The Unforgettable Kelso

It is 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.

The 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 once." 

There 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.

As the 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. 

At the 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.

For those 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.

As for 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 strides.

Each 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.

He faced 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 Sound."

Kelso was 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 forelock.

What made 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."

When 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.

Mrs. du 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."

Kelso had 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.

When he 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.

Kelso eventually 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 those images.

So, one 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.

When 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."

And so 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.

The end 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.

Following 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.

Each day, 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.

All the 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."

He 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 horse.

In 1974, 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.

In the 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.

So Kelso, 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.

Kelso was 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.

When 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 Saturdays.

But 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.

Two days 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 final farewell.

The next morning he was buried behind the office at Woodstock Farm with a simple ceremony. A devastated Mrs. du Pont remained in seclusion.

The "Era 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."

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