemate and frequent workout partner, got his own place among the ranks of great horses in American racing history. This gelding, sprinting speed in a plain brown wrapper, had an unremarkable pedigree, his name and fame faded with time. Yet his place in the Hall of Fame was assured not because of his proximity to a Triple Crown winner, but because of his consistent excellence carrying high weights over a variety of distances.
Billy Kelly was sired by Dick Welles, who also had sired 1909 Kentucky Derby winner, Wintergreen. Trainer William Perkins bought Billy Kelly as a yearling from his breeder, Jerome Respess, and then sold W.F. Polson a half-interest in the little brown gelding. Polson later bought Perkins out, taking Billy Kelly from Kentucky to New York. His winning record at two saw the gelding carrying progressively more weight each time he started in a handicap, beating older horses at least twice. He caught Commander Ross’s attention early at Saratoga, after wins in races like the Flash Stakes and the United States Hotel Stakes. Ross was ready to make Polson an offer, but the latter refused any offers for his gelding — until Billy Kelly lost the Albany Handicap while carrying an astonishing 133 pounds, unheard of for a two-year-old. In his first start under the Ross orange and black, Billy Kelly won the Sanford Stakes, but was not eligible for the last great juvenile stake, the Hopeful Stakes. Another stellar two-year-old, Eternal, won the Hopeful, and, after a couple of additional wins, it was soon clear that Eternal and Billy Kelly were competing for the title of 1918’s best two-year-old.
Billy Kelly lost his match race with Eternal, setting the stage for the 1919 Kentucky Derby. Sir Barton and his historical Triple Crown is owed in part to Billy Kelly. It was Billy Kelly who worked out with Sir Barton at Havre de Grace in April when H.G. Bedwell decided that Sir Barton deserved a chance to try the Kentucky Derby. Billy Kelly’s rivalry with Eternal spurred Commander Ross to place that bet with Arnold Rothstein. All of that, though, is just one facet of the gelding’s Hall-of-Fame career. He won the Harford Handicap three times. He finished his time on the track in 1923, with 39 wins in 69 starts, a 57% win percentage. Billy Kelly finished out-of-the-money only NINE times in 69 races over six seasons. Had he not developed a recurrent bleeding issue in his last season he likely would have continued racing past his seventh year.
Finally retired, Commander Ross sent Billy Kelly to his Canadian farm at Verchères, outside of Montreal. He died in 1926, at only ten years old, his grave near the St. Lawrence River. In his time, he faced Exterminator, Sir Barton, and other greats, winning at distances from five furlongs to ten. He set records and carried the heaviest of handicap weights, all the while serving as Sir Barton’s workout partner in the mornings. While Sir Barton’s historic achievements might have garnered more glory, Billy Kelly ranks as one of the finest sprinters of the first half of the 20th century. His 2015 induction into the Hall of Fame was an honor long overdue.