Before Secretariat, there was Count Fleet

One day while going through Shandoka’s pedigree, I came across a name that took my breath away; Count Fleet. “No way,” I whispered to myself. Count Fleet raced long before I was born, but that didn’t mean I didn’t hear about him. After Count Fleet died at the age of 33 not long after Secretariat won the Triple Crown, my grandpa decided to tell me a story. He started it off by saying, “Before there was Secretariat, there was Count Fleet….”

Count Fleet was born on the Stoner Creek Stud Farm outside of Paris, Kentucky where he was bred and raised by the Hertz family; the rental car magnate. He was a small colt that didn’t impress John Hertz at all. The Count, as he was known, was out of Reigh Count, who won the Kentucky Derby in 1928. Reigh Count as a sire was known for producing colts of stamina without a lot of speed, so he became an unpopular sire. Hertz decided to only breed him to four mares a year that were all speed. One of those mares was Quickly, a sprinter, and the two of them created Count Fleet.

First impressions aren’t always accurate. He was a small colt, and as he developed, he was narrow, looked more like a filly, and flat muscled with a lot of leg. He also had an interesting personality.

Count Fleet stopped munching a mixture of clover, timothy and alfalfa to take a playful nip at his exercise boy at Belmont Park today and Trainer Don Cameron’s eyes glowed as he looked at the wonder horse of 1943.

“He’s a big fake,” the ruddy-faced Scotsman smiled.  “He wouldn’t hurt a baby.  Watch.”

Cameron shoved a ham-like hand into the stall and the Count flashed his big teeth toward them like a man without a ration book diving into a steak.  Inches away the mouth closed and the shiny brown horse nuzzled Cameron’s hand with his velvety nose.

“See what I mean?” Cameron asked. …

– Oscar Fraley (UP), Nevada State Journal, April 4, 1944

There were many stories of people going up to his stall, how he would walk up to them and let them pet him, and as soon as they turned their backs to walk away, he would give them a strong push down the shedrow with his nose.

The great, and one of the best jockeys of all time, Johnny Longden, said in a biography written by B.K. Beckwith, “He was not, you understand, a mean horse. Just one full of the devil with a mind which was very much his own.”

My grandpa always said that the great horses know exactly who they are and what they can do. If Hertz would have spoken with my grandfather, maybe he wouldn’t have even considered selling him.

He didn’t really have the look of a top prospect then. He was medium size-about fifteen hands three inches-and, though he was deep in the girth and had a good shoulder, he was weedy behind. As a two-year-old he looked more like a filly than a colt. And those rough, unpredictable manners of his didn’t exactly endear him to anyone,” explained Longden to Beckwith.

In Hertz’s autobiography, Hertz recounted the following story:

Sam Ransom…was the first person on his back. … Ransom was drafted into the Army.  Before leaving, he came into my office to bid me good-bye, and on that occasion said to me, “Mr. Hertz, don’t ever sell that leggy, brown colt.  He has tried to kill me in every way I know of, not out of meanness, but he sure has brushed me up against every tree and barn on the place that he could.  Mr. Hertz, when that leggy, brown colt wants to run, he can just about fly!”

– The Racing Memoirs of John Hertz, as told to Evan Shipman 1954

Longden took him out for a work on the Belmont track and somehow the work didn’t end in tragedy. One day, with his mind set only on running, the Count headed straight for two horses coming right at him. “Somehow I managed to steer between them, but how I’ll never know,” said Longden to Beckwith.

After this story got around the backside of the track, Hertz decided to sell him deciding he was too dangerous of a horse. Asking price was $4,500; some say $3,500. Longden was at the barn, when the Count was brought out for another trainer to look him over. Longden immediately hopped on his bike and rode to the nearest pay phone where he called Hertz begging him to not sell. After a discussion where Longden assured Hertz he wasn’t afraid of the horse, and that he was something special, Hertz took the Count off the market. The rest is history. In 21 starts, he won 16 times, with four times placing second, and one time placing third; he never finished out of the money.

When asked why the Count lost those other races, Longden said, “He beat himself. He never should have lost a race, but he was a tough customer to handle, green and rough in those early starts, and you couldn’t take a hold of him-you couldn’t even properly guide him. You had to let him run, and 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.”

