Kelso: a lasting legacy

By Brien Bouyea

    Baseball legend Lou Gehrig was nicknamed the “Iron Horse” because of his durability, greatness and longevity. If the same moniker were to be applied to an equine athlete there would be no more appropriate recipient than the mighty Kelso.

Simply put, no other runner in the annals of Thoroughbred racing remained at the pinnacle of the sport as long as Kelso. With the reality of today’s economic climate, most standout Thoroughbreds are rushed off to the breeding shed after their 3-year-old campaign for the allure of big dollars in the stud game. Kelso, being a gelding, was given the opportunity to make his mark on the track year after year.

Even in his day – when considerably more Thoroughbreds soldiered on to race after the age of three – Kelso was the rarest of commodities, a racehorse that aged like a fine wine. Long after the Thoroughbreds in his foal crop had vanished from the track, Kelso was whipping younger generations of competitors – and doing it with a swagger all his own.

Fifty years after he was named Horse of the Year for the first of five consecutive years (1960-64), Kelso’s accomplishments have also aged like a fine wine.
“Kelso was one of a kind,” said his trainer, Hall of Famer Carl Hanford. “There was never anything like him before and there has not been anything like him since. The way the game is today we will likely never see a horse have that kind of success for that long. They don’t make ’em like that anymore. In fact, they never did.”

A Hall of Fame career and a legacy that is still marveled at almost half a century later were certainly not things that were foreseen for Kelso. He was sired by an unproven stallion, Your Host, out of Maid of Flight, a mare with no reputation whatsoever. Born on April 4, 1957 at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, Kelso was Maid of Flight’s first foal. He was scrawny and a bit of a runt, but he had one hell of a temper. Not much was thought of this ugly duckling with a bad attitude.

Kelso’s owner, Allaire du Pont, named the horse after a friend, Kelso Everett. With Kelso’s cantankerous nature only getting worse as he grew, du Pont decided to have him gelded. It didn’t help. Kelso remained stubborn and difficult throughout his life.

Trained at first by Dr. John Lee, a veterinarian, Kelso arrived at the races as a 2-year-old on Sept. 4, 1959 at Atlantic City Race Course. Ridden by John Block, Kelso won his debut with little fanfare. He raced twice more that year, finishing second both times. Nothing special appeared to be on the horizon. In fact, Dr. Lee suggested to du Pont that she should sell Kelso. The horse had slightly injured a tendon on one of his ankles and Dr. Lee was convinced he would eventually bow the tendon.

Although she was willing to sell Kelso, few offers came du Pont’s way. Her nephew, Gene Weymouth, did offer du Pont his new cabin cruiser in trade for Kelso. It was an offer she wisely turned down. It was apparent, whether she liked it or not, that du Pont was stuck with Kelso – tender ankle, volatile spirit, and all.

Kelso was not ready for the rigors of the Triple Crown races as a 3-year-old and did not make his first start of 1960 until late June. By that time, Dr. Lee had returned to his veterinary practice and Hanford had taken over as Kelso’s conditioner. Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Arcaro became the regular rider. Kelso won eight of his nine starts as a 3-year-old, including the Jerome Handicap, Discovery Handicap, Hawthorne Gold Cup Handicap, Lawrence Realization Stakes and the first of his five consecutive Jockey Club Gold Cups. In the Lawrence Realization, Kelso equaled Man o’ War’s record time of 2:40 4/5 for the 1 5/8-mile distance, which had stood for 40 years. Even though he missed out on the Triple Crown races, Kelso was a no-brainer selection as top 3-year-old male and Horse of the Year.

The ugly duckling had become a star.

In 1961, Kelso cemented his status as an elite racehorse. He won seven of nine starts – all under Arcaro – and was named Horse of the Year once again. His victories included a second Jockey Club Gold Cup, the first of his three consecutive Woodwards, the first of three Whitney triumphs and the first of his two Suburban Handicaps. He also won the Metropolitan, Suburban and Brooklyn handicaps. Kelso certainly proved he could handle weight, carrying 130 pounds or more in five of his victories.

Arcaro, however, retired in early 1962. Thirty-five years later, during his final public appearance, Arcaro was being honored at Lone Star Park in Texas. He was having dinner with Chick Lang, former executive vice president and general manager at Pimlico.

“Eddie, the stock question everyone always asks is, who’s the best horse you’ve ever ridden?” asked Lang. “And you’ve always answered Citation.”

Arcaro responded: “Chick, I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anybody, and I promised to myself I would never say it unless I outlived Jimmy Jones (Citation’s trainer). I’d never say this in public while Jimmy is still alive, because if I did, he’d be on the phone the next day and he’d be really upset with me.

“But between you and me, I’m going to tell you right here and now that the greatest horse I ever rode, without question, was Kelso. He could do anything. He could sprint, go two miles, run on off tracks, fast tracks, inside, outside – anything.”

Arcaro never expressed that thought publicly. He died in November 1997, four years before Jones. Lang, however, never forgot those words and they were later documented in the Kelso biography by Steve Haskin in the Thoroughbred Legends series that was published by Eclipse Press in 2003.

