The breathless, muggy heat was a heavy blanket over New York's Aqueduct racetrack last Saturday, but the 49,028 horseplayers really were sweating in nervous anticipation. At exactly 25 minutes before post time for the 77th running of the $100,000-added mile-and-a-quarter Brooklyn Handicap the nervousness erupted audibly. First it was a ripple of applause from the standees pressed close to one another on the hot concrete apron leading into the clubhouse turn. Then Kelso—five times Horse of the Year and making his first start in New York in a comeback at the grand old age of 8—was slowly led by his groom to the walking ring, and the clapping and cheering rolled out louder and louder. The richest and most popular horse in racing, with earnings of $1,908,064, was back home at the track where he had won 19 out of 24 starts, ready to run in a tough handicap that he had first won in 1961 when his present competitors were romping about as hopeful suckling foals.
Kelso has filled out in his old age to about 1,050 pounds, a gain of about 20 since he won last fall's Laurel International by more than four lengths over his arch-rival Gun Bow. As he walked into the ring, those fans closest to him snapped cameras and shouted their welcomes. One of them, a 15-year-old schoolgirl from Alexandria, Va. named Heather Noble, had a special interest. Heather, who was dressed in yellow and waving a gray banner (the colors of Kelso's Bohemia Stable), is founder and president of the Kelso Fan Club. When she arrived at Aqueduct on Saturday the club had 1,016 members. But as she stood saving her place at the rail through the long, hot afternoon, she signed up six new members and, like any efficient clubwoman, issued identity cards on the spot. When Kelso walked by her, just out of reach, she took his picture, waved her banner and sighed, "He's the greatest," all at the same time.
There is little doubt that Kelso already has proved to be one of the great racehorses of all time. He has been judged the equal of Man o' War by those who observed them both at their prime—and superior to Man o' War by many whose experience does not go back to the seasons of 1919 and 1920. Last fall his owner, Mrs. Richard C. duPont, announced only half seriously that Kelly, after finally winning the International on his fourth try, would retire—not to stud duty, since he is a gelding but to tour the nation's major tracks in a charity fund-raising drive for equine research. The trouble was, said Trainer Carl Hanford, "that Kelso didn't want to retire. If you stop him completely he gets stifle trouble. He likes to gallop, and he just loves the racetrack." As a result, and despite public appearances this spring at Laurel, Keeneland, Churchill Downs and Delaware Park, Kelso galloped daily and has never been completely out of training.
Although back in training in earnest now, last week in the Brooklyn the greatest horse learned something that has been brought home to many a superathlete who picks up age and weight. Carrying 132 pounds and giving away 11 to each of three talented 4-year-olds and 19 to a fourth, he finished third to Pia Star and Roman Brother, although beaten only four lengths for all the money. In the fall, if he is still asked to give weight—but not as much as 11 pounds—he may be able to teach the "kids" a lesson. But last Saturday he was not quite ready.
It may be fair to say that if Kelso had been equally weighted with this field of four opponents he would have beaten them all. But that is what the handicap game is all about: you must give away weight and still prove you are the best. At the moment the new hero of the division is not one of last year's top 3-year-olds, as is often the case. In fact, Pia Star (whose owner, Mrs. Ada L. Rice, also owns Kentucky Derby winner Lucky Debonair) is a colt most people never heard of—or certainly never thought much of—until June of this year. A pulled ligament in one knee kept him from racing at all at 2, and last year his undistinguished record showed only four wins (none of them in stakes races) in 11 starts.
But Pia Star's sire was the brilliant speed horse Olympia, and his dam, Inquisitive, is by that great broodmare sire, Mahmoud. It is a bloodline cross not to be sneered at, and although Dan and Ada Rice weren't too excited about Pia Star's prospects a year ago, Trainer Clyde Troutt was fairly optimistic: "He's a big, rough old horse, about 16 hands one inch and 1,100 pounds, and he always acts pretty anxious. I felt we had something pretty good, although I usually prefer to be surprised, not disappointed."
Surprising is hardly the word for what happened on the afternoon of June 19 at Arlington Park. In the Equipoise Handicap, Jockey John Sellers turned Pia Star loose and got the sort of response that Troutt could only dream about, a mile in 1:33[1/5] to tie the world record set by Swaps. Then came the Suburban in New York on July 5. At the finish there was Pia Star ahead of Smart and Tenacle, and back in the pack somewhere was a pretty fair horse named Gun Bow.
Is Pia Star all this good? "Well, I'm starting to think he must be," said Sellers an hour before last week's win over Kelso. "My orders are always the same from Mr. Troutt: when I leave the gate take a long jumping-rider hold of him and just relax." In the Brooklyn, Sellers did exactly that but, light hold and all, Pia Star went right on the pace, as Ron Turcotte took Quadrangle along with him for the first part of it. Roman Brother came up gradually to third place, while Kelso, who had been taken back to last by Milo Valenzuela at the break, moved into fourth spot as the field got down to the serious running after the first mile. Valenzuela made his move with Kelso leaving the half-mile pole, and the huge crowd let out a thunderous roar. As he put it later, "We were going so great at the three-eighths pole that I thought we'd beat them all. But at the eighth pole the weight began telling, especially on an old man like him, and in the last 16th he was finished."
Not so Pia Star and John Sellers. Their time was 2:00[3/5], just a second away from Gun Bow's track record. Pia Star had two lengths on Roman Brother, Kelso was another two lengths back, with Quadrangle a disappointing fourth and Repeating last.
This same crew, along with Native Diver (SI, July 26), Viking Spirit and Hill Rise, will get together later this season, almost certainly in the fall weight-for-age races like the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup, where Kelso has usually been almost unbeatable. Until then, however, even Heather Noble and her 1,022 Kelso Fan Club members must salute Pia Star. "His name, you know," says Ada Rice, "comes from the last three letters of his sire, Olympia, and I guess I stuck on the Star because I wanted him to be a star."