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The Gold Cup: The race Kelso owned

9/29/2010
Kelso during an early morning workout. 

Back in the day the Jockey Gold Cup ruled as racing's crowning event. In its first 69 runnings (1919-1988), 64 of the Gold Cup champions also took home Horse of the Year honors. Among the superlative champions were Man o' War, Gallant Fox, Whirlaway, Citation, Buckpasser, Damascus, Forego, John Henry and Affirmed.

Then the Breeders' Cup showed up. Launched in 1984, it was the brainchild of John Gaines, a visionary breeder who knew how to get things done. Designed to promote and unite the industry, the Breeders' Cup has evolved into a wildly successful two-day, $26 million extravaganza which caps off the racing season.

In its wake, the Jockey Gold Cup has been somewhat relegated to the role of a steppingstone to the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic, five weeks later. Still, this year's $750,000 edition offers a highly anticipated showdown of two of the top older horses in the country -- Blame versus Rail Trip.

First run in 1919 and known as the Jockey Club Stakes, the Jockey Gold Cup was the centerpiece of the Belmont Park Fall Championship Meeting. The second running was captured by the immortal Man o' War, who was held under strong restraint in order not to humiliate his lone rival Damask. Even so, he powered home by 15 lengths and broke the American record for a mile and a half.

Sam Riddle, Man o' War's owner, would later triumph in the 1925 and '26 Gold Cups with Altawood and Crusader, then again in 1938 with War Admiral, winner of the Triple Crown the previous year. Four Triple Crown winners have captured the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Eight horses have won multiple editions of the race.

But it was the mighty Kelso who owned the Jockey Club Gold Cup, run at 2 miles in those days. He notched five in a row on his way to five straight "Horse of the Year" titles from 1960 to 1964. Those triumphs (by a collective 28 lengths) were the equivalent of five consecutive victories in the Breeders' Cup Classic, a feat that surely will never be matched.

Legendary jockey Eddie Arcaro, who rode the horse in Kelso's early days of racing, once said, "Kelso can beat anything at any distance." Joe Hirsch, the dean of American turf writers, penned this memorable line from a story he wrote: "Once upon a time there was a horse named Kelso … but only once."

The homebred colt of Mrs. Allaire du Pont dropped into the world on April 4, 1957, at Claiborne's foaling barn in Kentucky. He was the leggy brown son of Your Host, a stakes winner of $385,000. His dam was Maid of Flight, a daughter of the 1943 Triple Crown winner Count Fleet. Kelso's earliest veterinarian/trainer, Dr. John Lee, recommended gelding the strong-willed horse that was known to buck for over a mile before commencing his workouts.

Carl Hanford took over the reins in January 1960. Now 94, the Hall of Fame trainer lives in a brick ranch house a few furlongs from Delaware Park. Three portraits of Kelso look down upon him. A mud-colored gelding, Kelso was battle tough, durable and relentless. No matter the distance, no matter the crushing weight, Kelso cocked his ears back and left his challengers in the dust. Blood-Horse magazine said: "no horse raced so good, for so long."

Kelso raced for eight years, winning 39 of 63 career starts. The only five-time Horse of the Year, Kelso set or equaled 15 track records. In 13 victories carrying 130 pounds or more, he conceded an average of 17 pounds to the runner-up horse -- that translates to a margin of a 10-length head start.

"Kelso was an extremely determined horse," recalls Hanford, flashing a grin. "If he saw a horse in front, he wanted to get to him. You could take him back or send him to the front. He was an extremely sound horse who was light on his feet with incredible balance. Kelso could wheel on a dime, spinning around in a circle never letting his feet touch each other."

Under Hanford's conditioning the feisty colt won eight of nine races as a 3-year-old in 1960. It was an era where top horses carried 130 or more pounds, while racing from spring through summer into mid-autumn.

On Oct. 29, 1960, the Aqueduct track was sloppy as eight of the finest distance runners in the country went to post in the Jockey Gold Cup. Kelso and Don Poggio ran in tandem for a half-mile heading into the far turn. By the quarter pole they were 7 lengths clear of the field. With 300 yards to go jockey Arcaro tapped Kelso twice with his whip. Kelso powered home, splashing to a resounding victory by 3½ lengths.

The official timekeeper did a double take. The lean, hard-muscled 3-year-old had galloped to the fastest 2 miles (3:19 2/5) in North American history, shattering the great Nashua's mark by a full second. Arcaro quipped: "At the end I was breathing harder than he was."

