Kelso was an American thoroughbred race horse and is considered to be among the best racehorses of the Twentieth century. In the list of the top 100 U.S. thoroughbred champions of the 20th Century by Blood-Horse magazine, Kelso ranks 4th, behind only Man o' War (1st), Secretariat (2nd), and Citation (3rd).
Kelso did not start out in glory. His breeding was less than stellar. Born at Claiborne Farm near Paris, Kentucky, Kelso was sired by a well-known, yet unproven stallion, Your Host. He was out of the dam, Maid of Flight, with no reputation at all...although her sire was Count Fleet and her grandsire was Man o' War. Kelso was her first foal, a bit scrawny, a bit runty, and quite the handful. Before he ever set hoof on a track, owner Allaire du Pont had him gelded in the hopes of calming him down. By all reports, it did not work. Kelso was never a "nice" horse. In any case, regardless of his dam and sire, he was a maternal grandson of U.S. Triple Crown champion Count Fleet, who is ranked at number 5 by Blood-Horse.
Trained by Dr. John Lee and racing for Ms. du Pont's nom de course, the Bohemia Stables, Kelso made his two-year-old debut on September 4, 1959 at Atlantic City Race Course, at that time one of the country's premier tracks. Ridden by John Block, Kelso's first race was an ordinary maiden event...which he won. Even so, his odds weren't much when he made his second start ten days later and came in second. He was the favorite in his third race, which came rapidly on the heels of his first two, and again he came second. That was the entirety of his first year of racing.
Rt. Rev. Arthur Raymond McKinstry was known as Kelso's chaplain. In talking to reporters, McKinstry said, "On the occasion of President [Johnson] and Mrs. Johnson's 30th wedding anniversary, the White House reporters asked me if I had any other claim to fame. I thought a little while and then had to confess to them that among my friends in Wilmington I am casually spoken of as the private chaplain for that great racehorse Kelso. Taken aback, one reporter turned and asked me, 'Do you mean to say that you direct heavenly words to God on behalf of a racehorse?" 'I don't have to,' I replied. 'Let's say I just sit there with my fingers crossed and hope a little.'"
His third year did not start until after the Triple Crown races of 1960 had come and gone. Dr. John Lee had returned to his veterinary practice. Kelso's new trainer was Carl Hanford (inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2006), who would handle him for the remainder of his career. Willie Shoemaker took over as his jockey for a short time, followed by Eddie Arcaro, who rode him from mid 1960 to near the end of 1961. Arcaro retired in November 1961 and in 1962 Ismael Valenzuela would become the horse's principal rider for more than three years.
Kelso's first start and first win for Hanford was at Monmouth Park. Hanford said, "He was an extremely determined horse. If he saw a horse in front, he wanted to get to him. You could take him back or send him to the front. He was an extremely sound horse who was light on his feet with incredible balance. Kelso could wheel on a dime, spinning round in a circle and never letting his feet touch each other." After the Monmouth race, he won eight times in nine starts: a mile event at Aqueduct Racetrack in a record for a three-year-old at that distance, the Choice Stakes, the Jerome Handicap, the Discovery Handicap, the Lawrence Realization Stakes, the Hawthorne Gold Cup Handicap, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, this last race against older horses. In the Lawrence Realization Stakes he equaled Man 0 'War's time of 2.40 & four/fifths for a mile and five/eights.
1960 was the first year Kelso was voted three-year-old Champion Male and the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.
In 1961, he won seven of nine starts. That year he was voted Champion Older Horse and again Horse of the Year.
A Career That Lasted
Unlike all too many of today's top racehorses, Kelso did not ignite racing in his second and third year only to disappear to a stud farm. This great gelding competed for eight seasons, from 1959 to 1966. As his career raced on, so did his popularity. Huge crowds flocked to see him. Kelso competed on fourteen tracks, won in six states, smashed any amount of records, won an unprecedented number of awards, and eventually became as beloved a horse as any who ever lived.
In 1965, during a workout he suffered a hairline fracture of the inside sesamoid of his right hind foot. Though he'd planned for another year's racing, Hanford retired him at the age of nine. Kelso left the track as racing's all-time leading money winner with lifetime earnings of $1,977,896. These earnings held for a record 13 years.
Of Kelso's sixty three starts, he won thirty nine, placed twelve times, and had two shows. He was out of the money only ten times in his entire career.
Accepting his Hall of Fame award in August 2006, Carl Hanford said, "I am here today because of one horse and one horse only. Although I've had a few stakes horses before, they didn't compare with Kelso. There is an old saying on the racetrack that 'a good horse is dangerous in anybody's hands.' How true that is. Of all the top trainers in the past that have had this honor, I may be a little bit prejudiced, but I don't think any one of them had their hands on a horse like Kelso."
As a gelding Kelso could not be retired to stud. Instead, he went on to a second career as a hunter and a show jumper. In 1967, he was elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
Kelso died on October 16, 1983. He is buried in the equine cemetery at Allaire du Pont's Woodstock Farm in Chesapeake City, Maryland.