12/21/2011 3:31PM



Excerpt from the "Champions" chapter "Boom Time: The 1960’s," by Dave Litfin

Lifetime PPs for Kelso

From his appearance and early racing record, few could have guessed that an insignificant-looking gelding bred and owned by Mrs. Richard C. duPont’s Bohemia Stable would come to epitomize the qualities of courage and consistency universally admired by horsemen and horseplayers.

Kelso Career Highlights

Horse of the Year five straight times (1960-1964)
Champion Older Male four straight times (1961-1964)
Outstanding 3-year Old Male (1960)
Won Jockey Club Gold Cup five straight times (1960-1964)
Won Woodward Stakes three straight times (1961-1963)
Won Whitney Stakes three times (1961,1963, 1965)
Inducted U.S. Racing Hall of Fame (1967)

Kelso, whom Mrs. duPont named after her friend Kelso Everett, was a dark bay with no conspicuous markings except for a small patch of white hair on his right jowl, where he was bitten as a yearling. Although he was by no means imposing in stature at just over 15 hands as a 3-year-old, and slightly over 16 hands when fully mature, “Kelly” possessed extraordinary propulsive muscling across his hips and hindquarters (“These are outsize and recall a souped-up Ford,” Hatton described), and had an efficient low-to-the-ground stride that gave him enough speed to win at six furlongs as well as the stamina to win at two miles. His one Achilles’ heel was a trick stifle, which made his connections reluctant to start him on yielding turf.

Kelso’s sire was Your Host, a California speedball who was beaten as the heavy favorite in the 1950 Kentucky Derby. Following an accident in which he suffered a broken shoulder and crushed femur, injuries that nearly cost him his life (and would have, had his insurer, Lloyds of London, not insisted on trying to save him for stud duty), Your Host had a decent career as a stallion, but he would have been all but forgotten were it not for Kelso, whose dam was the stakes-placed Maid of Flight.

“Maid of Flight was a nice filly,” recalled Mrs. duPont, whose 900-acre Woodstock Farm is located along the banks of the Bohemia River in Chesapeake City, Maryland. “I owned a few shares in Your Host. I’d seen him race and was very fond of him. Since I had a few seasons to him and since he was close by in New Jersey, I decided to send Maid of Flight to him for her first breeding.” The foal Maid of Flight dropped in April 1957 at Claiborne Farm near Paris, Kentucky, was Kelso.

Depending on which reference source is consulted, Kelso was either gelded as a yearling by the farm manager, or as a 2-year-old by Dr. John Lee, who trained him for the first three races of his career in September 1959, or the following winter by Carl Hanford, who handled him for the 60 subsequent starts that are now part of racing lore. Whatever the circumstances, it proved to be a fortuitous decision. In 1960 the late-blooming gelding captured the first of his unbelievable five straight Horse of the Year titles, despite the fact that he did not make his debut as a 3-year-old until two weeks after the Triple Crown races were over.

After winning a pair of allowance events by a combined 22 lengths, Kelso was a nonthreatening eighth making his stakes debut in the Arlington Classic. Two races after that, however, he teamed up with Eddie Arcaro, and the duo did not lose again for more than a year. Underneath “The Master,” Kelso won the Choice, the Jerome, the Discovery Handicap, the Hawthorne Gold Cup, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, a streak that made him the first horse in 37 years to be named 3-year-old champion without winning a Triple Crown race.

Kelso returned as a 4-year-old with an allowance win at Aqueduct on May 19, 1961, and 11 days later he carried 130 pounds in the Metropolitan Handicap. Things didn’t look good for the even-money favorite as he lagged behind in the early going and remained far back in seventh position at the quarter pole.

