It’s a debate often waged at racing pubs as you wait for your Guiness to settle.
While American super horses such as Exterminator, Damascus, Dr. Fagar, Seattle Slew and Spectacular Bid certainly merit consideration, quite a few experts have whittled it down to these four: Man O’ War, Citation, Kelso and Secretariat.
Let’s pare it down to Man O’War and Kelso. Both have deep roots to surrounding regions.
Bruce Franklin may help you decide. He grew up in Downingtown. Today, he is the owner of Westholme Publishing in Yardley, Pa., an independent publisher of American and world history.
“Kelso: The Horse of Gold” hit bookstores in June. Two years earlier Franklin resissued “Man O’War,” originally published in 1950.
“We were encouraged by the response to the Seabiscuit and Man O’ War books we reissued,” Franklin said. “Books about historic racehorses resonate with readers in general, and since baby boomers are the largest book-reading demographic, a lot of them grew up with Kelso.”
When thoroughbred racing needed a boost, Man o' War unleashed his blistering speed and saved the day. He arrived on the scene in 1919 and helped turn aside an anti-gambling crusade and brought a crush of race fans back to the track. Sixteen months later his star power rivaled Babe Ruth at the start of the Roaring Twenties.
“Big Red” won 20 of 21 starts and set eight records, including three world records. His lone defeat to Upset (the derivative of the word) was the result of bone-headed tactics by his jockey. Man O’ War’s blazing time in the Belmont Stakes stood for an incredible 50 years. His powerful stride measured a stunning 25 to 28 feet.
Sam Riddle, who owned the chestnut colt, operated a 218-acre estate outside of Media. Shortly after Man O’ War was retired Riddle vanned him to the Rose Tree Hunt Club where Riddle’s lifelong friends throw a luncheon befitting royalty. Afterwards “Big Red” was tacked up and led out to the club’s track where he blazed around it to the cheers of thousands of people who ringed the oval.
A descendant of Man O' War on his dam's side, Kelso dominated American racing like no other horse before or since. For five unprecedented years, he would reign as Horse of the Year, setting a string of records and endearing himself to millions of fans.
Kelso was a homebred foal for Mrs. Allaire duPont and raced for her Bohemia Stables in Chesapeake City, Md. A mud-colored gelding, he was battle-tough, durable and relentless. In 63 starts, he won 39, and placed 12 times. When “Kelly” left the track in 1966 he was racing's all-time leading money winner with lifetime earnings of $1,977,896.
Kelso won on turf, on dirt and in the mud. He won at sprints and endurance races. His signature race became the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup that he captured an astounding five times. He was saddled with unprecedented handicap weights despite his spare size.
Mrs. duPont, who passed away last year at age 92, turned Kelso into a foxhunter and rode him on hunts until 1974. She once told me he jumped over big fences like he'd done it all his life.
Was he the greatest? In my book, no horse raced so well and did it so long as Kelso.