He was a storied racehorse of so-so stock, reared in Maryland and cheered by the throngs who rallied behind the indomitable thoroughbred. His name was Kelso and, for the first half of the 1960s, he was the king of his kind.
Fathered by a lame sire, and nondescript in appearance — a plain brown horse, big deal — Kelso stuck out when he started to run. Focused and fractious, he won sprints at six furlongs, distance races at two miles and everything in between. He won on dirt tracks, on turf and in the mud.
“If they were all Kelsos,” Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Arcaro said, “I’d be riding when I was 100.”
Once, Kelso reeled off 11 successive victories; another time, he won eight straight, mostly stakes races against formidable foes. All told, between 1960 and 1966, he won 39 of 63 races and a then-record $1,977,896, despite never having run in a Triple Crown event.
His greatest moment? On Nov. 11, 1964, at Laurel Park, Kelso challenged the world’s best in the $150,000 Washington D.C. International. There, at age 7, before a partisan crowd of 37,800, he set an American record for 1-1/2 miles on turf (2:23-4/5), routing a field that included Russia’s top entry, who finished 9 lengths back, at the height of the Cold War.
America hailed the champ, but the only border that mattered to this horse was crossing the finish line first.
“You look at pictures of Kelso in the stretch and, in every one of them, his ears are pinned back because he is determined not to let another horse get in front of him,” said Carl Hanford, his Hall of Fame trainer. “He would ... run his legs off on the track.”
Owned by Allaire du Pont, a matriarch of the chemical clan, Kelso lived on Woodstock Farm, in Cecil County, where fan mail poured in from around the globe to an oversized mailbox that bore his name. Schoolchildren asked for tufts of his hair. Grandmothers knitted him blankets to keep him warm.
He ate monogrammed sugar cubes, drank $1-a-gallon mineral water from Arkansas and slept on a bed of pulverized sugar cane. His owner’s home, in Chesapeake City, became a shrine to the horse, whose shoes were mounted on a wall between inauguration invitations from Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Gelded as a yearling, both to gain weight (which he did) and calm down (which he didn’t), Kelso hit his stride in his summer as a 3-year-old. By 7, he’d shattered a world record, that U.S. best and nine different track marks while being hailed a record five times as Horse of the Year by the Thoroughbred Racing Association.
Top jockeys lined up to ride him: Arcaro, Bill Hartack and Ismael Valenzuela. Even those Kelso beat marveled at his dominance.
“Kelso went out on the track with the will to win; that’s what made him dig in like no other horse,” said Walter Blum, who rode highly-touted Gun Bow, runner-up in the D.C. International 57 years ago. “He knew what he was doing and he liked what he was doing. That’s what made him so great.”
On race days, Kelso received good-luck telegrams and so many visitors that, at times, a stand-in took his place in his barn at the track. Once, during a prerace breakfast for the media at a sidewalk cafe outside Hialeah Park, Florida, he munched carrots from a silver bowl. Kelso was the first thoroughbred to fly in a jet and always traveled with his sidekick, a scruffy mongrel named Charlie Potatoes.
In 1966, a hairline fracture on his right hind foot ended his career. A year later, he entered the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. His nearly $2 million earnings remained a record until 1979 when Affirmed passed him, having won the Triple Crown.
Kelso retired to Woodstock Farm, to a 20-acre paddock on the Bohemia River. For years, he received birthday and Christmas cards from followers, some of whom went to see him. In 1982, a reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun visited Kelso and approached him in the field, notebook in hand. Ornery to the end, the horse bit the pad and tore it to shreds.
A year later, at 26, he died of colic and was buried on the farm near his mother. At his own Hall of Fame induction in 2006, Hanford paid homage to the great gelding:
“I’m here because of one horse and one horse only,” the trainer said.