Tuesday, March 17, 2015

"Once upon a time there was a horse named Kelso"

"Once upon a time there was a horse named Kelso. But only once."

~ Joe Hirsch, the "dean" of turf writing

Truer words were never written. Many gallant geldings have graced the American turf---Exterminator, Forego, John Henry---but as brilliant as they were, none of them quite measure up to the extraordinary talent that was Kelso. He was awarded Horse of the Year honors for five consecutive years, something no other horse has ever come close to matching. He won the Jockey Club Gold Cup five times and the prestigious Whitney and Woodward three times each. He set nine track records, an American record for 1 1/2 miles on turf, and his world record for two miles on dirt still stands more than 50 years later. He could sprint; he could stay; he could run on any surface, dirt or turf, regardless of the condition of the track, sloppy or dry, firm or soft. And but for the love of the racing public, Kelso might never have been born.

In 1947, the "Magnificent Cripple," a flashy chestnut officially named Your Host was born in California. By Alibhai out of Boudoir (by Mahmoud), he had a regal pedigree, but he was born with some deformities that earned him this nickname (as well as a number of similar epithets). In particular, one eye was set higher than the other and he had a crooked neck so that he carried his head to one side when he raced in order to see better. 
Your Host
Despite these handicaps, he proved to be an excellent stakes winner in California, and he entered the 1950 Kentucky Derby as the favorite. After helping to set a blazing pace for the first mile, he faded badly and finished ninth. He returned to shorter races in California and eventually defeated both Hill Prince and Ponder, the Derby winner and runner-up. 

Returning to the races at four, Your Host proved he could carry weight and beat the clock, setting a new track record for 9 furlongs at Santa Anita under 130 pounds. But in only his third race of the season, he clipped heels and went down hard on his right shoulder, breaking his upper foreleg in four places. Veterinarians thought there was no hope of saving him, and Louis B. Mayer (of Metro Goldwyn Mayer) who had bred Your Host and who was the father-in-law of Your Host's owner, William Goetz, persuaded Lloyds of London to pay out an insurance claim on the horse. 

Had Your Host been euthanized at that juncture, racing would have lost one of the greatest horses of all time. But Lloyds of London decided to try to save the horse, hoping to recoup some of what they had lost by sending the horse to stud if the leg could be stabilized and allowed to heal. Under the watchful eye of his fans and the ASPCA, Your Host was eventually packed in sand to immobilize his legs, and slowly, he began to mend. Eventually, he was sound enough to go stud, and he proved to be a very useful sire. He died prematurely in 1961 just as the career of his most famous son was taking off.

In 1956, Your Host stood at Meadowview Farms in Moorestown, NJ, where he was bred to Maid of Flight (Count Fleet x Maidoduntreath, by Man O' War), a well-bred mare who had been only moderately successful on the track. Owned by Mrs. Allaire du Pont, the famed sportswoman, Maid of Flight's breeding that year was mostly one of convenience as Meadowview Farm was not far from Mrs. du Pont's own Woodstock Farm in Delaware. She had hoped for a filly in order to name it after Mrs. Kelso Everett, a close friend, but when the mating produced a colt instead, she gave him the name Kelso anyway.
Maid of Flight and Kelso as a foal
 Kelso wasn't much to look at as a youngster, and having inherited the nasty temperament his sire line was known for, he was gelded before the age of two. He was also a notorious cribber and suffered from bouts of colic because of it throughout his life. Gelding him didn't resolve his attitude problems although he mellowed some in the company of Mrs. du Pont, her dogs, and the sugary treats she spoiled him with.

He started for the first time late in his two year-old season, winning a maiden race in Atlantic City first time out and then running second in two allowances. He didn't return to the races until late June of his three year-old season, having been allowed some time to mature both physically and mentally. For a time, he was even for sale, but no one wanted the gangly cribber. He began to show real promise under the tutelage of trainer Carl Hanford, and he won a pair of allowance races by daylight in near record times. In his third start of the year, Kelso was trapped behind a wall of horses and never got a chance to run, finishing eighth. Paired with the inimitable jockey Eddie Arcaro, he would not lose again that year, reeling off six straight wins in the Choice Stakes (won by 7 lengths), the Jerome, the Discovery, the 1 5/8 miles Lawrence Realization (tied Man O' War's track record), the Hawthorne Gold Cup, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup (just a tick off the world record on a sloppy track). Despite not beginning the season until after the Triple Crown races, Kelso earned not only Champion Three Year-Old but also Horse of the Year.

