The passing of Hall of Fame trainer Carl Hanford brought to mind fond recollections of Kelso, a horse who raced before my time, but one that makes my top 10 list of those whose exploits I wish I could have witnessed firsthand.
Of all his achievements, winning the 2-mile long Jockey Club Gold Cup five consecutive times arguably best demonstrates Kelso’s greatness, but he also often took on the best turf horses as well, epitomized by his three second-place finishes (1961-63) in the Washington D.C. International—before capturing the 12-furlong event in 1964, in a new American record time. On his excellent blog Colin’s Ghost, Kevin Martin wrote about Kelso’s performances in the International, and it’s well worth re-reading if you missed it the first time around. The conclusion of the race is viewable below:
Like Seabiscuit before him, Kelso was a mega-star, even inspiring a pre-teen girl named Heather Noble to form a fan club dedicated to him. The Kelsolanders (doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like Zenyatta, does it?) wore Bohemia Stable’s yellow and gray colors, and followed him all over the country whenever he ran. Here’s a link to a February 27, 1966 Parade article by John Devaney on Kelso’s legion of fans, and below is a photo of Heather Noble with her hero. His connections even named Kelso’s half-sister after his biggest fan. Now, that’s the kind of passion we need more today! I wonder whatever happened to Heather Noble; did she grow up to be a life-long horse racing fan?
Before Kelso made his first International attempt in 1961, Sports Illustrated did a cover story on the 4-year-old reigning Horse of the Year (surprisingly, the only time he made the cover), and for several reasons the accompanying article by Whitney Tower is intriguing. First, it highlights a fact that those knowledgeable of racing history already know—before the Breeders’ Cup, there were races that clearly stood out as championship-caliber events, but it also took a body of work to crown a champion:
If there were such an event as the world championship horse race, only three classics around the globe could rightfully contend for this honorary title. They are the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes in mid-July at Ascot, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in early October at Longchamp and the Washington D.C. International at Laurel on Veterans Day. All three are run over the mile-and-a-half distance and over the internationally accepted grass surface.
On performance alone it would be hard to pick against Kelso next week. Some few do not like his chances because this will be his first start on a grass track...As a matter of fact, Kelso’s accomplishments have been so outstanding this year (seven wins in eight starts) that he has already earned our Horse of the Year title for the second season in a row—no matter how he fares at Laurel.
You’ve got to love the sporting attitude of his owner Allaire du Pont who justified her entering of Kelso in the International by saying:
Kelso has already proved he can run any distance from sprints to two miles. He has proved he can carry all the weight in the world. To those who claim that Kelso has yet to prove he can handle all kinds of tracks I say that we’ll run at Laurel and show that the grass won’t make any difference to him.
We rarely find that kind of daring in today’s owners. Jess Jackson was such a man. So too is Rick Porter, whose Eight Belles took on the boys in the 2008 Kentucky Derby and recently stated the Breeders’ Cup Classic is the ultimate goal of his talented filly Havre de Grace. How great is it that both she and Blind Luck regularly knock heads? This is exactly the kind of rivalry that horse racing needs, tapping into fans’ deepest passions for truly competitive racing.
In that 1961 SI article, I also found this passage of particular interest:
When Comte d’Ornano was advised that foreign horses seem unable to make much of an impression at Laurel unless they are fitted to American shoes with calks or toes (disallowed in France) he replied, “People who have raced at Laurel have told me the same thing. For your type of course and with the predominance of speed in your races, it is probably true that unless a European horse is five or six lengths the best of his field, he should wear American plates at Laurel. Misti will wear them."
This past weekend, Euro trainer Aidan O’Brien shipped in Cape Blanco and Treasure Beach to capture the Arlington Million and Secretariat, respectively. Both raced on Lasix for the first time—a fact that the industry press was quick to point out, as if somehow O’Brien’s capitulation was either a ringing endorsement for Lasix use, or it epitomized the hypocrisy of Europeans’ continuing condemnation of American drug use in racing. As noted in the earlier quoted passage, it’s not a new phenomenon that folks recognize when an advantage is had, and will do everything in their power to negate that advantage whenever necessary to win. Today it’s still-legal drugs; then it was toe calks. C'est la vie!