After the Racetrack: Kelso Was Brilliant On and Off the Track
Kelso’s story has a beginning but it has no end, for I know his name will remain ever green as long as there are horses and people who love them.
-Marion du Pont
The phenomenon of retraining retired Thoroughbreds for new jobs in their post-racing years is not new: even old Jim Dandy, the gelding that defeated Gallant Fox in the 1930 Travers Stakes, spent his later years as a jumper and dressage horse in California. Three decades later, another gelding followed up his time on the racetrack with turns in the ring: Kelso.
Best known for his long career at the top of the sport in the 1960s, this legend owned by an experienced equestrienne sailed into retirement and his second life with ease, showing the same consistency and excellence that had earned him a place in the sport’s Hall of Fame.
Once Upon a Time
Allaire du Pont had loved horses since her earliest years. Gifted a pony by her grandfather, she competed in horse shows and foxhunts as a young woman, later becoming Master of the Foxhounds at a Maryland club. Marriage to du Pont heir and businessman Richard du Pont and parenting two young children did not slow her down: she flew gliders, as her husband did, and continued to hunt over the land they bought near the Bohemia River in Maryland. Seven years after Richard’s death in 1943, du Pont started a breeding and racing stable with a few broodmares. She sent one of those, Maid of Flight, to Your Host, a stallion with an impeccable English pedigree and a will to live that saw him through a serious ulna fracture that nearly cost him his life. The result was a colt named Kelso.
Before he entered a starting gate, though, the young horse was gelded to control his cantankerous personality and to encourage him to grow out of his scrawny physique. At two, he started three times, breaking his maiden in his first start, but showed little of what was to come. His three-year-old season did not start until June, missing the Triple Crown races, but that did not matter. That year, he won the first of five Jockey Club Gold Cups and eight of his nine races, sealing the first of five Horse of the Year championships.
In a career that spanned a remarkable eight seasons, Kelso became as dependable as the New York Yankees of the early 1960s. In addition to multiple Horse of the Year titles, Allaire du Pont’s gelding endeared himself to New York racing fans with repeat wins in races like the Woodward Stakes, the Suburban Handicap, and more. Indeed, his career was one that spans more words than allotted here, but truly Kelso had become an icon by the time he retired at age nine, a hairline fracture of a sesamoid forcing this legend into the next phase of his life.
As a gelding, though, especially in the decades before places like Old Friends, what would Kelso do when racing was no longer an option? His owner had an answer for that question.
Kelso Was Still King
Kelso returned to du Pont’s Woodstock Farm, familiar ground for the stalwart Thoroughbred who had wintered there after each racing season. This time, though, he was home for good. He might have been done racing, but he was not done with people: du Pont would ride him around the property herself. She noted that he was easy to handle on the trails and even seemed to enjoy jumping small obstacles on their rides. Could the five-time champion be capable of more in his post-racing life?
A year after he had retired, du Pont called in dressage champion rider Alison Cram to prepare Kelso for a demonstration at Saratoga. Cram schooled Kelso in several dressage gaits and over jumps, with the gelding clearing three-foot obstacles with ease within weeks. Despite his long years on the racetrack and the specialized handling and training Kelso would have been accustomed to, he took to these new skills with aplomb. By the late summer, on National Steeplechase Day at Saratoga Race Course, Kelso was ready to demonstrate his new skills. He stepped nimbly through the gaits Cram had taught him and then sailed over four of the six jumps laid out for him, barely tipping the other two. He exited his demonstration to a standing ovation.
Cram and Kelso continued their lessons, the champion showing that he was an excellent student of these new disciplines. He appeared at the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden, the Washington, D.C. Horse Show, and other events at racetracks and at du Pont’s Woodstock Farm. His owner even rode him on chases at Fair Hill, staying behind more experienced hunters so that Kelso’s competitiveness would not take hold and send du Pont on an unscheduled joyride.
Then, at seventeen, the years began to catch up to the champion turned chaser. Arthritis meant no more rides with his mistress, but it did not quell the old gelding’s drive: he would observe horses working over the training track at Woodstock, watching intently as the next generations schooled. “His body’s here,” one of his longtime grooms observed, “but I sometimes think his heart’s never left the track.”
Kelso made one last appearance in the racetrack in 1983. At the age of twenty-six, he joined Forego at Belmont Park to lead the post parade for the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Fans crowded the rails as the five-time champion appeared on the same track that had been the scene of many triumphs. He walked off the track to the applause of the gathering throng and returned to Woodstock Farm that evening. The next day, Kelso died, his heart failing just hours after that last celebration.
Stories Beyond the Track
From Zivo to Kelso, After the Racetrack has profiled its share of both champions and claimers, horses that translated what made them great on the racetrack into the next phases of their lives. On display in each are the qualities that made the Thoroughbred great, that tenacity and talent necessary to take on all challenges and bring joy to those who love them. They are examples of why aftercare for all horses, whether they go on to the dressage ring or a backyard paddock, is a necessary concern for anyone who loves the sport of horse racing.