JC / Railbird

The Returns of Kelso

Gary West invokes (as I did on Twitter) the record of the great gelding Kelso, the only five-time Horse of the Year, in appraising Rachel Alexandra’s loss in the New Orleans Ladies Stakes last Saturday:

Very few horses could have performed so well returning from a six-month layoff. The effort, in fact, could have been an ideal start, a solid foundation, for an outstanding season. Kelso was named Horse of the Year five consecutive years, 1960-1964, and four times he began the following year’s campaign with a loss.

And in every year but 1964, he followed that first loss with a win. Whether Rachel Alexandra will manage the same remains to be seen, but let’s look back at Kelso, a fine example of an elite horse who was — in keeping with the times — annually raced into form without much second-guessing of either his honors or connections.

How Kelso finished in each of his first starts for the years 1961-1965.

The one year Kelso won his first start back as reigning Horse of the Year was 1961, when he made his 4-year-old debut in a seven-furlong allowance race at Aqueduct, carrying 124 pounds to runner-up Gyro’s 115. “Drew out with ease,” reads the chart note.

His 1962 return in the Metropolitan Handicap was a stiffer test, with 1961 Kentucky Derby winner Carry Back among the nine starters. Carry Back, making his ninth start of the year, won brilliantly, equaling the track record time. It was the “greatest race of his career,” wrote Joseph Nichols in the New York Times of the 4-year-old’s effort. Kelso, however, coming off a lengthy layoff in which he had been recuperating from injuries suffered while finishing second in the 1961 International, was termed no threat. Carrying 133 pounds to Carry Back’s 123, the gelding “showed no inclination to run, even with Willie Shoemaker to urge him.” Of the race, Shoemaker said, “No excuses at all. That 133 pounds on him and his idleness made the difference.” In his next start, Kelso won a Belmont allowance, then finished second in the Suburban. He didn’t win his first stakes race of the year until the Stymie Handicap in September, which he followed with a win ten days later in the Woodward and another win three weeks later in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

In 1963, off a brief eight-week rest, Kelso returned in the seven-furlong Palm Beach Handicap at Hialeah, finishing fourth to the favored Ridan, who was the runner-up to Jaipur in the 1962 Travers and a horse believed best at shorter distances. The results were considered unremarkable all around, and Kelso soundly defeated Ridan by 2 3/4 lengths in his next start two weeks later, the nine-furlong Seminole Handicap at Hialeah.

On his return in 1964, Kelso lost again, this time in the Los Angeles Handicap at Hollywood, a race in which he lugged 130 pounds to the 124 carried by winner Cyrano. “Dull effort,” notes the chart. He came back in the Californian two weeks later, finishing sixth by eight lengths as the 1.40-1 favorite.

This was the year that rumblings Kelso might be finished began, as he followed the Californian with a win in a $15,000 handicap at Aqueduct (toting 136 to the runner-up’s 114) and then seconds in the Suburban Handicap and Monmouth Handicap. In the Brooklyn Handicap, won by Gun Bow, he finished fifth by 14 lengths after stumbling badly as he came out of the starting gate. Disappointed, trainer Carl Hanford packed Kelso away for a few weeks on the farm, a respite that seemed to restore the 7-year-old gelding, who came back to win an allowance over the Aqueduct turf, and then — “in the most emotion-packed horse race since the opening of Aqueduct in 1959,” as Nichols wrote in the Times — defeated Gun Bow by three-quarters of a length in the Aqueduct Stakes, paying $6.40 to loyal backers. Second by a nose to Gun Bow in the Woodward, his next start, Kelso came back to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup by four lengths, setting two records — all-time money-earner and a new track time of 3:15 1/5 for two miles — in doing so.

From the Thoroughbred Record, November 7, 1964:

“You really think he won’t run here no more?” the fat man asked. “They said that about Carry Back and all them others, but they run again. Hell, it won’t seem like Saturday without Kelso, will it?”

Kelso was not supposed to run in 1965. The campaign he closed with an annihilating 4 1/2 length victory over Gun Bow in the 1964 International at Laurel was to be his last, but his late-season dominance had Hanford and owner Allaire duPont wavering in their plan to retire the gelding. And so Kelso, Horse of the Year for the fifth consecutive year, came back on June 29, finishing third in an allowance at Monmouth. He returned to win the Diamond State at Delaware, flashing a bit of his old form. Lightly raced that summer, the 8-year-old ended the year with an eight-length win in the Stymie on September 22, and for the first time since 1959, another horse would be named the year’s best. Or rather, two would be — Horse of the Year was shared in 1965, going to the undefeated 2-year-old filly Moccasin and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Roman Brother.

