appropriate that the New York Racing Association moved the Kelso Handicap from its
fall Super Saturday card, where it was pretty much lost, to its own weekend.
Now the focus is not only on those versatile horses prepping for either the
Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile or the Classic, but on one of the all-time great
Thoroughbreds for whom the race is named.
legendary Daily Racing Form/Morning Telegraph writer Joe Hirsch penned these
often quoted words: "Once upon a time, there was a horse named Kelso - but only
have been many "once upon a times" since the great Kelso ruled the Sport of
Kings from 1960-1964. But the great gelding's unprecedented five-year reign,
known as "the Era of Kelso," gives the story a more epochal quality.
It was a
period of transition for America. The stark images of World War II had all but
faded, and the baby boomers were now entering puberty. The mid-fifties had
brought an age of innocence that would be remembered more as a state of mind
than a chapter in the annals of America. The most controversial issue was the
effect of rock and roll on teenagers and
how the movement of Elvis Presley's hips was corrupting teenage girls.
sixties began, no one could possibly foresee the ominous events that lay just
ahead. Words like assassination, protest riots, cult murder, LSD, overdose,
hippies, and Vietnam had no meaning to the blissful masses who were about to be
led into Camelot by a young, vibrant pied piper they called JFK. The music had
mellowed from the raucous sounds of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee
Lewis. Even Elvis' songs changed to softer ballads after he returned from his
stint in the service. Other than the Cold War always looming in the background,
there was no reason to believe these halcyon days of the early sixties would
not go on forever.
time, horse racing, baseball, and boxing, were the three most popular sports in
the country. Professional football was just beginning to pick up interest,
thanks in part to the dynasty of Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers, which
joined the other sports dynasties, the New York Yankees and Boston Celtics. But
even the Packers and Yankees were not champions every year. Other than the
Celtics in a sport that was still in its infancy, the longest running reign
belonged to Kelso, the most remarkable ruler of them all. His feat of being
named Horse of the Year for five consecutive years and winning the prestigious
Jockey Club Gold Cup all five years was beyond comprehension and most certainly
will never be duplicated.
five years Kelso came to embody all the qualities Americans looked for in their
heroes. He was the underdog who captured a throne; the runt who would be king.
And from his throne he ruled longer than any other equine monarch in history.
his dominance in New York, he was the equine version of Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio,
and Babe Ruth, and none of them were champions for five consecutive years. Kelso's name seemed to leap off the pages of
New York City's newspapers every weekend. Fans flocked to Belmont Park and the
newly built Aqueduct in droves, with Saturday crowds of more than 50,000
commonplace. And most of them came to see Kelso.
It was as
if trainer Carl Hanford would wind him up and send him out for one machine-like
performance after another. From Aug. 3, 1960 to Nov. 11, 1963, Kelso made 39
starts, winning 28 and finishing in the top three 36 times, often carrying
weights of 130 pounds of higher. Even at the ages of 6 and 7, he won carrying 134
and 136 pounds, which were staggering weights for a horse with his small and
narrow frame. He wasn't much to look at around the barn, but with a jockey on
his back and in motion he was a thing of beauty, covering ground with majestic
year, new foes would emerge to attempt to overthrow him, but all failed. As the
years passed and the king began to age, he still refused to surrender his crown
to the brash youthful rivals who kept challenging his supremacy. One by one,
they fell - Carry Back, Jaipur, Ridan, Never Bend, Quadrangle, Roman Brother,
Mongo, Beau Purple, and his toughest rival Gun Bow.
