Racing History: Kelso Had A Career After The Track, Too - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Racing History: Kelso Had A Career After The Track, Too

Kelso parades at Keeneland in April 1965 to raise money for equine research

Most people remember the great Kelso for the impressive numbers he racked up in his lengthy career as a racehorse – five Horse of the Year titles, just shy of $2 million in earnings, eight track records set or equaled, and stakes wins carrying as much as 136 pounds in an eight-season career with 31 stakes victories. But he was also one of the earliest ambassadors to bridge the gap between the racetrack and the sport horse world.

As 1965 drew to a close, owner Allaire du Pont began fielding questions about whether the popular gelding would campaign in 1966, which would be his 9-year-old season. He had picked up a record five divisional championships; his stock with fans was at an all-time high, as he reportedly received hundreds of fan letters (in a mailbox marked with his name) to his home base at Woodstock Farm near Chesapeake City, Md. He even had his own rallying cry and nickname – “Come on, Kelly!”

“He is one of the few performers of outstanding class who has had the color and vitality to overcome the American cult of the underdog and become a mass idol,” wrote Betty Moore of Kelso in the Morning Telegraph in November 1964. “That he has succeeded, no one who heard the roars, the whistles and the applause that greeted him both before and after the race could doubt. Kelso can never again enter a paddock without an ovation. The public has adopted him.”

Du Pont must have had an inkling in late 1965 that the book was about to close on Kelso's race career, because as she accepted his fifth Horse of the Year trophy, she made the announcement that Kelso's next career had already been planned. She anticipated racetracks around the country would host “Kelso Days” where fans could come see the beloved Thoroughbred parade. Tracks would be required to pledge some of the proceeds to be divided evenly between the Grayson Foundation of Kentucky and the New Bolton Center of Kennett Square.

“Every cent would go to equine research,” she said in a United Press International report. “Much of the future of racing's success depends on how thoughtfully all of us in racing safeguard the health of the thousands of new foals appearing every year. Therefore if you people of America's track are willing to pledge your support for this important cause, Kelso stands ready to pledge his best effort. Kelso hopes you feel as strongly about the project as he does.”

As it happened, Kelso made just one start in 1966 before retiring due to an injury sustained in a workout. No matter – he was soon on to the next phase of his life.

He had actually paraded for fans before retirement, in spring 1965 to raise money for veterinary research, which may be where du Pont got the idea to make it a regular thing after retirement. He paraded for fans after the fourth race at Keeneland on April 21 that year as part of a tour that also included Churchill Downs and Laurel Park. His first fundraiser post-retirement was an on National Steeplechase Day at Saratoga in August of 1967, where a crowd of 16,536 gathered to see him.

During his charity tours, Kelso was said to travel with Arkansas spring water that cost $5 a bottle, a personal security detail in a dog named Charlie Potatoes, and took sugar cane fiber to each new barn for his bedding. He was fed sugar cubes that came wrapped in paper bearing his name and picture.

“The gelding usually traveled with an understudy too, who was a horse of similar color that stood in Kelso's stall to pose for tourists while Kelso took a rest,” wrote Maryjean Wall in the Lexington Herald-Leader in 1983.

But he wasn't just a parade pony. In his breaks from the racetrack, du Pont routinely took him for hacks around Woodstock, sometimes riding herself and other times riding out on one of her other Thoroughbreds while regular exercise rider Dick Jenkins piloted Kelso.

The same year he retired, du Pont contacted former national junior dressage champion Alison Cram and asked if she would help retrain him officially as a sporthorse. Cram happily accepted, and prepared a little routine for him to exhibit in his first appearance at Saratoga, with a short dressage presentation and jumper course of fences set up on the track. He knocked rails on two, but still left the track to a standing ovation.

Kelso stands with his connections at Keeneland after his parade for charity in 1965

Cram continued her work with him and continued to perform demonstrations of both disciplines with him during his track appearances. She even brought him to the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden and the National Horse Show in D.C. When he wasn't delighting racing audiences, he and du Pont would participate in fox hunts at Fair Hill, staying in one of the slower flights so he wouldn't get competitive and overmatch his rider.

“He's very, very intelligent and amazingly quiet for having had such a long racing career,” Cram told The Canadian Horse in 1967. “After three weeks, he was cantering 3-foot-6 fences easily. His legs are also amazing. They are perfect; he never had to be pinfired.

“He stands quietly while I mount and the only time he isn't perfectly quiet is when some horses breeze by on the race track near our training area.

“The only problem I had with him at first was that he had a kink in his neck and carried his head to one side. That probably was from constantly working in a counter-clockwise direction on the track. I suppled him up each day and he finally accepted the bit. Then I had something to push him into and now his head carriage is correct.”

Despite his doting care, Kelso wasn't exactly a cuddly sort. Articles written about him after his retirement warned readers he could be downright mean, quick to bite, and also, rather gratuitously, complained he had gotten fat in his older age. Under saddle though, he was a quick study, with Cram anticipating in his first show season that he would compete in the 3'6 hunters, with the potential to move up to 3'9 jumps in green hunter classes the following year, and the ultimate goal of doing the open hunters, where the fences could rise to four feet.

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It's easy to draw comparisons between Kelso's racetrack demonstrations and the early days of the Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium. Although it's now known as a multi-day competition for riders of freshly-retired racehorses, the event started out as an exhibition for a small number of riders at Pimlico to demonstrate what Thoroughbreds could learn in a short time.

But Kelso's work was not so much designed to convince people to look for off-track Thoroughbreds for their next sport horse mount. In his day, Thoroughbreds were more popular for that purpose than they are now. Still, he showed the average race goer that the breed is capable of a lot more than just racing – they could learn other skills and even help their brethren.

It seems no one kept a particular record of the total funds Kelso raised for equine research. Du Pont wrote a book about her journey with him, with proceeds going to the two research organizations. She titled it 'Where He Gallops, the Earth Sings' which would later be inscribed on his headstone.

Coverage of his show career trailed off after Kelso's first season, so it's hard to know how he fared on the Maryland show circuit. In his late teens, he began to be bothered by arthritis and was largely taken out of routine ridden work. He made one more appearance for his public at the age of 26, leading the post parade for John Henry's 1983 Jockey Club Gold Cup to thunderous applause alongside Forego. He died of a heart attack the following day at Woodstock.

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