Flashback: The great Kelso ends his D.C. International drought

By Keeler Johnson, Special to HRN
September 17, 2019 09:45am

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. And if the third time isn’t the charm, buckle down and give it a fourth go.

In the autumn of 1964, there were some who believed Father Time had finally caught up with the aging gelding Kelso. Through a glorious career spanning six seasons, the 7-year-old handicapper had achieved the unprecedented feat of winning four consecutive Horse of the Year titles. At one time or another he’d won virtually every major race for older males on the East Coast, many of them multiple times.

But there was one prestigious prize that had eluded Kelso: the Washington D.C. International at Laurel Park. A predecessor to the Breeders’ Cup Turf, the International was a 1 ½-mile grass race that annually attracting a top-class international field. Kelso, being at his best on dirt, was never quite at home over the unfamiliar Laurel turf course, but time and time again his raw talent placed him on the verge of reaching the winner’s circle.

Three times, Kelso had contested the International. Three times, he’d come up second-best in admirable, but ultimately losing efforts. Grass champion T. V. Lark ran 1 ½ miles in the course record time of 2:26 1/5 to edge Kelso by three-quarters of a length in 1961. The following year, Kelso led into the stretch of a soft, rain-soaked course, but was passed late by the excellent French classic winner Match II. In 1963, he came up a half-length short of catching grass champion Mongo after an epic battle down the homestretch.

With this history in mind, it seemed even less likely that Kelso would prevail in the 1964 International. His season had largely been a frustrating one; just two weeks before the November 11 International, Kelso had only a single stakes victory to his credit, and he’d been beaten fairly and squarely by younger rival Gun Bow in the October 3 Woodward Stakes.

Gun Bow, a 4-year-old, had previously nabbed victories in the Washington Handicap, Whitney Stakes, and Brooklyn Handicap, emerging as the front-runner for Horse of the Year honors. The only hope for Kelso to keep his Horse of the Year streak alive was to turn the tables on Gun Bow in the International, the race that had been his Achilles’ heel for so many years.

With this formidable task on the horizon, Kelso prepped for the showdown with a fifth consecutive victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, then held over two miles. This was a big return to form, as Kelso clocked the distance in the American record time of 3:19 1/5 while easily defeating Belmont Stakes winner Quadrangle and future 1965 Horse of the Year Roman Brother.

Thus, the stage was set for a Horse of the Year showdown in the Washington D.C. International. Although the field was deep, with runners representing Italy, France, Venezuela, Russia, Ireland and Japan shipping in to challenge, the International proved to be a match race between the two American heavyweights.

Right from the start, Gun Bow threw down a stiff challenge to Kelso. Sprinting to the front through increasingly testing fractions of :24 flat, :46 4/5, and 1:10 2/5, the young upstart dared the reigning Horse of the Year to match strides in a bold game of “catch me if you can.”

Kelso, to his credit, stayed in touch under urging from regular rider Ismael Valenzuela, sitting in second place until asked to challenge on the final turn. The race was on as Kelso edged closer to Gun Bow, finally reaching even terms.

“Into the far turn they went, head-and-head and shoulder-to-straining-shoulder, Kelso on the outside and Gun Bow on the rail,” wrote Gene Ward in the New York Daily News of November 12, 1964.

Perhaps Kelso realized he wasn’t getting any younger and wouldn’t get another chance at the International. Or maybe he was just feeling good on the day and relishing the Laurel turf, which was harder and faster than usual. In any case, Kelso elected to shake things up and depart from the script he’d faithfully followed for three straight years. No longer would Kelso play the role of a courageous runner-up. He shook off the shackles of seconditis to play the hero instead.

Bidding a not-so-fond farewell to Gun Bow, Kelso accelerated. He flashed past the quarter pole in 2:00 flat, faster than he’d ever run in the Washington D.C. International, and Gun Bow couldn’t offer a response. Down the homestretch Kelso extended his superiority over Gun Bow in the race to the wire and the race to Horse of the Year honors, charging triumphantly across the finish line 4 ½ lengths in front.

“There was a roar from the thousands as the world’s richest race horse thundered under the wire,” wrote Ward. Kelso had turned back the clock both literally and figuratively; his final time of 2:23 4/5 shattered the course record and broke the American record for 1 ½ miles by three-fifths of a second.

Although the jockey of Gun Bow lodged an objection, his claim was dismissed and Kelso — who will have a race run in his name Saturday at Belmont Park — finally entered the history books as a winner of the Washington D.C. International. Writers and analysts united in praising his tremendous performance and declared with confidence that Kelso’s triumph had settled the battle for Horse of the Year.

Indeed, when the ballots were counted, the aging superstar was rewarded with a fifth consecutive Horse of the Year title. All because perseverance pays off and the fourth time was finally charm for the gallant gelding who kept on trying and trying again.

J. Keeler Johnson is a writer, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. You can follow him on Twitter at @J_Keelerman.


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