Not being a horseplayer of international renown, the kindly-faced man with graying hair was inconspicuous among the 23,360 persons who showed up Saturday to watch the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga. The Right Reverend Arthur R. McKinstry, retired Episcopal Bishop of Delaware, was attired in a plain business suit, and in truth he was not a model of clerical calm as he stood elbow to elbow with a mob that, pushing into the beautiful saddling enclosure, almost detached the elms from their roots. (Officials, while acknowledging that Saratoga had put more people in the stands, estimated that at least 12,000 of them jammed into the paddock area to look at Kelso, the hero of the decade. Not since Native Dancer performed as a 3-year-old had the old track seen such a crush.) On the contrary, Bishop McKinstry freely admitted to a spattering of goose pimples, which is quite an admission for the man who officiated at the marriage of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
"On the occasion of President and Mrs. Johnson's 30th wedding anniversary," said the bishop, "the White House reporters asked me if I had any other claim to fame. I thought a little while and then had to confess to them that among my friends in Wilmington I am casually spoken of as the private chaplain for that great racehorse Kelso. Taken aback, one reporter turned and asked me, 'Do you mean to say that you direct heavenly words to God on behalf of a racehorse?" 'I don't have to,' I replied. 'Let's say I just sit there with my fingers crossed and hope a little.' "
Bishop McKinstry chuckled a bit as he recounted the episode, and then revealed, "Actually, I get so nervous when Kelso runs that I feel like trying to recite the Greek alphabet backward to take my mind off things."
There's no telling how many alphabets the good bishop recited last Saturday—or in precisely what order he chose to rattle them off—but it's a safe bet that from the quarter pole to the finish line, which is exactly where Kelso nipped Malicious by a nose to win the Whitney, his Heaven-directed output of the right words would have made all loyal Delaware churchgoers proud. They can be assured that their man in Saratoga helped Kelso get the job done.
Mrs. Richard C. duPont's ageless gelding has demonstrated his superiority over six racing crops totaling more than 70,000 horses, and this 38th running of the Whitney was about as fine a performance as he has ever turned in. They were calling Kelso a top horse when he won his first Whitney back in 1961. When he repeated the victory in 1963, at the age of 6, he was already considered a superstar. Now, at 8, he is unique—an athlete like Ruth. Tilden. Hitchcock, Dempsey or Bobby Jones who combines all the skills of his profession with a personal magnetism that a movie star might envy.
In Kelso's last race, the Brooklyn Handicap, where he had to give away 11 pounds to Pia Star and Roman Brother, he was beaten four lengths and finished third. That was certainly no disgrace. Kelso is seldom at his best in July, and in that race he was meeting in Pia Star a seasoned horse at the top of his form. Most observers who know Kelso's usual form in midsummer just noted. "He was dead short, but watch out for him next time." Next time was last Saturday's Whitney.
The Brooklyn, at a mile and a quarter, was a handicap weighted by Racing Secretary Tommy Trotter. They do things differently in the Whitney, which is at a mile and an eighth. In this one the weights are assigned according to earnings over the last two seasons. It worked out to Kelso being highweight once more—at 130 pounds—but Pia Star, because of his sensational success this summer, now found himself at 127. Greentree's Malicious got in with 114, while Choker made it at 110, and Crewman (who had his big moment defeating Chateaugay, Never Bend and Candy Spots in the 1963 Travers but who went winless in 1964) carried 111.
It was evident that if Kelso were to give Crewman and Malicious, both of whom show a fondness for the Saratoga strip, 19 and 16 pounds respectively, he had to run a big race, and then some.
"There's only one way to plan this," Kelso's trainer, Carl Hanford, said before post time. "Malicious and Crewman are the speed, and we've got to stay close to them. Pia Star is going to stay close, too, but my concern is to make—really force—the leaders to do some solid running from the start. If we don't force them to run all out quickly, they will have too much of a finishing kick—with the benefits of the weights—when we turn for home."
When the five-horse field broke from the gate directly in front of the stands, there was Milo Valenzuela coming out of the third stall riding old Kelly as though the two of them were cranked up for a 440-yard sprint at Ruidoso Downs. They looked as though they wanted to take the lead into the clubhouse turn, and the strategy was successful; to Milo's inside Bobby Ussery on Malicious and John Rotz on Crewman both went to work, and as the field came out of that turn Malicious was doing some honest running, with Crewman a length or so off him.
Pia Star had broken on the outside, with Manuel Ycaza subbing for John Sellers, who was at Monmouth Park getting beaten on the favorite, Our Michael, in the $100,000 Sapling. The quick start by the inside horses naturally meant that Ycaza had to hustle right along with Pia Star if he wanted any sort of position in that turn. He gunned it, along with the others, and when everybody straightened out in the backstretch Pia Star was in third place, with Kelso galloping easily right where Hanford and Valenzuela wanted him—fourth, but not too far behind.
Kelso usually makes his big move leaving the half-mile pole. At that point Malicious had a half-length lead over Crewman, who in turn was one and a half lengths in front of Pia Star. Kelso was nearly three lengths farther back, and now suddenly all the spectators in the Saratoga stands stood up. They were poised to applaud the famous move that so often takes Kelly from way back to way up front. But what was this? Kelso wasn't going. "He wasn't picking up his horses," Hanford noted later, "but neither were they coming back to him. For a second there I didn't know what was the matter with him."
"I was a little worried myself," said Valenzuela. "Even at the three-eighths pole he didn't respond. At the five-sixteenths pole I hit him, but it wasn't until we got to the three-sixteenths pole that he really took off."
There are a couple of things that trainers at Saratoga have been saying about the venerable track this season. One of them is that it is fast but considerably deeper than Aqueduct, and another is that you don't want to try and come through within four feet of the rail, where it is deepest of all. Still another maxim holds that the horse who leads at the quarter pole—where the fields straighten out for the run home—will not lead at the wire. Not all jockeys, of course, believe what the trainers tell them, and so Ycaza tried to save ground by sending Pia Star through on the rail turning for home. The maneuver did him no good. Anyway, it probably was a mistake in the first place to take a natural speed horse like Pia Star and try to rate him.
If Pia Star is best running on his own, Kelso is best at knowing when to turn on the speed. The race between Malicious and Crewman was all but over at the quarter pole (where Malicious was still in front). Now Kelso came rushing. Crewman had faded, Pia Star was not to be a threat but, with an eighth of a mile to go. Malicious, with his light package of 114 pounds, was nearly three lengths in front. Foot by foot Kelso made up ground with a heartwarming display of courage. Then, just two jumps before the wire, he put that winning nose of his in front to stay. His fans had to wait for the official result to be sure; then they splashed down into their seats in a limp sweat.
It was Kelso's 38th victory in 60 starts (he has also been second 12 times and third twice), and he cantered back to the winner's circle richer by $35,360. Should he next win the Aqueduct on Labor Day he will become the first double millionaire in equine history (he has now earned $1,954,144), and after that the weight-for-age Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup stakes should be at his mercy.
As to mercy, Bishop McKinstry is not dispensing it to Kelso's rivals. "I won't miss any of his races," he assured Mrs. duPont, "if I can help it."