The date was October 3, 1964. The United States was only days away from seeing Civil Rights champion, Dr. Martin Luther King become the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, while in the world of thoroughbred horse racing; a pair of fantastic rivals would do battle in their greatest contest. Kelso and Gun Bow never met before 1964, and would never meet again after that season, but over a four month stretch they would wage war in one of American racing's greatest rivalries.
Kelso was more than a thoroughbred champion, he was a national treasure. From 1960 through 1963, the great gelding had reigned supreme of the racing world and was rewarded with four consecutive Horse of the Year awards, but in 1964, and now seven years old, he found his most formidable challenger to date. Gun Bow was three years the champion's junior, and was at the peak of his athletic talent. Gun Bow's speed had already carried him to big wins in the San Fernando, Strub, San Antonio, Brooklyn, Whitney, and Washington Handicap, making him a huge threat to Kelso's stranglehold on America's top award.
Before their fourth and most thrilling match would happen, in the Woodward Stakes at Aqueduct, each horse accounted for one win against the other. In their first meeting, neither great runner would find the winner's circle as former champion Mongo edged out the high-weighted Kelso in the Monmouth Handicap, with Gun Bow checking in third. Things would be very different one week later, as Gun Bow crushed the Brooklyn field, including Kelso, by 12 lengths. In the process, his final time of 1:59 3/5 became the fastest 1 ¼ miles that ever had been run in New York at the time. In defense of Kelso's 5th place finish, he was compromised by banging his head on the starting gate before the running began. Their third match-up would give fans a taste of what would transpire in the Woodward. The nine furlong Aqueduct Handicap would see Kelso collar the favored Gun Bow on the far turn, before slowly wearing down his younger foe to win by a hard fought ¾ of a length.
If the Aqueduct Handicap provided drama, the Woodward proved to be an absolute spinetingler. Kelso, with regular rider Ismael Valenzuela in the irons, was sent of as the .95 favorite, while Gun Bow was well backed at 1.45-1. Adding some class to the five horse field was the Belmont and Travers winner Quadrangle. As expected, Walter Blum and Gun Bow went right to the lead, but Kelso and Valenzuela knew their task and went right after him.
Never far behind, Kelso joined Gun Bow in earnest on the far turn, and the battle was on. The three-year-old interloper, Quadrangle made a menacing move from the rail as the trio straightened out, but by the time they hit the 3/16th's pole, it was clear that it was to be a two horse race. Kelso edged in front from the outside, but Gun Bow was bold and determined on his inside. Those final 18 seconds or so would see nothing between the two, and the fans at Aqueduct would be treated to one of the greatest stretch duels ever seen. The challenger Gun Bow, outfitted with blinkers, was bobbing heads with the great champion as the two extended for the wire. The two hit the finish together and no one knew who had won, that's how close it was.
Close examination of the photo showed that the two warriors were about as close to a dead heat as could be, but in the end it did show one was ever so narrowly ahead of the other. After 1 ¼ miles of thrilling championship action, Gun Bow had won the Woodward by less than an inch.
The rivalry, and the honor of being named 1964 Horse of the Year for that matter, would be decided five weeks later in Laurel's DC International. The 1 ½ mile grass contest would go Kelso's way as the Bohemia Stable champion ran away to defeat Gun Bow by 4 ½ lengths. No one else in the topnotch international field would get closer than nine lengths to the runner-up that day, but it was all about the winner, as Kelso clinched a record that may never be matched. A five-time Horse of the Year, Kelso will never be forgotten. Gun Bow meanwhile, never was named champion, but he proved on several occasions to be Kelso's greatest rival, and on a memorable afternoon in October, he beat the champ in a race that should never be forgotten.