A fixture at Pimlico for seven decades

Howard `Gelo' Hall carries a world of history in his head

Preakness

May 18, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporter

They just don't make 'em like Gelo anymore. Always dapper, always the consummate gentlemen, always prattling on about this horse and that jockey, this owner and that trainer.

Always here, an 80-year-old man whose slow walk is almost a strut as he ambles around the Pimlico Race Course, hollers of "Gelo" (pronounced Jello) trailing him every step of the way.

"Thank you, gentlemen, thanks a lot," the man with the top hat and tweed sports jacket says, nodding to the patrons parked in front of Simulcast screens as he walks by.

"See you later, Gelo," they shout back.

"Gelo's been here forever," says Lucy Kessler, a horse owner from Mount Airy. "This place wouldn't be what it is without Gelo."

Indeed, Howard Hall, aka Gelo (short for Angelo, his late brother's name, whose nickname he inherited), has been coming regularly to Pimlico since the tender age of 6.

And he has worked here since he was 14, as an exercise rider and horse trainer, jockey's agent and most recently as a clerk and patrol judge for the Maryland Jockey Club. Hall dates to a time when the track and the neighborhood around it were far different places in a far different era.

He remembers it all.

The trolley cars that brought him from his Northwest Baltimore home to the track. The Pimlico Hotel on Park Heights Avenue. The once-thriving business district with the drugstore, where you could eat at the counter, and the haberdashery across the street, where gloves could be had for 15 cents.

He remembers the business owners who bankrolled horses and helped promote the sport, and the attractive, spacious houses lining the neighborhood streets.

"It was the sport of kings," the soft-spoken man says. "Pimlico was sort of a city attraction for all parts of Baltimore. Racing was sort of an everyday part of our lives in Baltimore City at that time.

"That generation has sort of passed away," he says. "That sort of changed the attendance at the racetrack."

Gelo's father, Howard Hall Sr., introduced him to the sport that became his career. His father was a jockey's valet and worked for some of the racing secretaries.

"In those days we didn't work in offices," he says, making a slight reference to the days of segregation.

In the summer, Hall tagged along with his father to Pimlico and other tracks in Maryland, a wide-eyed kid taking it all in.

"Once I saw those flashing colors and the anatomy ... of the thoroughbred, I was taken in," says Hall. "I was enthralled. I was delighted.

"I was fascinated by it all. You had the elegance. You had the high-borns. You had all stages of life presented to you at the racetrack."

Hall was witness to the famous Seabiscuit-War Admiral match in 1938, a 10-year-old standing on his tiptoes in the grandstands with his father, witnessing one of the most historic races of all time.

"I didn't know it would be catapulted into such a historic event," Hall says of the experience. "I knew it was an important race but just how important, being a 10-year-old, I didn't realize."

Hall's professional experience began as an exercise rider for Frank A. "Downey" Bonsal in 1942.

He was drafted into the Army in 1945 for two years and went back to work for Bonsal upon his return, riding famous horses such as Pilaster and Quarter Moon.

After a brief stint as a horse trainer, Hall began a 24-year career as a jockey's agent, making his name known at racetracks up and down the East Coast.

John Burke III, a steward for the Maryland Jockey Club, remembers Hall from his days as a horse trainer. Hall represented the top jockeys of his day, such as Mickey Solomone.

Burke recalls going to Florida to race horses in the winter. He was installing a phone and came home to find it already ringing.

"I didn't even know my own phone number, and here's Gelo calling," says Hall, 66, of Ellicott City. "He said, `Listen, you got those two horses at Calder Race Track. You need a jockey.'"

Burke picked his jockey and they won the race. Hall shakes his head, laughing at the memory.

"Gelo Hall is one of the great people of racing," says Burke. "If you've been in racing on the East Coast, you know Gelo Hall."

Lou Raffetto, Maryland Jockey Club president and chief operating officer, has a Hall story. He was training horses in New Jersey 34 years ago when the phone rang at his parents' business office. It was Hall. He ended up not using Hall's jockey but has known him every since.

"He's a memorable person," says Raffetto.

Even those newer to the business, such as James Hamer, who works in the racing secretary's office with Hall, had heard about him when he worked at tracks in New Jersey.

"He's seen some of the greatest horses run on the track, ones that we read about today back when the game represented something else," says Hamer, 36, who lives in Elkton. "He's old school. He's got more knowledge in that head about the game than just about anyone else."

While Hall works as a clerk in the racing secretary's office at Pimlico, during races he is stationed at the quarter-mile marker as a patrol judge.

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