On his 55th Preakness Day as a turf writer, Joe Kelly
confessed that on several occasions during his journalism career he had served as a government informant. Kelly, a Baltimore native, never wasted his information on any low-level schmucks, either. He took his tips straight to the most powerful law enforcement officer in American history.
“J. Edgar Hoover always wanted to know who to bet on when he came to the track, so I’d tell him,” Kelly tells me. “The best day I ever had, I gave him six winners.”
Kelly, in track parlance, regularly served as a tout to the FBI director. Picking six winners on one card and keeping them all to yourself is laudable enough; sharing so many good tips with another bettor is an almost otherworldly kindness.
Even Hoover, after cashing his tickets, acknowledged his debt.
“At the end of the day,” Kelly, 82, recalls, “Mr. Hoover’s assistant comes over to tell me, ‘The director would like you to know that you have a free pass to do anything you want to anybody, anywhere in America.’”
Hoover, during his half-century in power, successfully hid his dangerous liaisons and fashion fetishes. But he never felt any need to conceal his romance with the track. Maryland racing has a long and rarely revealed history of friends in high places: George Washington and Andrew Jackson were supporters of the Maryland Jockey Club. But no president—and few nonpresidents—was more loyal to the state’s scene than Hoover, who was a horseplayer before becoming a G-man. His penchant for the ponies even played a role in some notable investigations early in his tenure atop the FBI, which began in 1924.
The racing ties, for example, came in handy during the FBI’s initial pursuit of Al Capone. In 1929, Capone tried to get out of a subpoena ordering him to appear before a federal grand jury in Chicago by submitting a doctor’s
affidavit that claimed he was bedridden with bronchial pneumonia in South Florida. But a judge threw out that request and ordered the real-life Scarface to show up for the hearing after the FBI introduced evidence that the supposedly ailing Capone wasn’t too ill to stay away from the Miami track.
And in 1938, Hoover flew out to Los Angeles to personally supervise the search for John Henry Seadlund, a drifter wanted for the kidnapping of Chicagoland socialite Charles Ross. Knowing that Seadlund had spent the marked ransom money at various tracks during his cross-country run, Hoover set up a command post at Santa Anita Race Track; FBI agents posed as mutuels tellers. Sure enough, Seadlund was nabbed trying to buy tickets with the ransom bills. He also had uncashed winning tickets worth about $18 in his pockets when arrested.
It’s even been said that horse racing enjoyed its virtual monopoly on legalized gambling in the United States until Hoover’s death simply because he wanted it that way. Maryland, for example, didn’t institute its lottery, which was one of the first such statewide ventures in the country, until 1973—a year after Hoover died.
Kelly got the horse-racing beat for the Baltimore Sun in 1946. The job was a reward for catching, while working in the paper’s production room, a discrepancy between the Associated Press’s wire report about the 1945 Kentucky Derby and the race results sent in by a subscription service run by and for bookmakers.
“The bookmakers had it right, of course,” laughs Kelly. “My boss thought that if I was alert enough to pick that up, maybe I’d be alert enough to cover the races for him.” (A colt named Hoop Jr. was the winner of the 1945 Derby.)
One afternoon not long after taking the beat, Kelly gathered the courage to go up to Hoover at Marlboro. He wanted to tell the director about a former classmate who had become an FBI agent, and had been recently shot and killed by a fugitive in Baltimore. A friendship soon developed, and whenever Hoover and Kelly were at the same track, the G-man would ask the writer to share whatever inside info he had. It was an offer Kelly couldn’t—or at least didn’t—refuse.
“If I had something, I’d give it to him,” says Kelly.
While with the Sun, Kelly mainly covered the state’s short tracks, which included now-defunct strips in Marlboro, Hagerstown,
Cumberland, and Bel Air, as well as the Charles Town, W.V., oval. Hoover was known to patronize them all. (In 1948, at Charles Town, in fact, Hoover coaxed a young
horseman by the name of Sonny Hine into a brief stint with the FBI. Hine, who died this spring, eventually returned to racing and went on to a long career as a trainer, capped off when Skip Away, the gray nag he’d bought for just $22,500, went on to earn more than $9 million and become 1998’s Horse of the Year.)
Kelly saw even more of Hoover after moving to the Washington Star in 1955. Up to that point, on principle, the paper had never had a horse-racing reporter.
“It was radical for the Star to take me on as a racing writer,” Kelly says. “The paper was so conservative at that time they wouldn’t even accept a liquor ad. It seems funny now, but then, to be the first racing writer there, that was a very big deal.”
Editors at the Star sent Kelly most often to Marlboro, which also happened to be the track Hoover visited most often. The director was never alone when Kelly would meet up with him at the track.
“He always had Clyde Tolson with him. I always assumed it was strictly business between them,” Kelly says with sincerity.
Kelly stuck with the Star until it folded in 1981. Though now officially retired, he maintains an office at Pimlico and contributes occasional articles for the track’s media staff.
The relationship between Hoover and Tolson has long been fodder for late-night monologues and sordid biographies. Even Hoover’s fidelity to racing has by now been turned into something ugly. A 1993 expose, Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J.Edgar Hoover, by Anthony Summers, claims that the director bet on races fixed by mobsters. And an episode of Frontline that same year affirmed that Hoover had spent the day Martin Luther King Jr. was killed at the track.
Maryland established an annual race in Hoover’s honor, the J. Edgar Hoover Handicap, the year after he died. But in 1993, with Hoover-bashing at a fever pitch, the name of the race was officially changed to merely the Hoover Stakes, to water down the ties to the disgraced former FBI director.
When I ask about the seamy side of Hoover, Kelly shows no interest in that line of discussion. “I’m not going to start anything about him now,” he tells me.
Okay, fine. As nice a man as Kelly surely is, I’m not going to push him. After all, he never used that free pass Hoover gave him….—Dave McKenna