05/27/2011 12:59PM

Fifty years later, Kelso still stands out

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Half a century ago, to the very day and date of this year’s running Monday, the Metropolitan Handicap was presented at Aqueduct. John F. Kennedy had been president for four months. America’s Top Ten was led by Del Shannon’s “Runaway.“ Up in Boston, on the same afternoon as the Met Mile, Roger Maris hit two home runs on his way to 61.

The version of the Metropolitan run on May 30, 1961, attracted a field of seven and was led postward by Kelso, who somehow managed to be Horse of the Year as a 3-year-old in 1960 without going anywhere near one of the Triple Crown events. Their loss.

In that ’61 Metropolitan, Kelso was making his second start as a 4-year-old for his trainer, Carl Hanford. He carried 130 pounds, most of it Eddie Arcaro, and beat All Hands, who carried 117, by a nose. Woody Stephens trained All Hands.

After the Met Mile was in the books, Kelso went on to win the 1961 Suburban, Brooklyn, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup. For good measure he also was elevated to first place in the Whitney, then run at Belmont, upon the disqualification of Our Hope. No other horse has ever won that six-pack of New York’s most prestigious races open to all runners in a single season, but they are always welcome to try.

Kelso won 39 races over seven campaigns, and were he around today − please, indulge the brief fantasy − the Triple Crown letdown after Animal Kingdom’s brave second in the Preakness would not be so difficult to bear. There would still be Kelso out there, fresh from wintering six months in South Carolina, ready to tee it up every few weeks for the game’s entertainment. On Memorial Day of 1961 he was not the world’s most famous Thoroughbred quite yet, but he was getting there fast.

Fifty years later, the two most popular horses in the world are an Australian mare named Black Caviar and an English 3-year-old colt named Frankel. By their standards, only Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta compare in terms of recent recognition and cross-cultural popularity. Such animals don’t come along too often, but when they do the sport soars on their coattails.

Black Caviar, a pure sprinter and national treasure, has reached the end of the Southern Hemisphere racing season with 13 wins from 13 starts. Her most recent came May 14, when she attracted more than 20,000 fans to a track lucky to get a quarter of that on a similar afternoon.

There was talk of Black Caviar making the journey to Royal Ascot in June to compete in one of the major sprint events during that well-dressed British festival, but those plans were scrapped. Chances are she will not reappear Down Under until the Australian spring − that would be our autumn − unless someone can entice her people to try the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs.

Frankel, in the meantime, has been having his way with his generation in England. He is 6 for 6 and counting, with no threats in sight. The video replay of his breathtaking win in the 2,000 Guineas on April 30 has been reported as being used by middle-aged racing fans as an aphrodisiac. Frankel will run next on the opening day Royal Ascot program, June 14, in the St. James’s Palace Stakes. Reserve your funny costumes now.

Frankel, besides being named by owner Khalid Abdullah for his late trainer and American friend, so far has been cast as a miler. This is not a bad thing, especially in Europe, where milers are revered and a rich series of events caters to their particular talents. Frankel may someday be asked to perform beyond a mile, but until then he will have ample opportunities to enhance his reputation.

Henry Cecil trains Frankel, which seems to be working out just fine for Abdullah‘s Juddmonte operation. Still, the dreamers among us wonder to what use Bobby Frankel would have put his namesake on this side of the pond. Certainly, the Metropolitan Mile would have been high on Frankel’s hit list. Both Frankels.

Despite being based in California for most of his training career, as a native New Yorker Frankel held the Met in high esteem. He won it four times, a number exceeded only by John Gaver Sr., whose six Met victories included three straight by Devil Diver in the 1940’s.

Frankel spread his wins out over 20 years. His first, in 1986, was with Garthorn, a grandson of Met Mile winner In Reality who was owned by Ann and Jerry Moss. Garthorn had to run down Lady’s Secret that day to get the job done.

In 1995 Frankel took the Met with You and I for owner Edmund Gann, beating the accomplished sprinter Lite the Fuse. In 2001 Frankel finished second with Juddmonte’s 4-year-old filly Honest Lady, then he was back to win it in 2003 with Aldebaran, the eventual sprint champ.

Frankel saved his best Met Mile for last when he unleashed the 5-year-old version of Ghostzapper on Memorial Day, May 30, 2005. The reigning Horse of the Year was making his first start of the season, and Frankel said he wasn’t sure what to expect. He also said he thought Ghostzapper was the best horse in the world, which, if you knew Frankel, presented no contradiction.

Ghostzapper was brilliant, winning off in 1:33.29, in an earth-scorching style echoed by the four-legged Frankel in the Guineas. Ghostzapper also cracked a sesamoid in the process and was retired, depriving the sport of a shining star, and which is why, even 50 years later, it is important to remember Kelso.