“He had absolutely no shot at the head of the stretch, and I didn’t give him too much chance at the eighth pole,” Hanford told Daily Racing Form’s Joe Hirsch on the eve of Kelso’s retirement several years later. “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.” Kelso completed a sweep of the 1961 Handicap Triple Crown by winning the Suburban and Brooklyn Handicaps in July, and overwhelmed his opposition that autumn winning the Woodward and the Jockey Club Gold Cup by a combined 13 lengths. He closed out his second straight Horse of the Year campaign with a runner-up finish in the Washington, D.C., International, in which he made his grass debut and was finally caught by the year’s champion turf horse, T. V. Lark , after setting all the pace.

That would be the first of Kelso’s three straight seconds in the D.C. International – he finally won it in 1964 – and it would also be his last race under an aging Arcaro.

After going without a stakes victory through the first eight months of 1962, Kelso received a switch from the soft-handed Bill Shoemaker to the incredibly strong Ismael “Milo” Valenzuela, who, it was said, could hold a starving elephant an inch away from a bale of hay. They went together like hand and glove. Valenzuela rode Kelso 35 times and the pair came away with 22 victories, none more electrifying than the Aqueduct Handicap on Labor Day, September 7, 1964, when Kelso beat his archrival, Gun Bow, by three-quarters of a length.

“The weather was salubrious, a confection of clear skies and 75 degrees, and an enthusiastic throng of 65,066 New Yorkers came out to the Jamaica Bay course to see the sport,” Hatton described. “They saw one of the most exciting and dramatic races ever witnessed at any of the three Aqueducts . . . There have been richer events but artistically it has rarely if ever been surpassed within the memory of the oldest racing man.”

Gun Bow was the heavy favorite at 55 cents to the dollar, and Kelso was 2-1, having been defeated in five previous stakes starts as a 7-year-old. Gun Bow broke from the rail and went right to the lead, with Kelso stalking close behind. At the quarter pole Kelso began to inch nearer, and many of those who had bet against him suddenly switched allegiances and began shouting, “Come on, Kelso! Go get him, Kelly!”

“The din reverberated, rocking and crashing throughout all five levels of the immense Big A stands and lawns,” Hatton continued. “It was like the brink of Niagara, deafening and almost terrifying. Go get him Kelso did . . . The sirocco of sound continued unabated as the field pulled up and Kelso jogged casually back to unsaddle. Perfect strangers thumped one another on the back . . . and there was a continuous roar of applause that did not end until Kelso disappeared from view.”

Old-timers recall that ovation as perhaps the longest and loudest ever at a New York track, where the hard-boiled railbirds are not known to dispense their appreciation casually. The New York fans had grown to adore Kelso like no other horse before or since, and Kelso loved them back.

“Whenever we went onto the track he would always walk with the outrider,” remembered Valenzuela. “But he would always stop in front of the grandstand and let the other horses keep going. He would stand by himself and look up into the grandstand. It seemed like he wanted to salute the people. He’d stick his ears up, like he knew the applause was for him.”

Never before had a horse been so good for so many seasons. Kelso retired with 39 wins from 63 starts, and set an earnings record of $1,977,896 that stood for 15 years. All told, he won 30 stakes races, 13 of them while carrying at least 130 pounds, and set seven track or course records, including a phenomenal clocking of 2:234⁄5 for 11⁄2 miles in the 1964 running of the D.C. International. Along that long and winding road, it is safe to say that Kelso beat more good horses than any other Thoroughbred of the 20th century, a list that includes the likes of Gun Bow, Carry Back, Bald Eagle, Tompion, Never Bend, Beau Purple, Quadrangle, and Roman Brother, to name just a few.

Kelso retired to a life of hunting and hacking through the woods on his owner’s farm, and made occasional appearances for racing research and charities. A couple of days after leading the post parade for the 1983 Jockey Club Gold Cup along with two other venerable geldings, Forego and John Henry, Kelso died of colic at Woodstock Farm at the age of 26.

Of all the hallowed prose written about Kelso over the course of his distinguished career, no one summed things up more appropriately or more succinctly than Joe Hirsch when he wrote, “Once upon a time there was a horse named Kelso. But only once.”