I was privileged to be invited to address a session of the International Breeders’ meeting in Los Angeles, and at an unforgettable dinner during the conference, I was seated between a Mr Taylor and a Mrs duPont, across the way from a Mr Kilroe. If only someone had told me beforehand that the gentleman on my left, who’d introduced himself as “Edmund”, was the iconic “E.P.” Taylor, breeder of the one-and-only Northern Dancer, not to mention Nijinsky, El Gran Senor and The Minstrel. I had no idea either, that the gentleman opposite me was Jimmy Kilroe, the legendary American handicapper. Mrs duPont was the widow of the French-American, Richard duPont of chemical manufacturing fame, but more importantly, she had been both the owner and breeder of the Hall Of Fame champion, Kelso. In later years, I was hosted by Richard duPont Jnr at the family’s French stud farm, the Haras du Victot, where the celebrated racehorses and one-time incumbents of the Summerhill stallion barn, Liloy and Mount Hagen, had spent their formative years.
But let’s not be distracted. Allaire duPont was a close friend of E.P. Taylor’s, and was instrumental in persuading Mr. Taylor (who incidentally bred the subsequent star in the Summerhill firmament, Northern Guest, as well) to establish the American branch of his Windfields Farm in the Chesapeake City precinct of Maryland. Among other things, E.P. Taylor had been the founder in Canada of what we know as Carling Breweries, and following his death, she was instrumental in having 2,500 acres (10 square kilometres) of his Maryland farm placed under permanent preservation rather than face subdivision into building lots by real estate developers.
There were many oddities in the story of Kelso. For one thing, he was a perfect gentleman but he was named for a lady. Mrs duPont was actually hoping for a filly when she bred Maid Of Flight to Your Host, as she wanted to name it for a friend, Kelso Everett, whom she considered the most perfect hostess she’d ever known. Whatever the outcome of the foal sired by Your Host, he or she was going to be Kelso, and when during his weaning and yearling days he failed to attain much size and was rather poor of stride, Mrs duPont feared she’d paid her friend a dubious compliment.
By the time of the summer of his three-year-old career, Kelso had found the feet of the consummate racehorse however, and he proceeded to win an unmatched five consecutive Horse Of the Year titles from 1960 through 1964, on the way beating more champions and Hall Of Fame performers than any other thoroughbred of the 20th century. In South African parlance, we’ve had our Kelsos too, the Rizas and the Sentinels, the Jet Masters and the Politicians, yet none of them (with the possible exception of Sentinel, who triumphed 30 times) ran as often, won as many races and carried the weight of our hero. Besides this, there was another oddity about the reception he received from the public right up to his sixth year at the races. Children hailed him as the one undoubted champion, sang his praises, formed a fan club and wrote him love letters. But children have always been more perceptive than adults. Hailed by The Blood-Horse as the fourth ranked horse of the century behind only Man o’ War, Secretariat and Citation, and despite five seasons of racing, four of them as brilliant as any horse had ever known, Kelso seemed to lack a valid legend with the race-going public.
Popular sentiment notwithstanding, his record recognised him as undoubtedly the greatest horse of his era; his extraordinary feat of 31 victories and nine seconds in 45 starts against the best horses and often under crushing weights through 1963, demanded that. Whenever he went to post the public paid him the compliment of backing him down to unbettable odds; they applauded him politely when he justified their confidence with his typical clock-work performances. Yet it was respect rather than adulation that Kelso commanded, it was his record of accomplishment rather than Kelso-the-horse that appealed most to racing fans. He had yet to stir the wild frenzy in the stands behind the gaudy mystique of a Man o’ War, the knight in golden armour 43 years before, nor had he achieved the Paul Bunyanish folk hero status of the rangy, knobbly exterminator.
At seven in the 1964 season, Kelso appeared in the most glowing health of his career, yet in statistical terms it was the worst of his glory years. He won just five of his eleven starts, only three in Stakes company, and it seemed that Father Time had finally deputised the little Mexican boy, Ismael Valenzuela, in Kelso’s saddle. Strangely enough though, this was also the season when the little fellow came into his own, when the public finally took him to heart, when rafter-shaking salutations greeted him in place of the polite applause. When Kelso become beloved rather than respected.
