Count Fleet: 1943 Triple Crown Winner

Count Fleet
1943 Triple Crown, 1943 Horse of the Year
During the summer of 1927, a chestnut colt owned by
Willis Sharpe Kilmer caught the eye of John D. Hertz, who
later founded the rental car company that bears his name,
when he reached out and bit another horse during a race.
Hertz was said to “love a fighter, man or horse,” and he
promptly bought the spirited juvenile. The colt was Reigh
Count, and wearing the colors of Mrs. John Hertz, he won
the next year’s Kentucky Derby, among other races, and
earned Horse of the Year honors. When he was retired to
stud, he at first failed to sire a major winner, and John
D. Hertz limited the number of mares he covered each year
to four, although he felt that if Reigh Count were bred to
a mare with some talent for sprinting, the result might be
a top performer.
In 1937 Hertz paid Joseph D. Widener $2,500 for a mare
named Quickly, who had won thirty-two of eighty-five
races, with all of her victories coming in sprints. More
importantly, she was inbred to the famous English stallion
The Tetrarch, whom Hertz admired. On March 24, 1940 she
produced a brown colt by Reigh Count who proved to be so
difficult to handle that he was put up for sale, but his
manners discouraged any would-be buyers. Only one person
believed in the horse, and that was stable employee Sam
Ramsen, who pleaded with the manager of Stoner Creek Stud
on Count Fleet’s behalf, saying:
“Someday he’s going to be one fine racer.
When that leggy brown colt
wants to run, he can just about fly.”
He hoped the manager would try to convince Mr. Hertz
not to sell the colt. It was a lack of buyers, however,
that caused him to keep Count Fleet as a yearling. The
colt was sent to trainer Don Cameron, and he raced in the
name of Mrs. Hertz. The first time out, at Belmont Park,
Count Fleet bumped a colt named Vacuum Cleaner and
finished a beaten second. He repeated the performance in
his next start as well, this time missing in a maiden
event at Aqueduct. The war caused Hertz to consider cuts
in his stable, and shortly after his second loss, Count
Fleet was again offered for sale.
Johnny Longden, the colt’s jockey, happened upon
another trainer contemplating the purchase of Count Fleet.
Bicycling to a nearby phone booth, the rider called John
Hertz, expressing his high opinion of the colt.
“The colt’s dangerous. Someday I’m afraid he’ll do
you serious injury,” said Hertz.
“I’m not afraid,” the jockey returned. Mr. Hertz
agreed to keep the colt, seeing that Longden was willing
to face the “danger” involved in riding him.
Therefore, Count Fleet was still wearing the colors of
Mrs. Hertz when he broke his maiden, winning his third
start by four lengths. His time was 1:06 for the five and
a half furlongs, and he was a fifth of a second quicker in
winning the next time out. After the second success, he
was entered in the East View Stakes, but was upset by Gold
Shower, adding another place finish to his record. Count
Fleet successfully sought revenge by taking the Wakefield
Stakes, with his former conqueror a distant third, and
headed west for the Washington Park Futurity, where he met
the Arlington Futurity and Washington Park Juvenile Stakes
winner Occupation. With Count Fleet stuck in traffic,
Occupation caught the early leaders and was on top by
three lengths in the stretch when the fleet-footed Count
made a late run, drawing within a neck of the leader
before running out of ground.
Count Fleet also met defeat in the Tremont Stakes,
this time in the form of William du Pont’s bay colt
Supermont, whose sire, Rosemont, had upset such stars as
War Admiral, Discovery, and Seabiscuit.
Seeking vengeance for the narrow defeat at Washington
Park, Count Fleet met Occupation again after a pair of
victories in allowance races and a record breaking work of
1:08 1/5. The impressive morning breeze did as much for
the Count’s reputation as had his afternoon performances,
and that Count Fleet would defeat his rival seemed a sure
thing. But revenge was elusive, and Occupation went wire
to wire, beating him once more as Count Fleet followed the
champion filly Askmenow around the racetrack and ended up
third.