his sternest test at age 7 when the brilliant Gun Bow made a gallant, but
futile, effort to dethrone him. When "Kelly," as he was often called, defeated
Gun Bow in the 1964 Aqueduct Handicap before a massive Labor Day crowd, the
roar that resounded from the grandstand was described by Daily Racing Form columnist Charles Hatton as "The Niagara of
so revered that a party was thrown in his honor at Toot Shor's, New York City's
most famous watering hole, which was the number one haunt for celebrities and
athletes. As the end of Kelso's career neared, one fan at Aqueduct was
overheard saying, "It just won't seem like Saturday without Kelso." People
refused to believe there would ever come a day when they no longer would see
Kelso parading to the post, sporting the familiar yellow ribbon tied to his
Kelso such a beloved hero to so many people, young and old? What made him
inspire a young girl named Heather Noble to start the first ever national fan
club for a horse, with members well into the thousands? Maybe it was just plain
old charisma to go along with his accomplishments and longevity. Maybe it was
that he loved chocolate ice cream sundaes and was pampered like the noblest of
kings. Noted racing writer David Alexander may have said it best for everyone:
"If asked to state the reason why Kelso was the greatest racehorse we have ever
known, I'd simply tell you that I think he's done more things better on more
occasions over a longer period of time than any other horse in history. Or
maybe I'd say it's just that I love him."
Kelso's racing days finally ended in early 1966, a book containing articles and
facts about him was published by owner Allaire du Pont's Woodstock Farm, with
proceeds going to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary
Medicine at New Bolton Center and the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation.
The title given to Mrs. du Pont's introduction said it all: "Where He Gallops,
the Earth Sings," which became the epitaph on his gravestone.
Pont never thought of herself as the owner of Kelso, as one would own a
possession. "How can anyone actually possess the courage and generosity of
another living creature?" she once wrote of Kelso. "What we were able to do for
Kelso was nothing compared with 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."
to be destined for greatness. There is no other way to explain how a horse
deemed so undesirable as a youngster could become one of the most beloved
horses of all time. It may have been easy to fall in love with Kelso the
racehorse, but the same couldn't be said about the scrawny bay colt that was
born on April 4, 1957 at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky. Not only was the son of
Your Host and Maid of Flight nothing to look at, he also had a nasty streak
that eventually would put many exercise riders on the seat of their pants.
was born, no one at the farm paid much attention to him, other than
acknowledging that Mrs. du Pont owned him. Had a narrow frame, bony hips, and
each of his ribs could be counted. After first seeing the colt, Claiborne owner
A.B. "Bull" Hancock knew he would have to use diplomacy when offering his
opinion of him to Mrs. du Pont, a longtime friend of the family.
was moved to Woodstock Farm, where he would meet his lifelong friend, Dickie
Jenkins. As Kelso grew older he still was "ratty looking and meaner than hell,"
according to Jenkins. He was difficult to break and kept unseating his riders.
For the tough, hard-living Jenkins he was a welcome project. Finally, farm
veterinarian John Lee, who also trained by Mrs. du Pont, recommended that Kelso
be gelded. Lee had vivid memories of Maid of Flight, who also had a terrible
disposition and once struck at Lee with her front leg with such force she tore
his coat and pants right off his body. The sight of Kelso's antics resurrected
summer morning in 1958, Kelso, not yet having his second birthday, was
subjected to what writer Red Small called, "The unkindest cut of all." Jenkins,
as usual, was right there holding the young horse while veterinarian George
Rosenberger performed what was to become arguably the most famous castration in
racing history. Who could have imagined what was to come. When it was complete,
Jenkins took Kelso's testicles and flung them atop the roof of the barn, an act
horse people considered good luck.
confronted about his decision to geld what was to become one of the greatest
horses in history, Lee always gave the same response: "The results obtained
speak for themselves."
began the journey of racing's longest running monarch, who retired the richest
Thoroughbred of all time. When he nailed down his fifth Horse of the Year title
at age 7 by defeating Gun Bow in the Washington D.C. International, he
shattered the course record by more than two full seconds, covering the mile
and a half in a world record 2:23 4/5.
came on March 2, 1966, when the 9-year-old Kelso finished fourth in a
six-furlong allowance race at Hialeah. Jenkins could see the horse wasn't
right. X-rays revealed a fracture of the tip of the sesamoid.
Kelso's retirement, other superstars and Hall of Famers came along, such as
Buckpasser, Damascus, Dr. Fager, and Arts and Letters, as the now turbulent
sixties drew to an end. All that was left of Kelso was the memory of a plain
brown horse, decked out in yellow and gray, who once seemed eternal and who
provided the nation with the kind of stability it would never see again.
