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Podcast #30: BOOK READING: Kelso
Podcast Date:
11-15-2008
File Size: 9.9MB
Download File

This is a reading from my book Rascals and Racehorses.

Having always said how fruitless it is to evaluate racehorses, I am now going to evaluate one.

His name was Kelso, and he was the best horse that ever looked through a bridle! To me.

He could do it all, and he did it for so long. There was no question with him about what he should have done or what he would have done. By God, he did it from the time he was three to when he finally quit at age nine-capable even in his twilight years of beating top horses.

He was voted Horse of the Year five straight years.

He sprinted with the sprinters, and he stayed with the stayers. Kelso carried weight-130 or better twenty-four times! He ran on dirt, in the mud, on the turf, and he didn't give a damn whose racetrack he was asked to run on. He ran in Illinois, New Jersey, California, Florida, Maryland, and of course, New York. And he was absolute murder everywhere. When you asked Kelso the questions, he provided the answer!

I first saw Kelso when he was wintering in Aiken in 1964. Anne and I came over from Atlanta with my mother and father. We had read that the great horse, then seven, would work a half-mile for the public during the Aiken Trials, a delightful exhibition day of racing. On the deep Aiken track, where a half-mile in :49 is noteworthy, the old boy cruised in an eye-popping :47.

Part if his charm was his looks. He didn't take your breath away. He was no matinee idol-just a plain brown wrapper. He stood a solid sixteen hands. His head was decent, a trifle too long perhaps, but Kelso's eye was the beacon of his class and quality. And from a conformation standpoint, he would have been unspectacular but awfully hard to fault.

The horse had been gelded at two, when he was on his obstreperous way to being a useless rogue. He was a poster boy for castration. Gelding him saved the day, but he never lost him impish, independent streak. This was demonstrated at the 1964 Washington, D.C., International. Each of the horses had been given a blanket emblazoned with the flag of the nation he was representing, and their connections were asked to bring the horses over from the barns properly adorned. It was part of the wonderful pageantry of that particular race.

Kelso did not care for his blanket. I can see him now, walking down the stretch, wheeling, kicking, and raising hell. Finally, before he "left his race" on the route to the paddock, his handlers removed the blanket, and he walked in to be saddled with complete aplomb.

That may have been the best horse race I have ever witnessed. It was Kelso's fourth attempt to win this mile and a half race on the turf. The horse was now seven, and some said he was past his prime. The ingredients made for an event loaded with drama.

One of the great handicappers of the era was the swashbuckling Gun Bow, who had taken Kelso's measure in both the Brooklyn Handicap and the Woodward Stakes earlier in the fall. Gun Bow, a four-year-old at the top of his game, was also representing America in this race.

And it was strictly a two-horse race. Kelso went off at 1.20 to the dollar and Gun Bow at 1.50. Why was Kelso the shorter price? Because he got good in the fall, and the race was in "Kelly's" hometown, where he had a pretty big fan club.

No fan was more avid than I, so I went to Washington for the race.

Laurel Race Course was packed that day in 1964. Seats were long since sold out, so I tipped an usher five dollars to let me stand in the aisle behind a finish line box. I'm sure I was far more nervous than Kelso's owner, trainer, or jockey.

It was thrilling to see that fine field of racehorses, representing Russia, Ireland, France, Venezuela, Italy, Japan, and of course, America.

In those days the International used the walk-up start to accommodate the foreigners, and when the field broke, in a pretty-orderly manner, it quickly became a two-horse race. Gun Bow powered his way to the lead under Walter Blum, and Kelso stalked a length or two behind him.

They stayed that way for six furlongs. But with the second six furlongs left, Kelso and Milo Valenzuela said to hell with this-let's put him to the test. Kelly ranged up and looked Gun Bow in the eye. Both horses quickened. Gun Bow was not going to relinquish the lead (and he had been running along so easily). Now Kelso had committed and was ready for a long, desperate battle.

By the time they hit the midway point on the backstretch, both great horses had been set down for the drive. What ensued was one hellacious horse race. The crowd went absolutely berserk.

Now, I have always had an unfortunate reflex that kicks in during moments of viewing thrilling physical endeavors. I scream out the oath "goddamn." Not admirable, I know, but if I get stirred up enough, it will happen. I was - at this point - stirred up.

Standing next to me was a man who felt very strongly about Gun Bow. I didn't particularly care, but just through the osmosis of standing together for several hours, I knew he was a Gun Bow believer and learned he had come down from New York especially for the race. Conversely, he had to know that I supported Kelso.

With the gauntlet having been thrown down at the three-quarters pole and both horses going at it tooth and nail, this man and I engaged in a weird sort of subconscious dialog that neither of us knew was happening.

As Gun Bow fought to repulse the relentless Kelso, the man would scream out this wishful message, "He's hooked him, but he can't handle him!"

I came back with, "Goddamn, Kelly-you got him now!"

And so it went. The two indomitable warriors were locked in grim combat for a gut-wrenching half-mile, neither giving an inch.

"He's hooked him. But he can't handle him!"

"Goddamn, Kelly-you got him now!"

Something had to give, and Gun Bow did. In mid-stretch, Milo asked Kelso for his life, and the old horse reached back and laid it on the line. It was as if Kelso were saying to Gun Bow, "You'd better put your heart in God…cause your ass is mine!"

Gun Bow cracked. It was Kelso's day. He exuberantly poured it on through the stretch, as if he knew this might be his greatest racing day, and perhaps his last racing day.

He went on to win by four and a half lengths in a new American record time.

Both the Gun Bow man and I were exhausted, wrung out. With no words exchanged before, we were now somehow like old friends. He muttered, "Some damned horse!" We smiled at each other vaguely, stuck out our hands for a shake, and then went our separate ways.

Kelso had hooked him, but he could handle him.

This is Cot Campbell and this is my view.

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