09/26/2003 12:00AM

The great Kelso was simply incomparable


For today's racing fan, accustomed to Thoroughbred stars whose careers are measured in months, the thought of a champion being named Horse of the Year for five consecutive seasons seems incomprehensible.

Yet, Kelso so dominated the sport for the first five years of the 1960's that it seemed like he would be Horse of the Year for life.

Foaled at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky in 1957, Kelso was so unappealing that Arthur "Bull" Hancock, master of Claiborne, was embarrassed when he had to show the young foal to his breeder and owner, Allaire duPont, for the first time.

Kelso didn't win a stakes race until August of his 3-year-old season in 1960. Before he left the racetrack for the final time, in 1966, he won 30 stakes races at 12 different tracks. He carried 130 pounds or more on 24 occasions and won twice carrying 136. His earnings of just short of $2 million at the time placed him ahead of every Thoroughbred ever born.

Saturday, the New York Racing Association, Kelso's home turf, honors the champion with the 23rd running of the $350,000 Kelso Breeders' Cup Handicap.

Test your knowledge of one of the greatest horses of all time.

1. The story of Kelso really began on a cold, winter day at Santa Anita Park on Jan. 13, 1951. A chestnut colt, who had a year earlier captured the Santa Anita Derby and was sent off the 8-5 favorite in the 76th Kentucky Derby, tripped over another horse's heels and fell in the San Pasqual Handicap.

His jockey, Eric Guerin, escaped injury, but the horse fractured his right foreleg in four places. The colt's prospects for survival were so grim that the insurance company paid off his $250,000 mortality policy. But the courageous colt survived and went on to sire Kelso. Name him.

2. Eddie Arcaro was aboard Kelso for the gelding's second stakes win in 1960 and rode him for 14 consecutive starts through the end of the 1961 season.

The Hall of Fame jockey - who later called Kelso the best horse he rode - called it quits at the end of 1961, ending his association with Kelso and a career that some sportswriters called the best ever by a jockey.

Eight other riders - four in the Hall of Fame - rode Kelso during his 63 lifetime starts. How many of them can you name?

3. At the end of his 3-year-old season in 1960, Kelso was shipped to California, where he was pointed for the Malibu and San Fernando stakes, and Santa Anita Maturity (now the Strub Stakes).

He was entered in the Malibu on Dec. 31, but withdrawn when he wrenched a stifle. The inflammation persisted and he was shipped back to New York.

Kelso would not race in California until he made two disastrous starts at Hollywood Park in 1964. What happened?

4. Kelso raced only eight times on the turf, and it was not until his final grass start that he became a turf stakes winner. That victory came in the 1964 Washington D.C. International at Laurel, then the most important grass race in America.

Three times before, Kelso ran his heart out in the International, only to finish second all three times. Name the horses who beat him in 1961, 1962, and 1963.

5. Kelso competed in seven different states, but New Yorkers claimed him for its own. Perhaps no horse in history was as popular in the Empire State.

More than half of Kelso's starts were in New York. No doubt his most popular victory came on Labor Day 1964 at Aqueduct where the gelding, having not won a stakes race all year, beat his nemesis Gun Bow (the 1-2 favorite) in the Aqueduct Handicap before 65,066 screaming fans. The ovation was believed to be the loudest and longest ever recorded at the storied Long Island oval.

Trainer Carl Hanford said in 1967 that every race Kelso ran was a big one, but that another race always stands out in his mind first.

To what race was Hanford referring?

History Challenge answers

1. After Your Host captured his first three starts of 1950, including the Santa Anita Derby, everyone, including his jockey, Johnny Longden, was calling him another Count Fleet. Favored in the Kentucky Derby, he tired badly and finished ninth.

He won 8 of 12 starts as a 3-year-old and finished that season with perhaps his best race of the year - a win over 1949 Kentucky Derby winner Ponder and 1950 Horse of the Year Hill Prince in the Thanksgiving Day Handicap at Hollywood Park.

In his first start at age 4, Your Host was second to Bolero in the San Carlos Handicap. He then won the Santa Catalina Handicap under 130 pounds in a track record of 1:48.20 for the 1 1/8 miles.

Your Host broke his leg in four places in his next start, the San Pasqual. After weeks of fighting for his life, the colt survived and was ready to stand stud in 1952.

Allaire duPont, who owned Woodstock Farm in Maryland and raced her horses under the nom de course of Bohemia Stable, bought several shares in Your Host.

In 1956, she sent her stakes-placed mare Maid of Flight to be bred to Your Host. The result was Kelso.

2. Ismael "Milo" Valenzuela took over as Kelso's regular rider in the summer of 1962 and guided the gelding in 35 of his races.

Others who rode Kelso included John Block, who rode the champion in his first two starts as a juvenile, and Hall of Fame members Walter Blum, Steve Brooks, Bill Hartack, and Bill Shoemaker.

Don Pierce rode Kelso once, in 1962, and Bill Boland rode the Bohemia Stable ace in his first start as an 8-year-old and in his first and only start as a 9-year-old.

3. Trainer Carl Hanford was persuaded by Hollywood Park officials to bring his then four-time Horse of the Year Kelso to California in 1964. The trainer would later call it one of the worst decisions he ever made.

Kelso could never get untracked on the pasteboard California track.

Sent off as the 8-5 favorite in the seven-furlong Los Angeles Handicap, Kelso ran along at the back of the pack and finished eighth, beaten more than nine lengths by Cyrano.

Two weeks later, as the 7-5 favorite in the Californian Stakes, Kelso finished sixth to a horse from the Pacific Northwest, Mustard Plaster.

Returned to the East, Kelso engaged in ding-dong battles with his arch-rival Gun Bow and came out on top to be named Horse of the Year for the fifth straight year.

4. Kelso's first stakes victory on the grass came at a critical time. Horse of the Year was on the line in the 1964 Washington D.C. International at Laurel.

Kelso and Gun Bow had two wins apiece against each other in 1964 when they met in the invitational race. Kelso won by nearly five lengths and locked up Horse of the Year.

In 1961, Kelso was beaten less than a length in the $150,000 International by the California-bred turf champion T.V. Lark.

The following year, Match II traveled from France and beat Kelso by 1 1/2 lengths in the Laurel race.

In 1963, Kelso fought the length of the stretch with Mongo, but failed by a half-length to pass his fellow American entrant.

5. Carl Hanford, who took over for Dr. John Lee as Kelso's trainer in 1961, claimed that the one race that always stood out in his mind was the Metropolitan Mile at Aqueduct in 1961.

"This was the one race that really stamped him as special in my mind," Hanford said.

"He had absolutely no shot at the head of the stretch, and I didn't give him too much chance at the eighth pole.

"But he bulled his way between horses, somehow, and got up to win under 130 pounds. I'll never forget it as long as I live."

A few months after Kelso retired in 1966, Hanford resigned from Bohemia Stable.