JC / Railbird

Readings: Alexander

Jockey Milo Valenzuela, retired in 1980 and inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2008, died Wednesday at the age of 74 following a long illness. Valenzuela rode many good horses, including Tim Tam and Round Table, but none were better than five-time Horse of the Year Kelso, with whom he won 22 of 35 races. The excerpt below from “Chocolate Sundaes and Old Shoes,” by David Alexander, recounts one gallant loss, the 1964 Suburban.

The Old Man was running at last like the champion he had always been and he was gaining, no longer inch by inch but foot by foot, and Yacza, who must have thought it was over at the quarter pole, suddenly discovered it had just begun and his whip went down on Iron Peg’s dark bay hide to sting him into the realization that he was no longer playing with the boys he had beaten by six and seven and thirteen lengths, but with the men now; specifically, with the greatest Old Man of them all.

The daffodil-yellow and smoke-gray banner of Bohemia was waving proudly again down the middle of the stretch. The dark face of Milo Valenzuela was grim at the instant it came into the focus of the binoculars I grasped with sweaty paws. And now the crowd broke its silence as they went to the eighth pole and the yards between Iron Peg and Kelso became feet, and as they passed the sixteenth pole the feet became inches.

‘Kelly! Kelly! Kelly!’ It was a keening, plaintive prayer. I think the ones who had backed Iron Peg into almost equal favoritism with the old champ had forgotten the tote tickets in their pockets, for they were yelling, ‘Kelly, Kelly, Kelly!’ too.

A veteran horseman who had no vested interest in Kelso was standing beside me. I knew him as a calm and unemotional fellow. Suddenly his hand began to pound the ledge in front of him compulsively and his voice rose to the shrill hysteria of a schoolgirl’s.

‘Old Man! Old Man!’ he shrieked. ‘Jesus, let the Old Man win!’

The Old Man didn’t win, not quite. But the usually heedless crowd, the crowd that sometimes hissed and sometimes booed when champions have lost, was faced with the rare thing called greatness, and for once the throng fully recognized what it saw.”

Video of the 1964 Suburban from the British Pathé archive: