... AMERICA’S RACE HORSE ...
IF YOU EVER saw Kelso race, or have heard of him, he needs no introduction here. If you haven’t,
it is time that you were introduced. Kelso bridged the gap between the great equine stars of the 1950s and mid-1960s. In the 50s it was Native Dancer, Swaps, Nashua and Bold Ruler to name a few. He was followed in the latter half of the 60s by Buckpasser, Dr Fager and Damascus. These are the names of legendary Champions. Every thoroughbred mentioned here was a Horse of the Year recipient. Then there was Kelso. In an unprecedented five-year period, from 1960 through 1964 He was named as Horse of the Year five consecutive times. No other race horse in American history can come close to this remarkable feat. The great Forego, who most closely mirrored Kelso in ability, stands alone in second place with the three that he notched in the mid-70s.
So, let’s go back to when it all started fifty-nine years ago.
Kelso was owned by Allaire DuPont. Her late husband Richard was a member of the fabulously wealthy DuPont De Nemours family, owners of one of the largest Chemical corporations in the world. Her main interest was horse racing. She formed Bohemia Stable, a horse farm in Maryland. This venture would lead in 1957 to the birth of “Kelly” as Allaire called him. He was a rank yearling, mean, tough and hard to handle. It was decided to geld Kelso in the expectation that it would make him calmer and more manageable. It did nothing of the kind. After the procedure he was, you guessed it, still mean, tough and hard to handle. Mrs. DuPont decided to unleash him in the fall of 1959. The dark bay, almost black- colored gelding would make his first start at the long gone Atlantic City racecourse. The track was the brainchild of Philadelphia business tycoon John Kelly, better known as the father of actress Grace Kelly, later to become Princess Grace of Monaco. Here Kelso took his first start, a maiden special weight event with ease. After a couple of game second place finishes, he came up lame and was out of action until the summer of 1960. If anyone thought that Pittsburgh Pirates star Bill Mazeroski was the sports story of that year, with his walk off home run to take down the mighty New York Yankees, they weren’t paying attention to Kelso. It was that summer when his dark brown coat began to shine. He won his first stakes race on the Jersey shore at beautiful Monmouth Park. There, with the immensely talented Bill Hartack aboard, he took the Choice Stakes. Hartack hustled him to the lead and never looked back. Inconceivable at the time Kelso was set on a direct path to Valhalla, where a stall crafted of gold would one day await him. He would go on to win nine of ten, most under the urging of the greatest jockey in America, “The Master” Eddie Arcaro. He finished off the campaign with his first of five consecutive Jockey Club Gold Club wins. At that time, it was along with the Belmont Stakes, New York racing’s premier horse racing event. Kelso had arrived. He was crowned as Horse of the Year. The best was yet to come.
For the next four years Kelso would rule the horse racing universe. If 1960 was a barometer of things to come, it surely was. 1961 was to become one for the ages. Kelso ran the table. These were his conquests. First and foremost, he took New York’s Handicap triple. Only two other horses had accomplished this. The last to do it, the immortal Tom Fool a decade earlier. Get this: The first leg, the Metropolitan Mile, Kelso won easily carrying 130 pounds. The Suburban Handicap was next. Track handicapper Tommy Trotter had no plans of making it easy for the champ. Arcaro and twenty-five Pounds of lead weight was the price Kelso was now paying for success. Nothing could stop him. He took the ten-furlong event by five easy lengths.
Next up, at Belmont Park, to complete the triple, the Brooklyn Handicap. Again, ladened with 136 pounds he got to the finish wire a length clear of his closest competitor. He had pulled off the most difficult feat in the Sport of Kings. He wasn’t finished. Add the first of three Whitney Stakes tallies. Then the fall classics, The Woodward Stakes and another Jockey Club Gold Cup. Kelso was now a star of the brightest magnitude. Fans all over the country fell in love with “Kelly.” Tremendous crowds came to get a glance of him. At Belmont and Aqueduct, 50,000 and more would pack the stands to cheer him on. In fact, 72,000 fought their way in to see him win The Aqueduct Stakes on Labor Day of 1963. Here at the Spa 26,000 came to see him perform magic in one of his three Whitney Stakes victories. It may not seem like a large crowd now. One must note that this was the 1960s and a massive attendance in that time frame.
The most prestigious turf event in horse racing in that era was the Washington D.C. International held at Laurel Racecourse. Three times Kelso had been beaten here. Three times he had finished a close second. In 1964 he was not to be denied. You can say it was his crowning achievement. He would take on a cast of turf champions from around the world. The race came down to Kelso and his nemesis, the great Gun Bow. Ismael Valenzuela aboard Kelso got the lead over Gun Bow and Hall of Fame rider Walter Blum. Kelso held off Blum’s move at the top of the stretch. He had finally captured the elusive prize. He continued to thrill fans until1967. At picturesque Hialeah Park he had his swan song. In an allowance race on March third he finished a lackluster fourth. The next day, the nine-year-old gelding was diagnosed as lame. His magnificent career had ended. His performances became the stuff of legends. As the late, great governor of New York, Al Smith would say “Let’s take a look at the record.” Five Jockey Club Gold Cups! Three Woodward Stakes! Three Whitney Stakes! A total of Twenty-six stakes races! Fifteen wins carrying 130 or more pounds! And most importantly the five consecutive Horse of the Year awards!!! The immortal writer for the Daily Racing Form, Joe Hirsch had these profoundly poetic words to say about Kelso. “Once upon a time there was a horse named Kelso.
But only once.”