In accounting for this quirk of mass psychology, we’re reminded of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France. If you remember, Louis was smitten by a young lady of the court with a mole on her cheek. Her jealous counterparts who’d once known the kingly favour, mocked the taste of a monarch who’d fallen for a girl with a mole. The boldest of his castoff mistresses asked the king what it was that had drawn him to a subject of her complexion. “You should know, my dear,” he replied, “there can be no beauty without a blemish; perfection requires a defect for the sake of contrast”. We all know now, that henceforward the French court was decorated by ladies with “beauty spots” on their cheeks.
What Kelso had lacked all along was this chink in his armour. He’d been beaten before, but only once early in his career had he been beaten as badly as he was in 1964. Now at last, Kelso was suddenly the most popular horse the sport of racing had ever known. Not even ribby old Exterminator, who’d acquired so many blemishes in his long years on the turf, or the magnificent Man ‘o War who attained his vital defect behind Upset, or Secretariat who went down to, of all names, Onion in the Travers at Saratoga, had known such adulation.
There was something human about Kelso who despite the coddling, had always shown signs of misgivings and insecurity. When he found himself in a strange land with an unfamiliar climate, on a track with a fluffy surface sown with rice hulls for cushioning and drainage, he was like one of us when we’re uprooted from home in a strange country with strange customs. It isn’t correct, really, to say he ran poorly in those two races at Hollywood Park in 1964. For the first time in his life, Kelso simply refused to run at all. He was on strike. And when he came back to winning form, he won, but he didn’t win like Kelso. His stride was faulty, and when at the six-furlong pole where he customarily began his great surges, he looked like an aging actor who knew his lines well, but had lost his fire. It was the pattern of a well-rehearsed performance, going through the motions where the motions were just enough.
From June to early September, his performances were more of the “manic” than the man we’d come to know, up one day and down the next, and it’s strange how often it is that horses are remembered as much for their courage in defeat as they are for their talent in victory. Golden Sword in the English Derby, Traffic Guard in the Champion Stakes and Kelso in the Suburban, where the famed racing official, Jack Campbell, described it as one of those contests that make you wonder whether there is anything on earth better than a good horse race. At a mile-and-a-quarter, the Suburban lasted for a clock-tick more than two minutes, and those two minutes and a clock-tick were packed with heartbreak, wild surging hope and finally, with the exultation of the human spirit which nothing, regardless of its duration, can ordinarily inspire. By contrast with the sensationally quick English four-year-old Iron Peg, Kelso shouldered the burden of 131lbs against the challenger’s 116lbs. He covered 79,200 inches of ground and he lost by twelve inches, the estimated length of an average horse’s head. Twelve inches passed the post he was in front by three, the estimated length of a horse’s nose.
Like that day when Igugu turned for home in the J&B Met, it was clear from the silence in the crowd that they’d sensed something was happening. With destiny in his grasp and indulging the exhausted Olden Times no longer, Iron Peg, fresh and determined, had put a day’s light between himself and the field. That’s when his jockey saw what was happening: Kelso was Kelso again. No longer the kinks in his stride or the flaws in his action. The Old Man was running like the champion he’d always been, gaining not inch by inch but foot by foot and Manni Ycaza, who’d thought it was over in favour of his steed at the quarter pole, suddenly discovered it was only just beginning. His whip came down on Iron Peg’s hide, stinging him into the realisation that this was no longer a boy’s game, that he was with men now, and specifically with the greatest old man of them all.
Editor’s note: Anyone familiar with the trophy and memorabilia cabinets in the Hall of Fame at the School Of Excellence, will know the picture of Northern Guest as a foal of 5 weeks. It was taken the day he became the first horse of his age to be syndicated for $1million, and was a gift to the Summerhill team, the last gesture of generosity of E.P. Taylor to his fellow horseman before a stroke finally robbed the great man of his faculties.
The Horseracing Vault (p)