Loving what he does drives Colin Kelly

by Matthew Lomon

Few embody the phrase, “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life” better than Colin Kelly.

The Nova Scotia native began his driving career in his home province at age 19. Three years later, he found himself halfway across the country with nothing but a suitcase and an opportunity.

“I left home with a car full of clothes and a job lined up, but I knew nobody in the province,” Kelly said. “I had just turned 22 when I moved here, and I didn’t know where I was going to end up. I didn’t know if I was going to be back home in 60 days, or if I was going to make a real go of it.”

The answer was what he had hoped for.

Kelly, now 30, has spent the past eight years touring around the Ontario standardbred circuit as one of the sport’s most consistent reinsmen.

After seeing limited action in his first season away from home, the young man from the Maritimes burst onto the scene in 2018, eclipsing previous career-best marks in starts (1,745), wins (271), and purse earnings ($1.7 million).

Kelly has since exceeded 230 wins and $1.5 million in five straight seasons, reaching personal bests of 278 and $1.84 million in 2021 and 2022, respectively.

Through 543 starts this season, the horseman is on pace for yet another banner year.

“Driving’s been really great,” he said. “It’s busy, but if you want to do something you really enjoy, you don’t think of it as work.

“It’s very taxing on your body and mind but I like to take a step back and think about how lucky I am that I get to do something I love.”

Moments of reflection, although few and far between, have helped Kelly stay present in his 12th professional campaign.

“Time flies when you’re busy,” he said. “Between racing and spending time in the barn, you don’t really have any time to reflect on anything because you’re always thinking ahead to the next race, what has to be done tomorrow or where you have to go on Wednesday, and you don’t really get a chance to appreciate everything.”

Looking too far forward was something Kelly struggled with at times, especially as a neophyte driver trying to make a living in an unfamiliar place.

Kelly, now equipped with the added benefit of lived experience, harkened back to the days that sometimes felt more like a rollercoaster than a chariot ride to offer his former self a few words of advice.

“When I first started, I’d get tired and a little frustrated at times but it’s not worth it,” he said. “I’d remind myself to take a step back and to be grateful because not too many people get to say they actually love their job.

“There are very few people in the world that can go to work every day and say, ‘I love what I do.’ You should be very thankful for what you do and take everything in stride.”

An unfettered mind has gone a long way in helping Kelly map out a successful career, and so too has the city he’s embraced as home.

“I’m only 20 minutes from Grand River, about an hour to Georgian, and an hour and a half to Hanover,” Kelly said. “I’m kind of right in the middle of everywhere. I’ve made Guelph home base now. I’ve been here seven and a half years, and it works out well that way because even in the wintertime, I’m 40 minutes to Flamboro and then an hour-twenty to London.”

Pin on a map aside, the Southwestern Ontario city has been just as impactful in Kelly’s life away from the oval.

Whether it’s going to the gym every day to clear his mind, playing pickup hockey at the local university after driving for trainer Chantal Mitchell in the morning, or going out for a nice dinner, Guelph has everything Kelly needs.

“I don’t have much time to do anything else, horse racing takes up a large portion of your time, so trying to take a step back from it when you can to appreciate the little things in life is very important to me,” he said.

A well-rounded athlete growing up, Kelly also spent time on the hardwood, playing three years of high school basketball.

Kelly isn’t picky when it comes to watching sports, either. As he put it, he watches just about everything.

So, when the respected horseman mentioned that he is an avid NFL fan, spotting the draw to his favourite team was simply a matter of connecting the dots.

“I’m a big football fan, unfortunately a [Denver] Broncos fan,” Kelly said with a rueful laugh. “I’ve loved them since I was a little kid when they used to ride the horse out on the field at the start of the game.”

The once wide-eyed east coast kid who left home in pursuit of a dream is now on the cusp of an accomplishment that 12 years ago would have bordered on absurdity.

Kelly is 52 firsts shy of reaching the 2,000-win milestone for his career. Not bad for someone who wasn’t sure he’d make it two months.

Sitting on the verge of something spectacular, the savvy veteran remains committed to the very mindset that’s helped him develop into one of the best that Ontario has to offer.

“I take everything day-by-day and try not to focus so much on the numbers because it’s easy to drive yourself crazy that way,” Kelly said. “When you start forcing things on the racetrack it doesn’t exactly play to your favor.

“Drive the horse the best you can every race and the numbers will follow.”

It may be too early to tell which pacer or trotter Kelly will steer across the finish line to secure the momentous achievement, but there’s two, in particular, that would make the feeling that much sweeter.

Maple Shadow, a 3-year-old filly, and Gentleonmymind, a 4-year-old are both part-owned by Kelly, who shares stock in the pacers with Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Famer and childhood hero Luc Ouellette.

“As a kid, I always looked up to his drive and watched a lot of The Meadowlands when he was there,” Kelly said. “He’s a very good horseman and a very interesting person to be around.”

Staying true to form, the selfless Kelly cast a wide net in his acknowledgement of others, both human and equine, for playing an integral role in his ongoing success.

“I’ve been so fortunate, and I can’t thank everyone enough for everything that’s happened in my life,” he said. “It’s been a really cool ride. You get to drive some nice horses and meet some great people. Just stay at it and do the best you can every day. That’s all you can ask for.

“I get to work with some pretty amazing athletes, there’s a lot of special horses out there. Whether you have a great night or a bad one, all it takes is one horse to put a big smile on your face.”