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Kelso: Small body, world-class influence on racing

By Staff | Mar 1, 2019

SHEPHERDSTOWN – Kelso, or as his legion of fans called him, “Kelly,” raced for eight seasons.

Many talent thoroughbreds of today don’t even race one full season, two at the most.

He was gelded, because his behavior would never earn him a gold star. After being gelded, it seemed that he might run forever . . . and win forever.

Much of his on-track career came only after the three Triple Crown races had already been contested when he was age three.

But his consistency, ability to carry even 136 pounds to victory and bravery made him a fan favorite for many years.

When he was finally retired after suffering a hairline fraction of a sesamoid bone in one leg, Kelso had beaten more champions and Hall of Fame thoroughbreds than any other race horse in the 20th century.

Foaled in 1959, Kelso marched up-hill to five Horse of the Year awards, retiring with nine track records still on the books.

A much-admired reason he was so popular with fans was because he toted 130 pounds or more in 24 of his 63 lifetime races.

At his retirement, his earnings were $1,977,896 and no thoroughbred had ever nailed down as much money in winnings. It was another 14 years until Affirmed passed his monetary figure.

A smallish product of undistinguished breeding, Kelso’s cantankerous behavior was made worse by his unruly nature and less-than-muscular stance. But nobody ever tried measuring his heart or competitive spirit.

Early in his career he was trained by Carl Hanford, a patient sort who didn’t quit training until he was 95.

Before Hanford came to his rescue, Kelso ran three times as a still-learning two-year-old.

Hanford was the caretaker when Kelso was voted the country’s Three-Year-Old Champion and American Horse of the Year.

It was as if Kelso had bitten the flourishes on the Horse of the Year trophy, because he didn’t let go of it until he had been given that prestigious award for five-straight years.

As a champion older horse, he entered the handicap ranks and drew even more followers to his much-decorated corner, by winning many races while carrying 20-or-more pounds than his competition.

Throughout all those seasons when Kelso was piling up records and awards, he once strung together 11 straight victories.

His 39 wins, 12 seconds and two show finishes were neatly arranged alongside five-straight successes in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, three wins in the Woodward Stakes and three wins in the Whitney Stakes.

After he was forced off the track by the hairline fracture, writer Joe Hirsch said, “Once upon a time there was a horse named Kelso. But only once.”

A gilt-edged poll of trainers, owners, jockeys, writers and industry veterans ranked Kelso the fourth-best thoroughbred of all time behind only Man O’ War, Secretariat and Citation.

Five Horse of the Year Awards is a record, which will likely stand forever. A nice epitaph for a bony little bad boy who couldn’t do much other than keep on winning for eight seasons on the track.