For the past 70 years, the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup have been proving grounds for a long list of Thoroughbred racing’s greatest champions.
Some horses, though, have transcended the sport’s most famous stages.
Horses like Kelso.
Kelso did not run in a single Triple Crown race and his legendary career ended some 18 years before the Breeders’ Cup started. Yet in eight years of racing, the gallant and durable gelding accomplished more than virtually any other horse in the modern era.
To omit him from a list of the top five horses of the 20th Century would make a mockery of the process. He was voted Horse of the Year in five straight years (1960-'64) – a feat no one has come close to matching. He won the prestigious Jockey Club Gold Cup five times. He captured the Woodward and Whitney Stakes three times apiece.
He matched or broke a track record 10 times, at distances ranging from two miles to a mile and an eighth, on dirt and turf, on dry tracks and in the slop.
When he retired in 1966, he left the racetrack as the sport’s all-time leader in earnings with $1,977,896 in purse money.
And he did it without the benefit of running in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont Stakes.
Like most Triple Crown heroes, Kelso’s career began at age 2.
Now trained by Carl Hanford, Kelso was a far different horse at 3 as he won his 1960 debut by 10 lengths and a subsequent allowance race at Aqueduct by 12 lengths. He then made his stakes debut in the rich $135,000 Arlington Classic, but was no factor in the race, finishing eighth in a field 12.
That would prove to be Kelso’s only misstep at 3 as he closed the year with six straight wins, capped by triumphs over older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Hawthorne Gold Cup.
He was so impressive and dominant that he was voted Horse of the Year and the champion 3-year-old.
At age 4 he remained as brilliant as ever, numbering the Metropolitan Handicap, Brooklyn Handicap, Suburban Handicap, Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup among his six wins as he registered 11 straight wins at one point.
Over the course of the next three years, Kelso remained the sport’s brightest star, racking up one major win after another, even though he often carried 130 pounds or more.
He raced only once at 9, finishing fourth, and then suffered a fractured sesamoid that brought an end to his glorious racing career.
He finished with a record of 39 wins from his 63 starts and was the sport’s all-time leading earner until 1979 when he was surpassed by Affirmed, a Triple Crown winner.
Kelso was voted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1967.
“Kelso was one of a kind,” said Hanford, who was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2006, mostly because of his success with Kelso. “There was never anything like him before and there has not been anything like him since. The way the game is today we will likely never see a horse have that kind of success for that long. They don’t make them like that anymore. In fact, they never did.”
In the end, there are probably a thousand words or more that can describe the greatness Kelso brought with him to the track. Yet the legendary Daily Racing Form columnist Joe Hirsch said it best about the grand gelding when he wrote a single sentence about him.
It read, “Once upon a time there was a horse named Kelso … but only once.”
Note: This story was originally published in 2016 and has been updated.
- Kelso carried 130 pounds or more 24 times, winning 13 times.
- Kelso was favored in 53 of his 63 starts.
- He set an American record for a mile and a half on turf when he won the 1964 Washington D.C. Invitational International in 2:23 4/5.
- Eleven days earlier, he set a world record for two miles on dirt with a time of 3:19 1/5 in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
- In 1961, he became the third horse to sweep the New York Handicap Triple of the Met Mile, Brooklyn and Suburban Handicaps.