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Count Fleet: Wartime Triple Crown Hero
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This spring marks the 70th anniversary of Count Fleet's Triple Crown glory.
He was a “freak” before the label was coined. He crushed his opponents by huge margins, galloping ahead of the pack, daring someone to catch him, and knowing no one could.
Count Fleet was a seal brown, slightly built temperamental colt, headstrong and maniacally competitive.
“If you took a hold of him, he'd bolt. He'd try to run for the outside fence,” said his longtime rider Johnny Longden. “His unpredictable manners didn’t exactly endear him to anyone. But when that leggy brown colt wanted to run, he could just about fly.”
Count Fleet’s owner John D. Hertz had emigrated from Austria to Chicago and quit school when he was twelve for a job selling newspapers on street corners. Later the co-owner of a Chicago automobile dealership, Hertz converted ten of his cars into taxicabs and founded the Yellow Cab Company. Ten years later he purchased a rental-car company in 1923 that grew under his leadership to be the largest in the world.
Much of Hertz’s enormous wealth was funneled into the business of racing and breeding thoroughbreds at Stoner Creek Stud near Paris, Ky. In 1927, Hertz bought Reigh Count for $12,500 and the next year they won the Kentucky Derby. Hertz sent him to a hard-knocking sprinter named Quickly-- the mating that produced Count Fleet. As an ornery youngster Count Fleet was difficult to ride. He made such a poor impression that Hertz wanted to sell him.
"That horse is going to kill you some day," Hertz told Longden, his contract rider.
Hertz put a $4,500 price tag on the colt. One morning Longden heard at the barn that a buyer was going to meet the price. The jockey hopped on his bicycle, pedaled to a nearby store and phoned Hertz.
"Don't sell him," Longden pleaded. "I'm not afraid to ride him. This horse just loves to run."
So Hertz took Count Fleet off the market. Trainer Don Cameron had the task of getting the rambunctious colt to the races. In his racing debut on June 1, 1942, Count Fleet was left in the gate trailing the field by fifty yards, but still managed to get up for a second place showing. It all came together in the Champagne where he set a track record when he ran beyond six-and-a-half furlongs for the first time and was timed for the mile in 1:34 4/5, a record for a two-year old that stood for 23 years.
Count Fleet equaled the track record in the Pimlico Futurity and romped in the Walden by 30 lengths. After a blistering workout (1:08 1/5) a few days before the Belmont Futurity, Count Fleet ran a disappointing third. He never lost again.
When the calendar flipped to 1943 America was deep into World War II. In his three-year old debut on a deep, muddy track, Count Fleet coasted to victory in an allowance at Jamaica Racetrack. Four days later the fiery colt brushed aside seven rivals in the Wood Memorial in 1:36 2/5, smashing the Jamaica track record.
However, Count Fleet had sustained a deep gash in his leg. He was successfully treated on the railroad trip from New York to Louisville.
“I went with him to the boxcar and soaked him in Epsom salts,” jockey Longden told an interviewer. “We had a tub, and every six to eight hours we’d tub him to keep out the inflammation.”
With wartime restrictions on gas and oil taxis were forbidden to be within a mile of the track, and private vehicles as well. It was dubbed the “Street-Car Derby.”
At post time, Count Fleet was forty cents on the dollar. A fully-healed Count Fleet rushed to the lead and was never seriously challenged winning by three lengths. A week later in Baltimore, 30,000 folks packed Pimlico for the Preakness. At fifteen cents to the dollar, Count Fleet bolted to the lead right out of the gate and roared down the stretch eight lengths in front at the finish.
With four weeks to the Belmont Stakes, Hertz entered Count Fleet in the Withers Stakes at Belmont. At five cents to the dollar, he sailed around the track to win by five in 1:36 for the mile. Man o' War barely held on to his Withers record of 1:35 4/5, established 23 years earlier.
Hertz, Longden and Cameron all agreed that it was time to turn Count Fleet loose in the Belmont Stakes on June 5th. He was again five cents to the dollar.