Kelso was just getting into his groove as Arcaro retired. Entering 1962, Kelso, then a 5-year-old, was the first back-to-back Horse of the Year since Whirlaway 20 years before. Expectations were high, but the year did not start out as Hanford had hoped. Under new rider Bill Shoemaker, Kelso lost three of his first four starts. Enter new jockey Ismael “Milo” Valenzuela.

Valenzuela hailed from McNary, Texas. He was one of a whopping 23 children in his family, and was one of five brothers who went on to a career as a jockey. Valenzuela was a natural, and he was smart enough to contact Arcaro for advice on how to ride Kelso.

“Just remember, he doesn’t want to be rushed,” Arcaro told Valenzuela. “The stronger hold you take on the reins the more he’ll give you when you ask him.”

Kelso began to fire on all cylinders with Valenzuela aboard, winning the Stymie Handicap, his second Woodward and his third Jockey Club Gold Cup. He had a record of 6-4-0 from 12 starts, which was good enough to be named Horse of the Year for the third consecutive year. It wasn’t Kelso’s best campaign, but he was as popular as he had ever been, regularly drawing crowds of more than 50,000 at Aqueduct and Belmont. They called him “King Kelly,” and he was certainly the people’s horse.

Kelso 1964 (Courtesy NYRA)

After starting his 6-year-old campaign with a defeat, Kelso ripped off victories in nine of his next 10 races. He won the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Suburban and Whitney again. Although he won his fourth consecutive Horse of the Year honor, Kelso ended 1964 with a disappointing second-place effort on the turf in the D.C. International at Laurel Park. It was the third time he had attempted that particular turf race – and the third time he was unsuccessful.

At age seven, Kelso began a fierce rivalry with a talented 4-year-old named Gun Bow. Coming off three straight wins – including a record-setting effort in the Brooklyn Handicap – Gun Bow looked primed to challenge Kelso’s throne. Kelso struggled and finished fifth in the Brooklyn, 14 lengths behind Gun Bow.

Had Kelso lost a step? Was his reign over? Not so fast. Gun Bow was favored when they met again six weeks later in the Aqueduct Stakes, but Kelso showed his mettle and won by three-quarters of a length.

Gun Bow then won a photo finish over Kelso in the Woodward to make it two of three. The rivals parted company briefly – with Kelso winning his fifth consecutive Jockey Club Gold Cup in the meantime – before meeting up once again. This time the stage was the D.C. International, the turf race Kelso had finished second in each of his three previous attempts. With Horse of the Year on the line. Kelso dusted Gun Bow by 4½ lengths in 2:23 4/5, the fastest 1½ miles ever recorded in America – on dirt or turf. The only horse to ever run a faster mile and a half was the 3-year-old English colt, The Bastard, who clocked 2:23 at Newmarket in 1929.

The ancient gelding exorcised his grass demons, wrapped up his fifth consecutive Horse of the Year title and proved he was still the king. Arcaro, who was in attendance at Laurel that day, marveled at Kelso’s jaw-dropping effort.

“I’ve never seen a horse like him,” Arcaro said. “I thought he was great when I had him, but today he was the greatest.”

Kelso went on to win three of six races at eight in 1965 and finished fourth in his lone start in 1966 before he was retired. He owned a marvelous record of 39-12-2 from 63 starts and his career earnings were a record $1,977,896.

Upon his retirement, The Blood-Horse stated: “Kelso demonstrated the durability of class. No horse in our time was so good, so long. His was mature greatness.”

In retirement, Kelso received thousands of fan letters each year at du Pont’s Woodstock Farm in Maryland. He was trained to become a show jumper and received a memorable ovation when he appeared on “National Steeplechase Day” at Saratoga in 1967.

Throughout the passing years, Kelso continued to be paraded at various racetracks and competed at numerous horse shows. Thousands of visitors traveled to Woodstock Farm to catch a glimpse of the great champion in his golden years.

On Oct. 15, 1983, Kelso, then 26, paraded at Belmont Park on Jockey Club Gold Cup day. He was joined by two other popular geldings, Forego and John Henry. A crowd of 32,493 showed up for one final tribute to the old warrior. Kelso died the next day and was buried at Woodstock Farm.

After Kelso’s death, du Pont said she had a hard time referring to herself as Kelso’s owner.

“How can anyone actually possess the courage and generosity of another living creature,” she once wrote. “What we were able to do for Kelso was nothing compared to what he did for us. He was born with a will to win that never for a second deserted him.

“Kelso’s story has a beginning, but it has no end, for I know his name will remain ever green as long as there are horses and people who love them.”

Kelso was ranked No. 4 on The Blood-Horse’s list of the top Thoroughbreds of the 20th century, behind only Man o’ War, Secretariat and Citation. Kelso had his own mailbox at Woodstock Farm, and in tribute to his enduring popularity he continued to receive numerous fan letters for years after his death

The epitaph on Kelso’s gravestone was also a testament to the joy he brought his fans: “Where He Gallops, The Earth Sings.” But perhaps it was legendary turf writer Joe Hirsch who summed up Kelso best.

“Once upon a time, there was a horse named Kelso,” Hirsch said. “but only once.”

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