Year Inducted: 2009
Eldon Nelson was born in Glenrose, Okla., in 1927 and grew up near Tonkawa, the son of a farmer. As a youngster Nelson was often placed on the back of one of the family’s workhorses just to keep him out of harm’s way. From those earliest horseback moments, big dreams and big accomplishments grew.
Nelson began his career as a jockey riding in rough, informal match races on country roads and in cotton fields. Before long, experienced horsemen encouraged him to try the big-time racing circuits. Nelson started in Kansas City, Mo., but soon found himself riding in Illinois, Louisiana, Florida, Maryland and Kentucky. A dedicated family man, Nelson moved his loved ones with him from city to city throughout his career. He not only was skilled as a horseman, but also was well known for his intelligence, wit and charm. Trainers and owners appreciated his integrity and his work ethic. Most of all, though, they appreciated his winning ways. Through a career spanning four decades, Nelson rode many outstanding horses for such legendary owners and breeders as Calumet Farm, Christiana Stables and William S. Farish. He rode Coaltown to a world record for the mile, won the prestigious Dwyer Handicap on Cyane, the Gallant Fox Stakes on Smart, the Beldame Stakes on Tempted, the Jerome Handicap on Bold Bidder, and in 1972 he rode Bee Bee Bee to an upset victory in the Preakness Stakes, defeating the great Riva Ridge and jockey Ron Turcotte.
“I had already set a world record for the mile when I was 18 and that seemed like a pretty big deal,” Nelson said at the time. “But winning the Preakness was about as good as it can get.”
Unlike some athletes who squander their earnings, Nelson was a good businessman.
“Every time I won a big race, I’d buy a little more land,” he explained. By the time of his retirement from racing, Nelson had extensive ranching and farmland holdings in Oklahoma and Kansas.
Nelson’s recounted vivid memories of competing against the likes of Johnny Longden, Eddie Arcaro and Bill Shoemaker into his later years. His eyes shone with appreciation as he described the efforts of a favorite horse. On the third Saturday in May each year, the weekend of the Preakness, one small but proud Oklahoma cowboy could truly say he knew what it was like to beat the best.
Nelson passed away on March 16, 2012, at the age of 85, in Cedar Vale, Kan., and is buried at Round Mound Cemetery there.