Nasty, but fast, that was Triple Crown winner Count Fleet

In all the Triple Crown events of the modern era, the pre-race happenings are all the same. In the paddock at Churchill Downs, the outdoors at Pimlico, or at Belmont Park, the scene is painted with a trainer in his unaccustomed suit and tie, and an owner in a more expensive suit and a $150 tie, who is accompanied by his entourage (all in their Sunday best).

The owner and trainer corner the jockey, who has just shaken hands with both because he wants to ride their horse again. The jockey is given orders as to how he should approach the upcoming Kentucky Derby, Preakness, or Belmont. The rider listens intently . . . nods his approval or understanding of their instructions . . . shakes hands with both anew . . . is given a leg up on his mount . . . and heads off to the race.
The jockey receives the instructions. He is the one given advice.
But there was one time back in the midst of World War II when a jockey — Johnny Longden — gave a trainer and an owner his advice. Longden had twice ridden the roguish Count Fleet. It was the very beginning of Count Fleet’s on-track career. The ill-tempered brown colt had a bumping incident in his first-ever race. He finished second.
In his next maiden race, Count Fleet was embroiled in another bumping incident. And he finished second again.
Trainer Don Cameron and owner John Hertz (of Hertz Rental Car fame) had seen enough. Not only was Count Fleet ornery and cantankerous around the stable area and when asked to train, he was just as contrary when facing other horses in actual races.
Hertz had seen enough. He had put up with his thoroughbred’s bad behavior. It was time to sell him to the highest bidder.
In 1937, Hertz had bought for $2,500 a mare named Quickly. She had won 32 of her 85 races. Later, Quickly was bred to Reigh Count, a Kentucky Derby winner. Count Fleet was the colt Quickly gave owner Hertz.
Even before he was placed in trainer Cameron’s care, Count Fleet was such a menace and such a disruptive force that Hertz sought to sell him. But when any prospective buyer was brought around to see him, his poor manners scared them away.
Only one stable hand in Hertz’s employ actually had taken notice of what the future might hold for Count Fleet if he ever made it to the races. Sam Ramsen had seen the coordinated and ground-eating running style of Count Fleet when he showed his backside to other yearlings strutting around their paddocks.
Ramsen offered his unsolicited opinions in an effort to keep Hertz from selling his rambunctious youngster. Said Ramsem to the manager of Stoner Creek Stud: “Someday he’s going to be one fine racer. When that leggy brown colt wants to run, he can just about fly.”
Count Fleet stayed . . . but only because of a lack of buyers.
That was the first time Hertz and Stoner Creek tried to rid themselves of the biting and grumpiness Count Fleet offered them.
After his first two races and the nearly identical bumping incidents that were responsible for his losses, Hertz looked a long look at his finances.
The outbreak of World War II and the entry of the United States into it forced Hertz to consider slashing the number of horses he kept in training. Count Fleet’s name came up on the list of thoroughbreds available for possible sale.
And this is where the jockey’s advice to the owner comes into play.
Future Hall of Fame rider Johnny Longden had been the uncomfortable jockey aboard Count Fleet in both of the problem-filled races. Even after it was common knowledge that Count Fleet had been offered for sale a second time, Longden was one of the last to know.
While conversing with another trainer, Longden was asked about Count Fleet. The man posed questions about the behavior of the two-year-old. He wanted information about Count Fleet’s ability, his future possibilities, his value as a race horse.
Longden wanted to know the reason for all the questions. He was told the trainer was seriously considering buying Count Fleet from Hertz.
When able to break free from the questioning trainer, Longden grabbed a loose bicycle and pedaled to a phone booth where he dialed Hertz and pleaded to him to keep Count Fleet. Hertz rebuffed Longden, telling him: “The colt’s dangerous. Someday I’m afraid he’ll do you serious injury,”
Longden was quick to dispell that notion.
He shot back to Hertz, “I’m not afraid!” Hertz kept the colt.
On his third try, Count Fleet was not bothered by any clashing of bodies . . . no bumping. The third race was won by four lengths. He won another sprint in his fourth race.
Hertz had made a business-changing decision when he kept Count Fleet.
When his two-year-old campaign had been completed, there had been 15 races. And 10 wins. In all 15 races, Count Fleet had been no worse than third and his earnings were $76,245.
The next year, Hertz and his stable were all looking toward the Kentucky Derby. In the last prep race before The Derby, the now-accomplished brown was entered in the Wood Memorial in New York. Count Fleet injured himself when he stepped on his left hind leg.
Was the injury bad enough to keep him out of The Derby? Hertz loaded him on a train car and it was off to Louisville. Johnny Longden rode on the special car with the thoroughbred. Longden actually held ice on the damaged leg. There couldn’t have been any real damage to the leg because the ice kept any swelling out and it was decided to proceed to The Derby.
World War II restrictions were in place. Any long-distance travel was discouraged. Most short-distance travel was also banned.
Those imposed restrictions could have made the field so small for The Derby that it was possible it could have been cancelled altogether. Kentucky Derby authorities proposed that only thoroughbreds from the Louisville area would be entered in the race.
Public taxis were forbidden within a mile of Churchill Downs. Individually owned vehicles were also restricted. Gasoline was to be conserved. The media hopped on the limitations, labeling the 1943 Kentucky Derby the “Street Car Derby”.
Count Fleet won The Derby by three lengths. He won the Preakness by eight lengths. After storming through the Preakness, he was first in the Withers Stakes. The earlier wins in The Derby and Preakness, Count Fleet literally romped in the Belmont Stakes. He won by a commanding 25 lengths . . . giving his impression of Secretariat’s 31-length win in the Belmont that would come in 1973.
The one-time menace became the sixth horse to win the Triple Crown.
His record was a perfect 6-for-6 as a three-year-old.
Before he could race as a four-year-old, Count Fleet was injured . . . and Hertz decided to retire him to stud.
He would sire 38 stakes champions, including Kentucky Derby winner, Count Turf. There were two Belmont Stakes champions, and one his daughters gave birth to the great Kelso.
He lived to be 33.
Johnny Longden’s bicycle ride through a stable area had kept Count Fleet in the hands of Hertz and Ramsem. And then the one-time rogue overcame a self-induced injury to steamroll through the 1943 Triple Crown series.

 

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