06/17/2009 11:00PM

Yeats hasn't quite matched Kelso


British racing commentator Zoey Bird said she was "all over Yeats like a rash." Wacky, mutton-chopped John McCririck confessed he was "privileged" to be in the presence of such a great Thoroughbred. My daughter Lorelei jumped up and down at the sight of Yeats winning his fourth straight Ascot Gold Cup and blew a small harmonica.

The big guy has that effect, even savored from afar.

In some ways it is a sad day when the American racing atmosphere is energized by the performance of an 8-year-old Irish horse on the other side of the Atlantic. I mean, c'mon. It was Thursday, and there was free admission at Hollywood Park. But for those who watched Yeats in action, via TVG, it was worth interrupting early first-round coverage of the U.S. Open from Bethpage Black (Bethpage Beige, their croquet course, is more my speed).

If nothing else, it would be the only time most U.S. racing fans would be watching horses run 2 1/2 miles without slowing down every once in awhile to jump over something. This was flat, except when the course rose and fell with the terrain, all the way around and around Ascot's clockwise layout.

For context, 2 1/2 miles is farther than 90 percent of Americans need to travel to get to a Starbucks. It would be as if Conquistador Cielo ran the 1982 Met Mile and Belmont Stakes in the same breath, instead of five days apart. Two and a half miles is the Kentucky Derby twice.

Such a distance sounds quaint, archaic, and very British. They still have a monarchy, so of course they will have races that last well into the cocktail hour. Yeats usually needs about four minutes and 20 seconds to win the Gold Cup. I never even watch the same channel for that long.

Except to watch Yeats, a big, beefy dark bay who represents the Thoroughbred breed in full. He was precocious enough to be the early favorite for the Epsom Derby five long years ago (a muscle pull kept him out of the race). Later on, he survived overseas journeys to Canada and Australia and settled into his Ballydoyle digs as resident champion stayer, a title that still gets you a round at any local pub.

Full credit goes to Aidan O'Brien and his merry band at Ballydoyle for keeping Yeats healthy at rest and fit when he needs to be. O'Brien performed a similar long-playing miracle with Istabraq, a former flat racer who went on to win three consecutive runnings of the Champion Hurdle, 1998-2000, during the fabled Cheltenham jump meet. Both Istabraq and Yeats are by Sadler's Wells.

There have been any number of American horses healthy enough and consistent enough to dominate a particular race over several years. Just because they don't do it in front of the queen, the duke, and all those folks in funny outfits does not make the accomplishment any less noteworthy.

Never forget Leaping Plum, the pride of Nebraska, who won seven straight runnings of the four-furlong Grasmick Handicap at Fonner Park from 1995 to 2001. Leaping Plum had to run those first five Grasmicks before he had gone as far as Yeats in just a single Ascot Gold Cup. Irish Linnet won five straight Yaddo Handicaps for New York-breds at Saratoga in the 1990s.

Devil Diver won three straight runnings of the Metropolitan Mile, from 1943 to 1945. His grandson Native Diver won three straight runnings of the Hollywood Gold Cup, 1965-67. Sun Beau, who raced at 15 different tracks, ended his 74-race career with his third straight win in the 1931 Hawthorne Gold Cup. Tenacious earned everlasting fame on Bourbon Street by winning three straight Louisiana Handicaps, 1958-60, while Lak Nak was king of Longacres, winning the 1965, '66, and '67 runnings of the Renton Handicap.

Stir in names like Discovery, Azeri, Flawlessly, Track Gal, Super Moment, Knight Counter, Volcanic, Three Rings, and Indian Maid - all three-peaters in stakes races of national or at least regional merit - then top them off with Forego, who won a very Yeats-like four runnings of the Woodward, 1974-77, the last two under handicap weights of 135 and 133 pounds.

The standard, though, is still solid gold Kelso, winner of the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup beginning in 1960 and ending in 1964. Each time the Gold Cup crowned a Horse of the Year campaign for Kelso, and each time he did something grand, especially in his fifth - his fastest - when he defeated Roman Brother, Horse of the Year in 1965, and Quadrangle, the 1964 Belmont winner.

Allen Jerkens beat Kelso three times with Beau Purple - in the 1962 Suburban, the '62 Man o' War, and the 1963 Widener - and he ran against Kelso in the 1963 Gold Cup with the 3-year-old longshot Left Hook. Why, wondered a whippersnapper, didn't he try to win the Gold Cup with Beau Purple?

"I probably should have," Jerkens said. "I won it twice later at two miles, with Group Plan and Prove Out. They used to go easy with Kelso in the spring, so that was one reason he was so tough late in the year like that. And he really could get the distance."

Nearly half a century later, Yeats now holds a place in British and Irish racing lore only Kelso could appreciate. His namesake, the poet William Butler Yeats, is the one who wrote "that is no country for old men," from "Sailing to Byzantium." This might be true enough in racing, too, except on a certain afternoon in June at Royal Ascot, year after year after year.