11/09/2005 12:00AM

When Veterans Day was Kelso's


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Veterans Day used to be a big deal. A very big deal, as in "no school" big deal. No matter what the day of the week, the 11th day of November was celebrated with parades, speeches, the occasional fireworks and a one-of-a-kind horse race right next door to the nation's capital.

The Washington, D.C. International was the Breeders' Cup Turf of its day. John D. Schapiro, the ringmaster of Laurel, hustled horses from all over the world, literally, to participate in his 1 1/2-mile extravaganza. For the inaugural running in 1952, Niederlander ventured from Germany to finish third. In 1958, Sailor's Guide made the long trip from Australia to defeat the Europeans Tudor Era and Ballymoss. And in 1961, Schapiro pulled off a political coup when he attracted the Russian horses Zabeg and Irtysch, both listed as owned by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

More significantly, it was the 1961 running - on Saturday, Nov. 11 - that marked the beginning of the Kelso Era in the Washington, D.C. International. For four straight years, from 1961 through 1964, Kelso was the story, putting the race on the map for all time by finishing second three times before finally taking the prize.

Kelso was on his way to his first of five straight Horse of the Year titles in the fall of '61 when trainer Carl Hanford and owner Allaire du Pont accepted the challenge to run Kelso for the first time on grass in the International. Everything would have been fine, too, were it not for the rambunctious Irish filly Sail Cheoil.

"I saw it coming," Hanford, 89, said this week from his home in Delaware. "She was acting up pretty bad coming over to the paddock, horsing. I told Arcaro to watch out for her."

Eddie Arcaro did his best aboard Kelso, but there was nothing he could do to steer clear of the filly as the field lined up behind the old-fashioned tape barrier on the Laurel backstretch. They were side by side, and at some point, the filly lashed out and caught Kelso on the right hock. He shook it off, then raced T.V. Lark shoulder-to-shoulder for the entire 1 1/2 miles in a course record 2:26.2, only to lose by three-quarters of a length.

"The next day the hock was swollen pretty bad," Hanford recalled. "I really feel like he should have won that race three times instead of just one, but you can't keep making excuses."

In 1962, Kelso was joined by fellow Americans Beau Purple and Carry Back in the International. Much to Hanford's chagrin, Kelso and jockey Milo Valenzuela ended up dueling on the pace with the speedy Beau Purple, leaving him just vulnerable enough to be caught in the final yards by the French horse Match II.

"Up to that point, there were only two horses from each country in the International field," Hanford noted. "That was the first year we had three from the U.S. Kelso put Beau Purple away going into the clubhouse turn, then Carry Back ran with him to the stretch. By then, Match only had to run his last half mile to win."

Then, in 1963, Valenzuela changed tactics and left Mongo alone on the lead long enough to get very brave at the end, holding off Kelso to win by a half-length.

"I kind of wish he'd have gone after Mongo on the backstretch that day," Hanford said.

In 1964, the racing world was held in thrall by the battles of 7-year-old Kelso and his younger rival Gun Bow. They arrived at the Nov. 11 International with Horse of the Year honors on the line, making it by far the most important American race ever run on a Wednesday. Gun Bow led past the stands and into the clubhouse turn, then Kelso drew alongside. With a half-mile to run, Valenzuela went for the lead. Inside the quarter, Gun Bow finally cracked. At long last, Kelso had his International.

"He ran a different kind of race when he got older, as opposed to when he was a 5- and 6-year-old," Hanford said. "You could call on him any time he wanted to, and he'd put in an eighth of a mile as good as you'd want any time in the race. But Milo had to ride him. Up to his 6-year-old season, I don't think there was a horse in the country who could beat him going three-quarters of a mile or two miles, even weighted."

The International was run for the last time in 1994. By then it had dwindled to a one-mile event, reduced in stature by competition from the Breeders' Cup Turf, the very race it had spawned.

"It was a great race in its day," Hanford said. "Winning it was a pretty big deal. A $100,000 purse was as big as we ran for back then. Of course, if I get to thinking about the purses in races today that Kelso won back then - his five Jockey Club Gold Cups alone would have been more than he won in his whole career."