Mrs. du Pont would ride Kelso, with his buddy, an old hunter named Spray,
alongside. Eventually he was taught dressage and show jumping and would perform
at various racetracks and at Madison Square Garden and other horse shows,
winning a number of ribbons. Eventually, Spray was replaced by Pete, a former
racehorse who competed under the name Sea Spirit. He also had a number of
canine friends who went by the names Rabbit, Cracker, Cookie, Sketch, and
Mickey. But his real buddy and personal bodyguard was a mutt named Charlie
Potatoes, who slept with Kelso every night and who rarely was out of his sight.
Charlie was often seen at night stretched out across Kelso's head.
time, Kelso would continue to receive fan mail, delivered to his own private
mailbox on the farm. One youngster, John Price, from Wilmington, Delaware,
wrote: "Dear Kelso, God put us here at the same time, you to be a great
racehorse, and me to be a good boy for my mother and father."
received letters from as far away as Poland from someone who had gone through
the horrors of Nazi occupation and had kept up with Kelso through the years.
There was an inquiry asking if Kelso was available to be ridden by Prince
Bernhard of The Netherlands. A Peace Corp group about to leave for Thailand
requested literature on Kelso so they could teach the Thai people all about the
Charlie Potatoes, who was suffering from a heart murmur, was hit by a truck and
killed. Kelso sulked so badly, he hung his head and wouldn't eat with his usual
enthusiasm. He was now 17, and although his back was beginning to sway a little
and he had grown a bit of a belly, he was still as spry as a 3-year-old.
early '80s, Mrs. du Pont received several requests to send Kelso for public
appearances. The old gelding had not been ridden for 14 years and she refused
all the offers. In 1983 she was contacted by Monique Koehler, president of the
Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, asking if she would consider parading Kelso
at Belmont Park on Jockey Club Gold Cup day, along with the other great
geldings Forego, who was 13 and residing at the Kentucky Horse Park; and John
Henry, who was running in the race at age 8. The three would lead the post
parade. This time Mrs. du Pont accepted.
at age 26, prepared to return to Belmont Park. First a saddle was placed his
back, which he didn't seem to mind. Then he was given a thorough examination by
veterinarians, who said he was up to the trip, and his condition was carefully
monitored through dry runs.
put on a van on the morning of Oct. 13, accompanied by his equine pal Pete and
groom Debby Ferguson. Mrs. du Pont asked Dickie Jenkins to attend and he
accepted her invitation. When Kelso arrived he was taken out to graze and
unwind. Jenkins noticed the horse was acting a bit studdish. "Did you all give
this horse a tranquilizer?" he asked. He was assured they had.
Kelso walked in the paddock he responded to the cheers by bowing his neck in
regal splendor. Ferguson mounted him, and as he paraded around the paddock, all
the memories of him came flooding back to those who remembered watching him
race. The last they had seen of him, the swayback old gelding had been a sleek
racing machine - a vision embedded in their minds after so many unforgettable
Jenkins couldn't help but notice how anxious he was. In the post parade, Kelso
was on his toes. When he was brought back to the barn, Jenkins notice he was
sweating. Kelso was vanned back home later that night. The next day he was checked
at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. and all seemed well. But soon after, he appeared to be in
distress. He was examined and was found to be suffering from colic. After being
treated with Banamine and Jenotone, he seemed to be doing better and he laid
down in his stall. But 45 minutes later he was in distress again. He began to
tremble and his legs were shaking. There was nothing left to do but pray for a
quick and merciful end. It came at 7 p.m.
earlier, the once familiar images of the racetrack and the sound of cheering
crowds had been nothing more than a faint memory to the old horse. Now with
those images and sounds reborn and fresh in his mind, the Mightly Kelso bid his
morning he was buried behind the office at Woodstock Farm with a simple
ceremony. A devastated Mrs. du Pont remained in seclusion.
of Kelso" is long gone. He ruled his domain with an iron grip. His reign lasted
for seven long years and many wide-eyed young fans grew to adulthood during
that time. Kelso was many things to many people, but most of all, he was, as
Shakespeare described Lear, "Every inch a king."