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Arkansas silks coordinator keeps order at horse track

April 2, 2018

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) — Brent Kelley said he’s been working at race tracks all over the country doing just about every job, short of just a few roles, “since Moby Dick was a minnow.”

“I started in ’75 racing at Commodore Downs, and I was racing as a kid when I was 11 or 12 years old in a jock’s saddle,” he said. “I was a race track kid. My dad was a trainer, my brother works here as a valet, it’s just been a lifelong thing.

“I trained horses for six years in Mountaineer Park in West Virginia. I worked the starting gate three years and was a jock’s room custodian. Just about everything from valet, exercise rider, horse breaker. I think this is my seventh year (as silks coordinator) and I’m honored to do it.”

The silks coordinator organizes all silks, which identify owners and stables during races. It is a very important job, Kelley said, because he has “probably a thousand pair here.”

“I try to do a very good job at it,” he said. “I’ve got to make sure the owners’ silks are right. I’ve got to make sure that everything is correct and that (jockeys) don’t go out with somebody else’s silks, another stable’s silks. My goal every year is to not have any mistakes. Now from doing it a few years, I’m feeling more comfortable with it. But you’ve always got to pay attention.”

The silks coordinator comes in before the day’s card and organizes the silks on a rack labeled by race number and rider numbers. The coordinator also handles washing the silks between races, a task that he said can get hectic.

“Muddy days are rough,” Kelley said. “What people don’t realize is a lot of the (colors) bleed, like the pink silks and the lime ones, and I’ve got to do them separate because it could ruin all of them if you throw one of them in.”

When talking to Kelley, it’s clear to see his love of racing and the gratitude he has for the sport. Working for Oaklawn is an honor, as he said, “it’s one of the last big race tracks in the country.”

“I come from the school of hard knocks, I come from some of the worst tracks in the country,” he said. “My first five years I rode at the worst tracks in the country... and later in my career I finally make it to California and I do real well. I win several stakes in California, but then I couldn’t keep my weight off anymore. You’ve got to weigh like 111, 112 as a professional jockey to compete at that level and after I quit riding I weighed 145 natural my whole life.

“I had to quit and thank God I was with the horses because you can make a living. I made my living exercising them and I have two boys, 35 and 36 years old, who I was able to give a normal life to from these horses. I’m very grateful for that — my proudest achievement is raising my boys.”

About six years ago, Kelley took a class on mosaic art and ever since, he has combined his passion for music and racing by creating mosaic pieces on guitars depicting the sport.

“I do (mosaics) on guitars because I love art, animals and music,” he said while scrolling through his Instagram page which he said he considers the story of his life. He uses the social media platform to share photos of his racing days, as well as his artwork.

“I took a mosaic class here in Hot Springs and I’ve always loved art,” Kelley said. “And I’ve always looked at race riding as total art.

“I was dropped off when I was 15 at a track with a helmet and a pair of boots and I never went home. I’m like this guy in ‘Seabiscuit,’ I’m not kidding you. But I went to Miami, Florida, and the best riders in the world were there, and I knew it was my only way out to be a jockey. And when I saw them, it looked like pure art and I wanted to be like that. I aspired to be as good as anyone. I was never intimidated by another rider from that because I worked extremely hard to be a good rider.”

Kelley has made mosaic guitars of American Pharoah and Zenyatta, as well as jockeys Ricardo Santana Jr. and Luis Contreras.

“One of the proudest things in my art was I donated a guitar in New Mexico,” he said. “A lady got a hold of me on Facebook about scholarships for kids in racing. I made a guitar and it went for $1,400.”

Kelley has taken a year off from riding but said he hopes to start riding again this summer when he goes to Erie, Pennsylvania, to Presque Isle Downs, the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record reported .

“I’m a valet there, and I’m so blessed to work for a rider there named Mario Pino who’s a hall of fame rider,” he said. “That’s one thing I’m so grateful for in this business is I’ve been around so many great riders. I used to reduce in the hot box with Russell Baze every day and he’s unbelievable. Gary Stevens and Sandy Hawley, all these great riders and they all had one thing in common — they’re all class acts and they’re so humble.”

As for racing, he said, “these people really do love their horses, and these horses are extremely well taken care of.”

“A lot of love goes into this game, and a lot of expense to get a horse to run period,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of good, hardworking people.”

His next goal, he said, is to become a clerk of scales or a racing steward.

“Mr. Larry Snyder is who kind of inspired that,” he said of the former Oaklawn racing steward. “He treats everybody with class and as equals. I’ve seen how fair he is, and just. And that’s what has kind of inspired me to go to steward school.”


Information from: The Sentinel-Record, http://www.hotsr.com

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