Racing is as close as couple’s own backyard

By Julie Sarno

Sarah and Jon Kelly delight in being surrounded by horses at their horse farm, named Tres Palomas, in Rancho Santa Fe. After buying some thoroughbreds, the couple moved from Sacramento 10 years ago to be closer to the Southern California racetracks. Their meticulously manicured 15-acre property with barns and fences neatly trimmed in hunter green and white is a paradise for horses and people.

The Kelly’s biggest success in racing to date happened in 2005 at Del Mar. They were majority owners of Borrego, winner of the 2005 Pacific Classic. Then 4, Borrego raced near the back of an 11-horse field passing horses in the stretch, to finish a half-length in front of Perfect Drift and California sensation Lava Man. The Kellys owned Borrego with friends Don and Joan Cimpl and Sarah’s sister Jane and her husband Jim Wiltz and other partners including trainer Beau Greeley.

“When we won with Borrego, I was in shock and my knees were shaking,” recalled Jon Kelly of his Classic win with Borrego. “That’s what horse racing is about - the thrill of winning. You lose 80 percent of the time. “When you win a race like that, it’s the thrill of a lifetime.”

“The winners can come from anywhere,” he added, “Borrego was not good looking,” laughed Kelly. “We tried to sell him and could not.”

For years, Kelly owned and ran television stations in the Sacramento area. His family established and owned KCRA-TV there. He had other television stations as well as banking and real estate interest in the Sacramento area. The Kellys raised their seven children in California’s capitol city. The couple was happy to trade a high-stress business for the horse business with their move to Rancho Santa Fe.

“There’s a certain serenity,” said Kelly of the appeal of racing. “If you’re in a high pressure business, taking carrots and mints to the horses is relaxing.”

The Kellys enjoy their horses at their charming Tres Palomas Ranch. Daughter Melanie Brooks manages it and keep hunter/jumpers there. Whenever possible, the Kellys turn their racehorses out in spacious paddocks at the farm. One runner turned out there was Kruger Park, a 4-year-old by 2001 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (Gr.I) winner Johannesburg.

“Kruger Park won his last race,” said Kelly. “He’s trained by Paddy Gallagher. Out in the fields, he could be a horse. He’s so sound, no vet bills, but he needed a break.”

“When he was here blossomed and put on some weight,” added Sarah Kelly, a Missouri native, with a Southern lilt to her voice.

Of the Kelly’s seven children, several live nearby, which is fortunate as the Kellys dote on their 14 grandchildren. Daughter Melanie Brooks and husband John McAndrews live in Rancho Santa Fe. Another Daughter, Maggie LeFebvre and husband, Michael, live in Del Mar.

Sarah Kelly is on the board of the Eddie Gregson Foundation, which raises funds for the education of backstretch workers. Jon Kelly was elected to the board of Del Mar Thoroughbred Club earlier this year. He also served on the board of directors of the Thoroughbred Owners of California.

The Kellys have horses with trainers Paddy Gallagher and Christophe Clement at Del Mar. Clement also has a string at East Coast tracks. Michael Matz, trainer of the ill-fated Barbaro, conditions some of their horses at East coast tracks as well.

Current stakes winners include Vacare, winner of the First Lady in 2007 and fourth in the recent Diana Handicap at Saratoga. Vacare’s next start is slated to be Del Mar’s Palomar Handicap on August 30. Another current Kelly-owned recent stakes winner is Sporting Art, bought in Europe at Newmarket as a 2-year-old. Trained by Clement, Sporting Art finished second in an allowance race before winning the Gr. III Bulleit Bourbon Palm Beach Stakes and then the Calder Derby.

After more than a decade of participating in and studying the horse business, Kelly admits he will never know as much as he wants to. “I’m in middle school,” he quipped, “Paddy, Michael and Christophe have Ph.D.'s in horsemanship.”

Kelly says the racing game is not an easy business.

“Horse racing is the toughest business I’ve ever been in in my life,” he said. “I was in it five years before I had enough data in my head to ask a decent question. In other businesses, if you outworked your competitor, you did fine. It’s not true in this business.

“The pedigree side is as complicated as the racing side, adds Kelly, who has been spending time reviewing the pedigrees of the 5,000 or so horses catalogued for the upcoming Keeneland September sale. “It’s like a gigantic chess game.”