Now with a serious score to settle, Count Fleet
followed a six length victory in the Champagne Stakes, in
which he ran the year’s fastest mile of 1:34 4/5, a new
track record, by taking one last shot at Occupation in the
Pimlico Futurity. Breaking on top and leading for five
furlongs, the favored Occupation seemed at first to have a
third defeat in store for his rival, but Count Fleet
avenged his previous losses with a five length win,
equaling the track record of 1:43 3/5 in the process. Count Fleet had found his stride, because in
his final outing of the year, the leggy brown colt turned the
Walden Stakes into something barely resembling a race,
winning by at least thirty lengths and wrapping up the
championship honors that had seemed to belong to
Occupation only a month before. His weight assignment of
132 pounds on the Experimental Free Handicap is a record
that still stands.
Count Fleet made his three-year-old debut at the
distance of a mile and seventy yards, winning the St.
James Purse without much effort. He then made Blue Swords
and Slide Rule, both excellent horses, look like cheap
claimers while going a mile and a sixteenth in 1:43 in the
Wood Memorial. In winning the Wood, Count Fleet struck
his own left hind leg, and the injury was serious enough
to threaten his participation in the Kentucky Derby. He
was shipped to Churchill Downs by rail, and jockey Johnny
Longden rode with him, holding ice on the horse’s damaged
left rear.
In the spring of 1943, the United States was in the
midst of the second world war. Severe limitations had
been placed upon travel, and the restrictions threatened
the Kentucky Derby itself until Matt Winn promised that
only those from the Louisville area would be present.
Taxis were forbidden to be within a mile of the track, and
private vehicles were restricted as well. The
restrictions placed on the public by the head of Churchill
Downs prompted the 1943 Run for the Roses to be dubbed the
Street-Car Derby.
The Kentucky Derby turned out to be an easy win for
Count Fleet, who outclassed the field to win impressively
while Blue Swords ran second for what was neither the first nor the last time, with Slide Rule third.
The story was the same at Pimlico, where Count Fleet
scored an effortless victory while Blue Swords ran second
once again, eight lengths behind. Noted The Blood-Horse:
“If Count Fleet is the spectacular
comet in the racing skies of 1943,
then Blue Swords is the comet’s tail.”
Entered in the Withers Stakes, Count Fleet won with
ease, cantering home six lengths ahead of Slide Rule, who
had skipped the Preakness after a third place finish at
Churchill Downs. After watching their entries struggle
home behind a loafing Count Fleet in the Kentucky Derby,
Preakness Stakes, and Withers Stakes, the owners of Blue
Swords and Slide Rule finally gave their horses a break
and spared them the humiliation of the Belmont, leaving
Count Fleet to beat a pair of allowance class horses by
twenty-five lengths, becoming the sixth Triple Crown
winner. Later, Johnny Longden expressed the confidence he
had in Count Fleet before the Belmont Stakes:
“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. He was that good.”
Count Fleet was retired early when it was discovered that his injured near front fetlock, wrenched in the
Belmont Stakes, would not respond to treatment. Johnny
Longden explained what it took to ride the great horse:
“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.”
Yet even though the jockey compared riding his
greatest mount to driving a Cadillac, he admitted it
wasn’t always that easy, saying:
“…if he didn’t have racing room,
he’d go to the outside or just
climb over horses. If you were in
close quarters with him, you were
in trouble.”
The retirement of Count Fleet came as a relief to not
only Blue Swords, whom he had beaten six times, but to
those employed by Don Cameron as hot walkers. Even after
the mile and a half of the Belmont Stakes, the leggy brown
colt came back to the barn full of energy, and routinely
wore out two hot walkers before his forty five minutes of
walking were complete.
Count Fleet enjoyed great success at stud. His get
included One Count, who shared Horse of the Year honors
with the two-year-old star Native Dancer in 1952 and won
the Belmont Stakes, the Travers Stakes, and the Jockey
Club Gold Cup; Counterpoint, winner of the 1951 Belmont
Stakes and the Jockey Club Gold Cup while on his way to
honors as Horse of the Year; Kiss Me Kate, who was named
Champion Three Year Old Filly; and 1951 Kentucky Derby
winner Count Turf, who was named in honor of his owner’s
Turf Restaurant in New York City. The Fleet’s daughters
produced Kelso, Lamb Chop, Quill, Prince John, and Lucky
Debonair. Count Fleet is buried at Stoner Creek, where he
died in on December 3, 1973.
Count Fleet’s Race Record