At four, Arcaro piloted Kelso to seven wins in nine starts under imposts as high as 136 pounds while giving away substantial weight to his rivals. He became only the third horse to win the prestigious Handicap Triple Crown comprising the Metropolitan (carrying 130 pounds), Brooklyn (133), and Suburban Handicaps (136). (Only one horse has swept that triple since Kelso did so in 1961.) He also won his second straight Jockey Club Gold Cup, the most important year-end race at the time.

Eddie Arcaro retired at the end of the year, and Kelso's 5 year-old season got off to a bumpy start with Willie Shoemaker in the irons. The two never saw eye to eye, and shortly thereafter, Ishmael "Milo" Valenzuela (uncle of Pat Valenzuela) became Kelso's regular rider. He won only 6 of 12 starts, plagued by poor riding and rabbits carrying far less weight, but he did win a record third Jockey Club Gold Cup by 10 lengths, and he finished a good second on turf in the Washington DC International, defeating Kentucky Derby winner Carry Back. His efforts were enough to nab a third Horse of the Year title.

At six, he started 12 times again, this time winning 9 of them. He won as he pleased regardless of weight, track surface, or distance, and his popularity rose to new heights. "King Kelly," as he was known to his fans, won his third Woodward and his fourth Jockey Club Gold Cup en route to his fourth Horse of the Year title. At seven, he won five of eleven starts, but three of his losses were by a neck, a nose, and a head to horses carrying less weight. He won his fifth straight Jockey Club Gold Cup, setting a new world record in the process and winning by more than five lengths. He also finally captured the turf classic Washington DC International, a race he had run second in for three consecutive years, and he did so in stunning fashion by establishing a new American record for 12 furlongs on turf, 2:23 4/5 (faster than Secretariat). It was enough to clinch an unprecedented fifth Horse of the Year title, and lasting fame as one of the greatest American runners of all time.

Kelso came back at eight and won several stakes including the Whitney before an eye infection caused by flying dirt put a premature end to his season. He made one start at nine, and after running an oddly poor fourth, he was discovered to have a hairline fracture and was retired. The gallant gelding, the leading money earner of his day, became Mrs. du Pont's personal hunter, and he had a good deal of success as a show jumper as well.

In October 1983 at the age of 26, Kelso traveled to Belmont to appear before the post parade with two other champion geldings, Forego and John Henry, to benefit the Thoroughbred Retirement Fund. Rarely have three such legendary horses ever been in the same place at the same time.
Kelso (left), John Henry (center), and Forego (right)
The event raised $27,000 for the Fund, and by all accounts, Kelso pranced and posed in the paddock and on the track as if he were ready to return the races. Sadly, the following evening, he succumbed to a bout of colic, the affliction that had plagued him throughout his life. But it seems fitting somehow that King Kelly should have been honored by his adoring public one last time for the titan of the turf he most assuredly was. Some years later, Eddie Arcaro, who rode both Citation and Whirlaway to Triple Crown victories, said that of the many champions he had ridden, Kelso was the best of them all without question.

The photo that very likely inspired Maureen Love's sculpture
Given Kelso's tremendous achievements and his popularity with both the racing and general public, it is not surprising that he was chosen as the subject of one of Hagen-Renaker's racehorse portrait models. He was the last of the five, released from spring 1965 until spring 1971 and again from fall 1974 to spring 1975. Of the five HR racehorses, Kelso is considered the rarest and most desirable although the model can be found for sale on a regular basis. They vary in color from a uniform dark brown to shaded bay with red undertones.
Photo courtesy of Tom Bainbridge
Photo courtesy of Teresa Fedak
In 1975, the year after Hagen-Renaker discontinued Kelso, Breyer released all five of the HR racehorses in plastic. Breyer's Kelso remained in the line until 1990, and during those 15 years, the model's paint job varied substantially. The earliest Kelso models were dark brown with two hind socks just like the real Kelso, although a fair number have only a right hind sock. Some of them had shading, some none. As the years progressed, the color of Kelso models shifted to a lighter shade of brown, some bordering on red bay. The sock number varied hugely as well, anywhere from no socks to all four.