The champion made only one more start, in a six-furlong allowance at Hialeah in March 1966 in which he finished fourth. Suffering a minor sesamoid fracture, Kelso was retired with more than $1.9 million in earnings and a career record of 63-39-12-2, his losses — and perhaps especially those incurred in his intense rivalry with Gun Bow — as much a part the story of his greatness as his many accomplishments.

Video of the 1964 International from the British Pathé archive:

From the archives: Readings: Alexander and Kelso at Aqueduct.


Good post.

Not to take a stand on what RA will do the rest of the year, but I think the layoff arguments in the wake of her defeat are overblown. To compare her situation with that of Kelso is, I believe, a case of apples-to-oranges.

When Kelso ran in the early 1960s, even top horses were regularly running 15 or more times a year. During a campaign, horses seldom paused for more than 2 or 3 weeks. Trainers of that period almost never even tried to get a horse into top form without a few preps.

In the languague of Kelso’s age, the vast majority of starters in today’s stakes or top-level AOC races is coming ‘off a layoff’.

In today’s racing, older top horses run half a dozen times a year. It’s not unusual for them to go two or three months without a start and to compete in races like the BC or Arc after such a pause. Granted, few horses come back from a six-month layoff and run the race of their lifes, but G1-level horses are usually expected to not be far from their peak at such a point either.

Today’s great trainers are used to prepping horses to near top form off long layoffs (I wouldn’t call Asmussen a great trainer, but that has nothing to do with his skills as a conditioner; he certainly knows what he’s doing). ‘The Bis As’ specifically is frequently mentioned in handicapping forums etc. as one of those trainers whose horses should never be discounted for a long layoff alone.

None of this means that Rachel isn’t going to improve significantly for her next start, but to outright dismiss a result as a no-cont just because it was ‘a mere prep race’ is, I think, not good handicapping these days.

Posted by malcer on March 16, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

In the 70s, Forego,especially after Frank Whitely took over after the 75 season, would take extended vacations after the NY season—usually about 8 months, in Aiken.

The big horse would then be back in NY in the spring, with the Met Mile the annual target. Mr. Whitely always managed to get him tight enough for the season debut.

In Rachel’s case, she would have been tight enough if Zardana was not in the race.

What happened, IMO, is that she had too tough a race for her first start back, which has set her back, instead of moving her forward.

Posted by Sid Fernando on March 16, 2010 @ 2:39 pm

When one looks at Kelso’s comeback chart, the one pattern that jumps out is his favoritism in the wagering four out five times.

The bettors just can’t resist top horses returning off of layoffs. Of course, many top horses don’t return as often as they did in Kelso’s day but one who immediately came to mind was Perfect Drift. Year after year he would start his season in an open condition allowance on the turf at KEE. And he, like Kelso, would go to the post favored off a long layoff.

I couldn’t find the intestinal fortitude to bet against Rachel, even when the tote clearly showed some additional inefficiency by making Zardana the *third* choice.

It makes me wonder if returning champions who go off favored in their return beat the average win percentage of favorites?

Posted by o_crunk on March 16, 2010 @ 8:05 pm

Perfect Drift made his 4YO debut off a 5 1/2-month layoff and won a Keeneland allowance race on turf at 3-to-2.

He made his 5YO debut off a 5 1/2-month layoff and finished eighth to Perfect Soul in the Maker’s Mark Mile (G2) on turf as the 3.8-to-1 third choice.

He made his 6YO debut off a 5-month layoff and won a Keeneland allowance race on turf at 8-to-5.

He made his 7YO debut off a 4 1/2-month layoff and finished second to Watershed Event in a Keeneland allowance race on turf as the even money favorite.

He made his 8YO debut off a 5-month layoff and finished second to Stream Cat in a Keeneland allowance race on Polytrack as the 8-to-5 favorite.

He made his 9YO debut off a 10 1/2-month layoff and finished fourth to Daytona in the Shoemaker Mile (G1) on turf at Hollywood Park at 16.60-to-1.

A $2 win bet on his six returns following his three-year-old season would have cost $12 and returned $10.20. If you had bet on him only the times he was favored, you’d have bet only $8 and thus WON $2.20.

Posted by EJXD2 on March 16, 2010 @ 8:42 pm

EJXD2, o_crunk, sounds like research is needed.

Posted by Jessica on March 17, 2010 @ 9:13 am

[…] that Kelso went to post as the favorite in four out of five of his returns as reigning Horse of the Year, commenter o_crunk remarked: It makes me wonder if returning […]

Posted by Jessica Chapel / Railbird v2 - Returning Champions on March 22, 2010 @ 8:49 pm