Four and a half years ago, Dave Kelly had precisely one horse - a four-year-old mare named Carro Hoodoo who didn’t exactly come with any lofty aspirations. “I bought her for $1,300 off Phil Giesbrecht and that included a race bike,” said Kelly. “There weren’t any high hopes for her.”
No kidding. When Kelly bought the cheap claimer Carro Hoodoo only had one win in 30 starts - the lone victory coming in a pedestrian 2:00 2/5. “I bought her as a hobby horse. I’d owned horses since I was 12 but I hadn’t owned any horses for eight months and it gave me something to do while I was working in Redwater, Alberta as a pipe fitter. I was working 10 days on and four days off so I only got to race Carro Hoodoo once every two weeks.”
Somehow, speaking to his ability, Kelly got a second win with Carro Hoodoo - a victory at odds of 24-1 in 1:58. But that was it. Carro Hoodoo not only never won another race, she never even came close to finding the winner’s circle.
Now look at him. This week Kelly was announced as one of two finalists for the O’Brien Future Star Award, one of the 17 categories which honour Canada’s best in harness racing over the past season. “It’s a huge accomplishment,” said Kelly, 30, who has had a fantastic 2019 season winning 101 races to date for almost $640,000 earnings as a driver and 50 races for earnings of $261,000 as a trainer.
Kelly also leads Century Mile as the top driver and is second in the trainer standings. “It’s big anytime you even get mentioned with the O’Brien Awards. I thought maybe we had a chance because we had a heck of a year but I was still surprised to be recognized at that level. It’s a great honour to be a finalist."
“Our goal was to win 100 races this year,” said Kelly, who won 89 races last year. “We’ve done that. The O’Brien Award nomination is just a bonus.”
The O’Brien Awards winners will be announced at the annual Black Tie Gala on Saturday, February 1, 2020, at the Hilton Mississauga/Meadowvale hotel in Mississauga, Ont.
Originally from Nova Scotia, Kelly is up against Prince Edward Islands’ native Austin Sorrie, who drove 76 winners for purse earnings of $390,000 and five winners as a trainer. Now in Ontario, Sorrie scored his first win at Woodbine Mohawk Park on Dec. 7.
Last year Alberta’s Chris Lancaster won the Future Star Award. “Five years ago I had that one horse, Carro Hoodoo,” said Kelly, who took out his trainer’s license in 2007 and his driver’s license in 2009. “Now I’ve got 22 horses. Even in March of 2018 I only had six or seven horses. By the end of last year I only had 12. I really never saw myself having 22 horses. It definitely took off faster than I expected.”
It took off because Kelly, who also shoes all his own horses, works as hard as any trainer/driver in the business. It took off because of his immense talent and ability to get the most of his horses. And, he says, it took off because of his owners. “I’ve got a real good group of owners who are willing to reinvest in the game and to reinvest in getting better horses. My awesome owners are the reason we’ve had such a good year.”
Kelly was born into a harness racing family. His father, David B. Kelly trained and drove; his two grandfathers - Hartigan on his mother’s side and Hank on his dad’s side - were also heavily involved in the sport; he has three uncles involved in harness racing; a cousin, Ryan Campbell is also a trainer and driver and, if that isn’t enough, his younger brother, Colin, is one of Canada’s top drivers.
“Colin and I both started early. If we weren’t in my dad’s barn we were at Hartigan’s barn and if we weren’t in those two places we were at Hank’s farm. We were in a barn morning to night.”
Hartigan, who passed away 2015, was probably Kelly’s biggest influence and resource. “Anytime I had a problem I would call him. He’d walk me through the problem and give you his thoughts. He taught me how to shoe. He was a heck of a horseman that’s for sure.”
Despite his deep harness background, Kelly wasn’t initially sure what he wanted to do. After all, he first came to Alberta in 2009 to work in the oil and gas business during the summer months while he was still going to school in Nova Scotia. In 2014, after he graduated with a business degree while majoring in accounting, he moved to Alberta permanently to work in Redwater.
Because of his affinity and love of horses, when Kelly wasn’t working in Redwater he would regularly find himself working at Gerry Hudon’s farm which was only 15 minutes from Redwater which is 30 minutes north-east of Edmonton.
“I worked nights at Redwater; I’d finish work at 6 a.m. and head over to Gerry’s farm. When I was done there I’d go back to Redwater get some sleep and go back to work. Then I’d do it all again the next day. So, while working with the horses was just a hobby at the time, it was also well embedded in my blood.”
But after 15 months with the oil and gas company in Redwater he got laid off. That changed everything. And it all began with one phone call.
“Greg Manning, whom I had met through my cousin, Ryan, when he was racing here, called me in October of 2015 and said that Cathy Reid and her Riverside stable was looking for someone to train her horses. I didn’t have anything else at the time so I said sure,” said Kelly.
“I always loved harness racing. But until I got the phone call from Greg it was always just as a hobby. Being around horses was never like a job; it never felt like work so I thought why not? If I hadn’t gotten laid off I might still be a pipe fitter but this was a chance to do what I always loved.”
After a year at Riverside, Kelly made an even bigger decision. In 2016 he elected to go out on his own. “I wasn’t really nervous going out on my own. I was more excited about the prospects.”
He started off with just six horses. “I had three horses for my dad, one of my own and two for Mike Dicks.”
Dicks, who owns parts of 11 horses in his barn, remains Kelly’s biggest owner. “I used to drive for Mike’s brother, Jim, in Cape Breton. Jim called me and said Mike had a couple of horses and asked if I might be interested in training them for a while and see how I made out.”
Success was immediate. “Mike and I bought Bad Blood for $2,500 and he’s made $54,000 and won 14 times.”
Kelly also had lots of success for other owners. “Richard McPhee and I bought Whiskey Throttle for $3,000. Including winning last weekend, he’s also won 14 races and has got just shy of $50,000 now.”
Dicks is now also part of the Pick 6 stable - six guys who got together to form a partnership last year and who now own eight horses. “They bought three yearlings and each took a percentage.”
Two of those three yearlings became stakes horses: Treasure Horizon and Stolen Moment. Treasure Horizon made $33,400 with two wins and three seconds. She won the Starlet in 1:56 1/5 - a fifth of a second off the two-year-old filly track record - and was second in the Starburst and Jim Rogers. Stolen Moment had a win and four seconds - two of the runner-up finishes in stakes races.
“We had a little taste of stakes action this year. We’re hoping to get a bigger taste next year,” said Kelly, who has five horses that will turn turn three in 2020 and six babies that will turn two. “We’ve got a lot to look forward to,” said Kelly, who got his first driving victory in 2009 at Northside Dowsn in Cape Breton with a horse named Will It Fit.
“Next summer should be exciting. Hopefully this year’s two-year-olds come back bigger and stronger and I’ve got a lot of nice looking yearlings that I’m looking forward to developing as race horses. We’re looking for a lot more. At least that’s the plan. That’s the goal.”
Kelly’s fondest moments of this year was winning the Starlet with Treasure Horizon, winning nine races in two days recently at Century Mile, piloting Rockin Mystery, this year’s top three-year-old filly eight times which resulted in five wins and now this O’Brien nomination.
Future Star is the O’Brien category Kelly is hoping to win. But that’s a little deceiving given that he’s unquestionably a star already.
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