Kelso variations
A typical early Kelso with two socks
An early two-sock Kelso with pretty shading
A nearly black Kelso with very oversprayed socks
A rare four-sock variation
An early 1980s reddish bay Kelso with one sock
Another 1980s variation with no socks
The Breyer Kelso model is not rare by any stretch, but it does remain popular with collectors and showers alike. Some of the variations are hard to find, particularly the 4-socked version. Finding it with one of the original cardboard boxes is also a nice treat. The earliest Kelso boxes were white; later examples were brown.

1970s box (Photo courtesy of Corrie McDermott)
The informative side-panel of the 1970s box
(Photo courtesy of Corrie McDermott)
The Breyer Kelso did come with one rare feature that is highly collectible, a round, yellow double-sided sticker that loops around one leg. Only a handful of these stickers are known. They date to 1979 or thereabouts.

Kelso is a terrific model for Thoroughbred lovers and variation collectors alike. The Breyer model  shows well in breed halter, and paired with a vintage box, he can be a viable collectibility contender as well. Likewise, the HR Kelso, especially a crisp model with an original sticker, can excel in both divisions. Breyer Kelso models can often be acquired for as little as $10-25 whereas the HR models are usually to be found in the $400-500 range. Particularly nice examples have sold for as much as $800, but in general, prices seem to have fallen in the last 10 years. Like many other models once thought to be very rare, the internet, especially eBay, has proven that more of these models are in circulation than most collectors realized.

But that said, Kelso is always a good investment, regardless of medium. Value aside, he is an aesthetic treasure and an elegant reminder of one of the most talented American Thoroughbreds of all time.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Blog and ye shall receive?

Just over a week ago, I posted a blog about chalkies, and I included information and pictures of 1960s chalkies that had been factory repainted over decorators and woodgrains in order to repurpose models that were not selling well. A handful of painted-over-decorators are in the hands of collectors, but the painted-over-woodgrains seem to be less common. So you can imagine my surprise when I stumbled across one only a matter of days later on eBay.

This chalky bay Clydesdale Stallion looks ordinary from this side...

But from this side, you can see there's something peculiar under that bay paint.

Here's a close up of the chipped spot on his rump revealing the original woodgrain paintjob underneath. You can just see the white layer of paint in between the woodgrain and bay paint.

Here's a better shot of the layers of paint on this model. The bay paint has rubbed away revealing the white basecoat, the basecoat has been chipped to reveal the woodgrain paintjob underneath, and the woodgrain paint is a bit rubbed, too, showing the creamy colored plastic underneath that.

The white basecoat paint is cracking and lifting in various places on this model, so I think it didn't adhere well to the topcoat Breyer put over the woodgrain finish. The paint in the chipped area on the rump is very fragile and flaky, and if I wanted, it would be easy to peel it away to reveal more of the woodgrain paintjob. If it were a particularly rare woodgrain, I might be tempted, but even in this beat up condition, I think my Clyde is much more interesting as is. He's a weird and wonderful piece of Breyer history.

Other hobbyists have tried to strip painted-over-decorators with varying success. Collector Karen Hoagland found a chalky bay Running Mare that had been painted over a Gold Charm, and because the white basecoat didn't stick well to the gloss, she was able to easily peel away the bay paint revealing the decorator underneath.

Chalky bay Running Mare with some of the paint removed (neck) revealing
the Gold Charm paint underneath. (Photo courtesy of Karen Hoagland)
Chalky bay Running Mare with nearly all of the bay paint stripped except on her face,
legs, mane, and tail. (Photo courtesy of Karen Hoagland)
The chalky bay paint pulled away in strips although it did take a layer of
gold with it. (Photo courtesy of Karen Hoagland)
Sadly, this chalky Five Gaiter painted over a Wedgewood did not fare so well. Wedgewoods lack the glossy finish other decorators have as well as the clear coat sprayed over woodgrains, so the white paint layer in this case stuck firmly to the wedgewood paint below, making it impossible to strip.

(Photo courtesy of Sande Schneider)
Needless to say, I'm going to have to go through my collection and have a good look at my chalkies from the 1950s and 1960s. Could there be a woodgrain lurking under my chalky honey bay Old Mold Proud Arabian Mare? Probably not, but I'm definitely going to hold her up to the light to check anyway! :)