Three days later a handsome, young hero was elected America's 35th president. By the end of November Kelso was back at Mrs. du Pont's Woodstock Farm in Chesapeake City, Md. Turf writer Charles Hatton described racing's newest star: "Kelso scattered his presumptuous rivals like a fox scattering a barnyard of chickens, and broke or equaled (four) time marks with unpremeditated abandon."

Kelso went on to take the 1961, '62 and '63 editions of the Jockey Gold Cup by 5, 10 and 4 lengths respectively. As the years rolled by, Kelso even won over the hard-boiled railbirds of New York. In 1963, his fifth racing season, Kelso reeled off a string of seven major stakes victories carrying weights up to 134 pounds. During a stretch of four Saturdays, from July through October , crowds nearing 71,000 packed the grandstands at Aqueduct for each of his races. His rabid fans unfurled hand-painted signs and banners urging on "King Kelly" and the noise shook the rafters when he flashed past the wire.

In 1964 race fans jammed Aqueduct to say farewell to their personal champion. At age 7, Kelso confronted his stiffest challenge yet in the Jockey Gold Cup. The top 3-year-olds in training, Quadrangle and Roman Brother, entered the starting gates along with a trio of turf specialists. Kelso snatched the lead going into the far turn with Roman Brother's long strides gobbling up ground in hot pursuit. Jockey Milo Valenzuela clucked softly in Kelso's ear and flashed his whip. Whoosh. By the quarter pole Roman Brother was cooked. Ears pricked, "Kelly" romped under the wire to a 5½-length victory.

Steam rising from his chest and loins in the winner's circle, Kelso had broken his own track record and posted a new world record (3:19 1/5) over a dirt track that still stands today. With his $70,000 payday Kelso assumed the mantle of the world's all-time money winner. He also surpassed the great Exterminator's record of four consecutive Jockey Gold Cup victories.

David Alexander of the Thoroughbred Record wrote: "We waited 40 years for Kelso. Nothing like him had been seen since Exterminator and Man o' War came close together … Kelso, on many counts, has been the greatest racehorse the American turf has ever known. The breed, I think, is gradually improving, but I doubt I'll see his likes again."

"He was absolutely phenomenal for all those years," reminisced Mrs. du Pont, who died in 2006 at age 92. "Winning all those stakes, breaking track records, Horse of the Year five times. It was a marvelous and very exciting time."

After seven years of racing Kelso went back to Woodstock Farm, where he retained a private mailbox that received bushels of fan letters from young schoolkids. The champion was turned out daily in his own eight-acre paddock. Within a couple of years, much to the amazement of her friends, Mrs. du Pont began riding Kelso at regional fox hunts, where she remembered him "jumping over fences just as if he had been doing it all his life." On other mornings her gentle hands guided the powerful racehorse as the pair hacked through the backwoods of Chesapeake City.

On Oct. 15, 1983, "Kelly" returned one final time to New York, the site of some of his greatest conquests. Kelso, age 26, was invited to lead the post parade for the 64th running of the Jockey Gold Cup. He was joined by Forego, the 1974 champion, for an appearance that raised funds for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. His Woodstock best pal Pete walked at Kelso's side.

On a sparkling autumn afternoon Kelso and Pete were saddled in the paddock. Led by the three retired geldings, 11 contestants paraded onto the track. A crowd of 32,493 roared with delight at Kelso's appearance. With a small yellow ribbon braided in his forelock, "Kelly" broke into a spry jog on the familiar track. After stopping to smell the flowers in the winner's circle, he walked off the track one final time.

Early the next morning, Kelso and Pete were shipped back to Woodstock. Late that afternoon in his paddock, Kelso was in severe distress with colic. At 6:50 p.m. his heart gave out and Kelso, considered by many the greatest racehorse in history, was gone.

"When he got to Belmont he was very excited, a lot was going on," recalls Lana du Pont Wright, Allaire's daughter. "I think that the excitement was just too much for him."

Kelso was buried the following morning behind the farm office. Today, a well-worn path leads to a shaded area identified by a circle of weathered Greek columns, majestic trees and variegated shrubs. It marks Kelso's final resting place and those of his sire and dam. A quote at the base of Kelso's granite marker simply says: "Where he gallops, the earth sings."

Terry Conway has been a regular contributor to The Blood-Horse magazine since 2003. He wrote a Sunday column on racing for several years for the Chester County (Pa.) daily newspaper and covers racing and the horse world for a number of regional magazines in the mid-Atlantic area. In addition, he has written many historical articles on the art world and business entrepreneurs for a variety of national and regional magazines. Contact Terry at tconway@terryconway.net