The stableman whistled. In the pasture below, three horses raised their heads from the lush grass. As they trotted up the tree-lined hill, a long-legged dark bay loped past the others, relentlessly building speed like he did so often in the 1960s on “Race of the Week.” The crowd would erupt as Fred Capposella unleashed his raspy growl, “It’s Kelso, mighty Kelso circling the field…” Arcaro, Shoemaker, or Valenzuela hunched over his neck—lost in a rippling black mane, sweeping to the wire.
Like most other kids, I was in love with horses, especially Thoroughbreds. Family vacations often took us through the Bluegrass. A visit to Man o’ War’s grave at Faraway Farm is etched in memory. In 1964 we all watched Northern Dancer’s quest for the Triple Crown. Despite falling short in the Belmont, his global impact as a sire of sires continues to enhance the breed.
That same year the folks gave in. After building a barn, we found the perfect “backyard horse” and my dreams came true. Recently, we bid farewell to her last offspring.
Thankfully, my husband, Tom, loves horses, too. Mid-September 1983 found us in Wilmington, Del., visiting Tom’s family. There was no Internet then, so it was difficult to locate racing’s retired greats. I’d read, however, that Kelso had retired to Allaire du Pont’s Woodstock Farm in Chesapeake City, Md., and Carl Hanford, his trainer, lived in Wilmington.
Leafing through our Holiday Inn room phone book, common sense told me I was on a fool’s errand. Hanford’s number was probably unlisted. About to give up, his name appeared under my index finger. He answered on the second ring, graciously offered to call Woodstock, provided excellent directions, and, yes, told us to bring apples, carrots, and our camera. After a quick trip to the store, we were on our way.
Leaning on the fence, in awe as my favorite pulled up several yards away, I rattled the bag of carrots and apples. Kelso plunged toward me, warding off his pasture mates. Then, head tucked in my arms, this fierce competitor with the gentle nature gobbled his treats as Tom snapped photo after photo. Before we left, I was surprised when the stableman suggested we see Northern Dancer across the road at Windfields. Not aware he’d been moved from Canada, we couldn’t pass THIS up! Entering the barn, we saw a couple conversing with an older lady at the end of the aisle.
Suddenly, our attention was diverted by a bellowing neigh from the middle stall on the right. A groom strolled toward us, grinned, and said, “Folks, meet the boss!”
The glistening bay ‘King of Windfields’ reared in profile, silky black mane fanning over his neck. Eyes ablaze, he landed gracefully and tossed his head. Pushing his nose against the bars above his doorplate, he snorted. Etched under his name was a decades-long list of years he’d reigned as top stakes-winning sire. To our amazement, the groom offered to bring him out.
Opening the stall door, halter in hand, he invited us closer. Northern Dancer eagerly shoved his white-tipped muzzle through the noseband. As the stableman attached the lead shank, I recounted how Hanford kindly arranged for us to see Kelso and Woodstock. I was astonished when he nodded to the left and replied, “The lady with those people looking at Halo is Mrs. du Pont. We’re good neighbors.”
The trio at the end of the aisle stood back in quiet homage as Northern Dancer pranced past us. Mrs. du Pont nodded and smiled. Less than an hour ago, Kelso had honored us, and now, Northern Dancer. Emboldened in the moment, I addressed racing royalty, “Mrs. du Pont, we were thrilled to see your wonderful Kelso earlier. Your staff were very kind.”
“Thank you, dear,” she smiled back, “I’m sure he enjoyed your visit.”
Walking on air, we were escorted to a paddock behind the barn where Northern Dancer struck pose after pose as we patted his shoulder.
Today, industry Web sites provide global links to farms, tracks, and retired favorites. We’ve met other “greats” since that sparkling autumn day in ’83. Yet, nothing has changed. The unselfish, hard-working human and equine stars of the Sport of Kings still treat fans like kings.
Mary-Ellen Donovan, who resides in Lancaster, Ohio, has recently completed a mystery-thriller surrounding the Breeders’ Cup Classic.