Count Fleet annihilated his two rivals. At the top of the stretch, he was 20 lengths in front of the field. Longden roared past an infield billboard that instructed fans “In Case of Air Raid, Keep Calm,” a stunning 25 lengths winner. The margin would stand until Secretariat’s thirty-one length jaw-dropper in 1973.
The colt missed the world record, but broke the Belmont Stakes record set by War Admiral in 1937. Count Fleet became the sixth Triple Crown winner.
"Going into the race, I thought he'd have to fall down to get beat, and even then I thought he could get up and win,” said Longden with a laugh. “He was that good."
The leggy brown colt came back to the barn brimming with energy. As was his custom, Count Fleet wore out a pair of hot walkers before the forty-five minutes of his cooling out were complete. However, within a few hours it was discovered he had rapped a hind ankle. Count Fleet’s headstrong nature did him in.
“I felt him bobble in the stretch and I knew he had hurt himself,” Longden related. “I started to pull him up, but he would have none of it. He just grabbed the bit in that bull-headed way of his and took off again.”
Count Fleet would never race again. He was the almost unanimous choice for Horse of the Year in every poll. Count Fleet’s record for the year was six wins in six starts. His final lifetime mark was 21 starts, 16 wins, 4 seconds and 1 third. Count Fleet was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1961. Fifty years after the Belmont, his Hall of Fame jockey anointed Count Fleet the best horse he had ever ridden or seen.
"I rode every one of his 21 races, carried a whip but never dared use it,” Longden remarked. “He might have taken off so fast he'd have left me behind. The key was to get him out on top, give him the race track, and let him run. It was what he loved to do more than anything else."
Count Fleet stood at Hertz’s Stoner Creek Farm near Paris, Ky. With his first crop proving to be nice runners, Count Fleet’s value escalated rapidly. In 1951 he became the leading sire and was insured by Lloyds of London for $550,000, an amount believed to be a record in those days. Among his 1951 runners were Count Turf, winner of the Kentucky Derby, creating the first three-generation Derby winners; Horse of the Year Counterpoint; and champion three-year old filly Kiss Me Kate.
By the time of his retirement in 1966, Count Fleet had sired 38 stakes winners. His female offspring went on to produce 119 stakes winners, among them seven champions, including Quill, Lamb Chop, Furl Sail and the only five-time Horse of the Year, Kelso. Count Fleet died in 1973 at the age of thirty three. He is buried at Stoner Creek.
Writer & Historian
Terry Conway has been a regular contributor to The Blood-Horse magazine since 2003 where a fair share of his stories have been about racing history. He started writing historical racing articles for ESPN.com in 2010 that also have been featured on premier racing sites such as the Paulick Report.com and Equidaily.com. In addition, Terry has written numerous historical stories on the art world, business entrepreneurs, musicians and land preservation for a variety of national and regional magazines and prominent daily newspapers over the past 15 years. He is also a member of the Turf Writers of America.
One of the most familiar sounds at a racetrack is the bugle call, universally known as the call to the post. The catchy melody is performed as the jockeys parade their horses to the track. It also alerts spectators that another race is forthcoming. Prior to the advent of the starting gates, the call to the post would signal horses to circle around and line up at a starting line and were off and running at the signal of the starter's flag.
The origin of the call to the post goes back to military traditions. Buglers and their horns were a key part of the art of warfare sending signals over a chaotic battlefield and on board warships. "First call" reveries signal the start of a new day, while Taps is the haunting strain sounded nightly by the U.S. military to indicate "lights out." Sometimes known as "Butterfield's Lullaby," it is also played during flag ceremonies and funerals, generally on a bugle or trumpet.
Kelso is the only Five Time “Horse of the Year honoree. That feat will never be duplicated. Kelso dominated American racing like no other horse before or since setting a string of records and endearing himself to millions of fans. He was a homebred of Mrs. Allaire du Pont and raced in her canary yellow and gray silks. No horse raced so well and did it so long as Kelso. He is buried in a lovely equine cemetery at Mrs. du Pont’s Woodstock Farm in Chesapeake City, Md. A quote at the base of Kelso’s granite marker simply says: “Where he gallops the earth sings.” For my money, longevity-wise, there has never been a greater American thoroughbred.