When Kelso came to Keeneland 50 years ago this month, he was pampered to the hilt.
The Thoroughbred champion drank Arkansas spring water. He slept on sugar cane fibers rather than hay because they stayed "dry and springy longer," according to The New York Times.
He munched on sugar cubes individually wrapped in special paper bearing his name and picture.
And his "pet," a mongrel dog named Charlie Potatoes, guarded him; the mutt slept in his stall and barked at the slightest provocation.
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Such were the accommodations made for a millionaire, and millionaires expect to be pampered. To quote the Keeneland program for April 21, 1965, Kelso was the "world's leading money winner."
Kelso's lifetime earnings at that point had topped $1.8 million. When he retired in 1966, his earnings exceeded $1.97 million — a record that would stand until 1979, when Affirmed became the first $2 million earner.
But the purpose of Kelso's visit to Keeneland wasn't to add to his winnings. Instead, he came to raise money for research into better health for horses. Lexington was one stop on a tour that included Churchill Downs and other tracks.
So the dark bay or brown gelding didn't race that day. In fact, his best racing days were behind him.
But that didn't matter to Heather Noble, a teenage girl from Alexandria, Va. As the founder of Kelsoland, a national fan club for the horse, she made a giant, homemade greeting card and mailed it to Keeneland days before his appearance there.
"Greatest of the Great, our 'Kel,'" read the card made from a large brown paper bag.
All this might seem over the top to casual racing fans who are more familiar with names like Secretariat or Man o' War.
But Kelso was one of the great athletes of the 1960s. He was named Horse of the Year five consecutive years, from 1960 to 1964, the only horse to be named that many times.
Furthermore, Kelso won the two-mile Jockey Gold Cup five consecutive times, a feat that would be the racing equivalent of five consecutive victories in today's Breeders' Cup Classic, "a feat not likely — at any distance — to be repeated," wrote Linda Kennedy in her 2007 book Kelso: The Horse of Gold.
None of this was anticipated when Kelso was foaled in 1957 at Claiborne Farm in Bourbon County.
He was born to Maid of Flight, daughter of the 1943 Triple Crown winner Count Fleet and granddaughter of Man o' War. She had been bred to Your Host, a California sprinter who stood at stud after breaking a leg.
Owner Allaire du Pont, widow of a pilot who died in Europe during World War II, named the foal after her friend, Kelso Everett, the wife of Charles Everett and a prominent social figure in Delaware. Du Pont called both the friend and the horse "Kelly."
Despite the greatness in his pedigree, Kelso was gelded because he was scrawny, and it was hoped that this "unkindest cut of all," to use sportswriter Red Smith's phrase, would help him to fill out a bit more. Gelding also puts a horse's mind on running and not love, and supposedly makes the animal more manageable, although Kelso kept his cantankerous ways into retirement.
Kelso also had a thin neck, was poorly balanced, and walked with his hind legs so close together it looked though he was walking a tightrope. But what he lacked in looks he more than overcame on the track.
"He's no pin-up horse," trainer Carl Hanford acknowledged. "He's just a doer. He's the doingest horse I ever saw."
Whitney Tower wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1961 that Kelso "does not look impressive until he begins moving. Then the beautiful rhythm and smooth action immediately stamp him an individual with unique class."
Because he was too undeveloped and began training too late for the Triple Crown races, Kelso missed the 1960 Kentucky Derby won by Venetian Way. Nevertheless, his career took off in the early 1960s under the experienced guidance of jockey Eddie Arcaro, who won the Triple Crown twice.
After Kelso won the 1961 Woodward Stakes at Belmont, Arcaro told Tower: "I'm not kidding. I think he may be as great as Citation. ... If Kelso goes on winning like this, I'd have to say he's as good as Citation — and I never thought I'd be saying that about any horse." (Years later Aracaro would say, "Citation was the best 3-year-old I ever rode. Kelso was the best horse of any age.")
Because he hadn't had a moment of glory on the strength of a single victory like the Derby or Preakness, the general public didn't realize his greatness until he was an "older" horse at age 4. But over his career he won 39 times, came in second 12 times, and third twice. That's 53 times in the money in 63 starts.
In 50 stakes races, he was passed in the stretch only once, Kennedy notes in her book.
The Keeneland stop was also significant in that Kelso had not been in Kentucky since shortly after he was foaled. He was a "New York horse" because he primarily raced at Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga.
During that visit to Keeneland, Kelso went onto the track to be cheered by fans. Trainer Hanford recalled how Kelso was itching to compete during these track appearances on the tour to raise money for equine research.
"Every time he went out on the track in public, he thought he was going to the post again," Hanford said. "He'd look around for the other horses, and he'd get mad as hell when he didn't see any. He wanted something to beat."
When he retired in 1966 after injuring his right front foot, Kelso was about $22,000 short of becoming the first horse with $2 million in lifetime earnings.
Retirement in Maryland was easy. Fan letters from all over the world — including from a woman living behind the Iron Curtain in Poland — were delivered to a large mailbox at the du Pont farm. He even had an understudy, a horse of similar color, that stood in the stall to pose for tourists as the real Kelso got some rest.
In 1967, du Pont had a former dressage champion train Kelso to be a show jumper. He gave a demonstration at "National Steeplechase Day" at Saratoga, and won a number of ribbons as a jumper.
Kelso's last time in the public eye came on Oct. 15, 1983, when he and two other famous geldings — Forego and John Henry — led the parade to the post at Belmont Park.
He died the next day of colic; he was 26. His granite marker in Maryland reads, "Where he gallops, the earth sings."
Kelso is still a favorite among racing fans today. A Facebook page is devoted to his career. He ranks third in Horseracingnation.com's list of the top 250 Thoroughbreds of all time, based on U.S. horses that are no longer active. Only Secretariat and Man o' War rank higher.
The Daily Racing Form's Joe Hirsch summed it up the best: "Once upon a time there was a horse named Kelso, but only once."