Thirty years ago today, Melanie Collins guides Kelso over familiar terrain, the Belmont Park dirt course, accompanied by his friend "Pete" the pony, ridden by Debbie Ferguson. Applause rang down from the grandstand as the beloved gelding, age 26, jogged through the stretch.
In nearly 40 years of going to the races, I never had a better day than Oct. 15, 1983. Nothing before or since has come close. Ever. My most cherished memory of that magical day has nothing to do with cashing a big bet on an impossible longshot. It had everything to do with standing on the track alongside the horse I admired above all others, the incomparable five-time Horse of the Year, Kelso. And getting the photograph of a lifetime.
Can it really be 30 years to the day? When I heard that Kelso, then 26, and another Hall of Fame gelding, Forego, 13, would be returning to Belmont Park to promote the newly formed Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, a noble concept to provide homes to less-fortunate runners after their racing days, I begged my newspaper editor to allow me cover the event, with both my pencil and my camera.
I came to know Kelso as a little boy, watching the Race of the Week on TV in glorious black and white in the early 1960s. Blame, or credit, my grandmother for introducing me to the sport. The show was hosted by Win Eliot (any oldtimers remember the Schaefer Circle of Sports?) and the legendary Fred Caposella, whose velvety high-pitched, unemotional calls made him the unmistakable voice of New York racing for 37 years.
The long-retired “Cappy,” who kept active calling Bingo games in Boynton Beach, Fla., had also been invited back to Belmont Park to introduce the field for the Jockey Club Gold Cup with his trademark line, “It is now post time.” It gave me goose bumps. Almost as much as watching Forego and Kelso, who hadn’t set foot on a track for 17 years, lead the Gold Cup post parade.
In the Gold Cup field was yet another gelding who had achieved icon status: John Henry. The presence of the three grand old men of racing at the same place at the same time was so momentous that renowned artist Richard Stone Reeves painted the trio on the Belmont backside a day before the race.
Though Kelso and I were close in age, I was too young to see him run in person. I collected memorabilia, old programs, news clips, even a 1963 magazine spread, “Life Visits Kelso.” But I always hoped we’d get a chance to meet, and in July 1978, I wrote to owner Allaire duPont, to ask if I could come down to Chesapeake City, Md., to interview her and take photos of Kelso for an article. Mrs. duPont couldn’t have been more welcoming and gracious. That letter remains with me as does a single hair from Kelso’s mane that fell out when I patted his neck, and many photos, like the one of the mailbox at Woodstock Farm (above) where Kelso received fan letters throughout his life. I still need to digitize many of the original film negatives before they permanently fade to black.
On that spectacular day in 1983, before more than 32,000 fans, I stood on the dirt as the field walked from the paddock through the tunnel and onto the track. As Kelso showed the way, a tiny yellow ribbon tied around his forelock, thunderous applause erupted. For a split second, Kelso paused, turned slightly and, I swear, looked right at me just long enough to quickly focus and fire off a frame. Just one. The saddle cloth says it all. He was older, grayer, and like many of us, a little thicker around the middle, but looked every bit as magnificent as King Kelly, the champion who was so good for so long. If, as the saying goes, we all have one great photo inside of us, this was it. Call it luck, good timing, or a gift from above. It was my moment.
Kelso’s New York adventure didn’t end happily. He died the next day, not long after his van arrived back at Woodstock Farm in Maryland. The cause was believed to be colic. Maybe, in hindsight, the trip was too much. But when a hero passes, we try to look for deeper meaning. I like to believe that his final memories were of the adoring crowd, a reminder of the days when 60,000 people would cheer him home. It’s the way any warrior would want to be remembered.named Sea Spirit in his racing days, graze at Woodstock Farm in ChesapeakeCity, Md., in the summer of 1978.