- Published: Thursday, 24 December 2015 09:01
When Howard Gordon “Gelo” Hall was 11, he had one of the greatest experiences of his life. His dad, Howard, a jockey’s valet who worked at Pimlico Race Course, took him to see the match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral. It was 1938 and that race was a spectacle he would always remember.
It also was the beginning of his lifelong love affair with thoroughbred racing, a fascination that lasted until his death. Hall passed away suddenly on Dec. 10, 2015, due to a hemorrhage following a recent fall at his Windsor Mill home.
“My dad had two things he believed in deeply,” Gelo’s daughter Janis says. “The track and God, the family came after them. He loved the racetrack.”
At age 14, Gelo went to work for H.L. Straus in Reisterstown breaking horses. From there it was on to Pimlico where he went to work for Frank “Downey” Bonsal. It was just the beginning. He would get his nickname there, while working with his older brother Angelo. Angelo was known as “Big Gelo” and he was known as “Little Gelo.”
“When my uncle left the track, Dad became Gelo and it just stuck forever,” Janis Hall says. “Dad must have been about 14 or so then. I think more people know him as Gelo than anything else. I think a lot of people don’t even know his first name.”
But over the years, it seems everyone came to know Gelo Hall.
Gelo was hard to miss, says trainer Linda Gaudet. “He was a dapper dresser, always wearing a suit and tie with a little fedora. It was part of his attire. Gelo was a very good guy, great with history, knew where all the bodies were buried and loved his job. They had to push him out of the office.”
He would have worked forever, those who knew him say. But in 2008, when Hall was 81, the Maryland Jockey Club downsized and Hall was let go. If watching Seabiscuit and War Admiral duel was his most cherished memory, the day he left the racetrack was his saddest.
“It was the heartbreak of his life,” Janis Hall says. “As time went on and he realized he couldn’t go back, it just seemed to take his breath away.”
Gelo’s career stretched over eight decades, as he worked as an exercise rider, licensed trainer, jockey’s agent and, at the end of his career, a patrol judge, making the most of his accreditation from the Jockey Club School of Racing Officials, as he observed the races through binoculars from a perch high above the track, watching for inappropriate moves and fouls.
“He was a great human being,” says former jockey Joe Brocklebank, who now works as a bloodstock agent. Brocklebank says Gelo, an African-American, “superseded race.”
“When I was 17, he was my agent” Brocklebank continues. “I had lost my father before I came to America and he filled that role for me. It was a long friendship. I’m 69 now. I’ve known him 52 years. You can’t replace someone like him. He touched an awful lot of people. He’d be stone-broke and he’d go borrow money for someone else if he heard they needed something.”
Hall was totally dedicated to racing. When he worked at the now-defunct Bowie Race Track, as an entry clerk, he’d work the entire day and then drive to Pimlico to make sure the overnight entries were there for the trainers the next morning. There were no fax machines or computers in those days, no buttons to push. So Hall would make the drive and then head home around 10 p.m.
“I could talk about him for hours,” continues Brocklebank. “He was quite brilliant, self-educated and could quote the Bible from one end to the other.”
Hall belonged to the Church of St. Katherine of Alexandria Episcopal Church and worked with the Race Track Chaplaincy from its earliest days.
Brocklebank says he also remembers the early 1960s, when there were still “Whites Only” signs at restaurants and restrooms and how none of that seemed to impact Gelo’s positive attitude.
“He superseded that,” Brocklebank says. “People couldn’t help but love him. And he never played the race card. He never went there. People don’t know, but he served in World War II in Italy. He was a warrior.”
In 2014, Gelo was given the Joe Kelly Maryland Million Unsung Hero Award, which recognizes “important characteristics that are valuable, but often unrewarded” – characteristics such as honesty, hard work and humility.
Bobby Lillis, the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association’s benevolence administrator, remembers first meeting Hall in 1975 at Monmouth Park, N.J.
“Even then, everybody knew him and loved him,” Lillis says. “He’d go above and beyond at every job he had. . . . He was also recognized for his institutional memory. He was part of a lot of documentaries that involved Maryland Racing. Anyone doing anything involving the history of the Maryland Jockey Club wanted to talk to Gelo.”
When Laura Hillenbrand wrote her 2001 book “Seabiscuit: An American Legend,” Hall was one of the few people still alive at the time who had witnessed the race and was one of her sources.
“He was a very generous man,” Lillis continues. “He’d pray for people. He’d help them make accommodations for financial assistance, or for an illness or some other hardship. He’d put a can on the counter in the racing office to raise money. If he heard anyone was in need, he was always the first one to step up.”
Gelo knew the importance of a helping hand through personal experience. After Lillian, his wife of 68 years, suffered a stroke in 2002, their daughter Janis moved home from New York City and made a career change to help him care for her mother.
Lillian was bedridden for the last 12 years before her death. She and their daughter Judy preceded him in death. He is survived by Janis and many other relatives.