Virginia Kelley's Love for Racing: How Bill Clinton Got to Belmont

Pop Culture

Former President Bill Clinton cheers at Belmont Park as he witnesses American Pharoah's Triple Crown win. (Photos by Eclipse Sportswire)

One of the most notable spectators who witnessed the first Triple Crown in 37 years was President Bill Clinton. Presumably, he was there to see history, but his presence was probably partially in honor of his late mother, Virginia Kelley. Before the race, President Clinton visited with David Bazzel and Roger Scott, two members of the Arkansas media, and reminisced of his mother’s love for horse racing.  

Virginia Kelley became a racing fan when she went to a high school graduation party at Oaklawn Park in 1941. She hit a daily double, won $84 and was hooked on the sport.

Kelley was a nurse anesthetist, and she went to Oaklawn almost every day each season.

In her book Leading with My Heart, Kelley said, “I began to schedule my cases for the mornings during the racing season, just so I could be at Oaklawn every afternoon—in fact, the doctors and nurses used to joke, ‘God help the patients after the bugle blows.’”

“I’m not sure which I liked more, the gambling or the scene,” Kelley said. “In those days, everybody dressed for the races, and the characters who hung around were wild and colorful and larger-than-life.”

She wore a horseshoe-shaped diamond ring. A sampler on the wall of her house read, “A racetrack is a place where windows clean people.” Her answering machine message said, “If I’m not here, I’m probably down at the race track.”

“To me, a day at the races is like life itself—every race is a new chance to win, and what went before doesn’t count at all. Except, of course, in the daily double,” Kelley said.

When Clinton was in his teens, Virginia introduced him to her passion. However, he lost $4 and became disinterested.

After Clinton was elected president, Kelley had more opportunities to become an ambassador of the sport.

She made the trophy presentation following the Cardinal Handicap on November 14, 1992. The next year was one of the rare seasons she missed opening day at Oaklawn Park. Clinton was inaugurated on January 20, and opening day was January 22.


However, horse racing had its hoof prints on her week. Sheila Day, wife of Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day, owned a boutique in Louisville, and she designed Kelley’s inaugural ball gown. And three days after Clinton’s inauguration, Kelley visited Laurel Park in Maryland and received a grand tour of the facilities.

The governor of Kentucky invited Kelley to be his guest at the Kentucky Derby that year. This was her second trip to the Derby. The first was in 1958. She and her nursing friends enjoyed the race from the infield. She watched her second Derby from Millionaire’s Row.

In the summer of 1993, she went to Thistledown race track to present the winner’s trophy at the Ohio Derby. Two months later, Virginia was a guest of Marylou Whitney, “the Queen of Saratoga” during the closing week of the meet.

She visited Santa Anita and threw out the first pitch for a jockey-celebrity softball game fundraiser for the Don MacBeth Memorial Jockey Fund. She told a reporter from the Chicago Tribune that she could read the Daily Racing Form better than she could read his newspaper.

The book Derby Fever tells the story of Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas sitting with Virginia at Oaklawn. She asked him to write a note to Clinton on her program. He wrote: “To Bill, 85 percent of the production in racehorses comes from the dam. Everything you accomplish in life, you owe to your mother.”

The last night Clinton spent with his mother, they went to Rocky’s, one of Kelley’s favorite restaurants, which is across the street from Oaklawn Park.

Kelley passed away on January 6, 1994, at the age of 70 due to complications related to breast cancer. Her death was a shock since she was active until the end of her life. She had spent Christmas at the White House and New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas at a Barbara Streisand show. She was eagerly anticipating opening day at Oaklawn on January 21.

When she passed away, the electronic sign at Oaklawn lit up with a tribute: "Our deepest sympathies to the First Family. Oaklawn mourns the loss of racing's No. 1 Fan."

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