For instance, Count Fleet was expected to with the Futurity at Belmont easily. However, his amorous ways got the best of him. Longden explains:

“He broke alongside Askmenow, the Hal Price Headley filly. I called on the Count for speed, but he was not interested. He was flirting with a glamour girl. He kept alongside Askmenow, nose and nose, and nothing interested him except to remain in her companionship. If she spurted, the Count would spurt with her; if she slowed stride, so did he. I tried everything that was possible to end her fascination and pull away from her—but nothing helped.”

Despite being a flirt and not always willing to work with his jockey, he won ten of his sixteen races during his two-year-old year. Even though he lost five times, he completely dominated the horses he faced often beating them by four to six lengths. He entered his three-year-old season as the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby and the Triple Crown.

Due to World War II, the Kentucky Derby almost never happened. War changed the landscape. Traffic on the railroads was jammed, and talk of ending racing for the duration of the war floated across the country. The Kentucky Derby had been run continuously since 1875 thanks to Matt Winn who ran Churchill Downs. He was asked if he intended to keep it going despite the war, and he said that he would even if there were only two horses in the race.

In February of 1943, Joseph B. Eastman, chieftan of the Office of Defense Transportation, issued a statement pointing out how traffic conditions had worsened. He asked that all unnecessary travel be abandoned including the running of the 69th Kentucky Derby. Matt Winn worked with the OFDT discouraging out of towners from coming to the race, but remaining committed to keeping the race going. It thus became know as the “Street Car Derby” as locals took the street cars to the race. The expectation was that there would be a low turnout, but somehow just under 65,000 people showed up to watch the Count race.

However, in the Wood Memorial, his prep race for the Derby, a portion of his left hind hoof was nearly torn off. They had to remove it and packed it with sulpha drugs. Longden was so concerned about The Count that he rode with him on the train to Kentucky while packing the injury with ice. Luckily, he healed in time.

He won the Kentucky Derby after being boxed in and facing a couple of light challenges. All Longden had to do was cluck at the Count, and he took off winning easily by three lengths. After suffering from a second injury in as many races that wasn’t deemed serious, he shipped to Pimlico.

There was a slight challenge in the Preakness. New Moon broke out of the gate with the most speed, but Count Fleet quickly overtook New Moon to win easily by eight lengths. He demolished the track and his competition. He even went wide in the turn with ease not losing a step or tiring a bit. This is a horse that grabbed hold of the bit and ran; not because Longden hit him with the whip or forced him to go. He ran because he loved it.

“They’d (his competition) get dizzy trying to stay with him, and the rest would be easy,” explained Longden.

Did he rest for the three weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont? Not at all. He raced in the Withers two weeks after the Preakness and one week before the Belmont. How could he do this you ask considering no modern day horses can? Back then horses didn’t run on Lasix. They were able to recover much faster after a race, and no they didn’t drown in their own blood. Man o’ War took the same route to the Belmont after racing in the Preakness.

The Withers was a mile, so it is a good prep race for the Belmont. It gave Count Fleet a chance to blow out his pipes, help him relax, and get him out of his stall. He faced only two other horses on a muddy track, went off at 1-20 odds, and won with ease by eight lengths.

The Belmont is where we are made completely aware of his sheer power and will. Lots of horses need to stay with their competition, otherwise they get bored, their attention wanders, and they slow down until their competition catches up. Count Fleet never needed another horse to get his blood going and his racing hooves flying over the surface. The Belmont proved this.

Sid Feder in an Associated Press recap story published in the June 6 edition of the Tallahassee Democrat said it best, “From end to end, any resemblance between yesterday’s Belmont and a horse race was purely coincidental. When the gate opened, jockey Johnny Longden sent the Count charging right out and away from the others, and all the way ‘round he lengthened his edge with each stride.”

He won by 25 lengths, although the New York Times stated it was by 30 lengths. The Count unfortunately got hurt in this race. Longden explained, “He fractured a small bone in his left front leg. I felt him bobble in the long stretch and knew he had hurt himself. I started to pull him up but he’d have none of it. He just grabbed the bit in that bull-headed way of his and took off again. He coasted home by some 30 lengths.”

Count Fleet’s margin of victory was a staggering 25 lengths . The length of victory held until Secretariat ran his Count Fleet Belmont winning by 31 lengths. His time of 2:28 1/5 was a new stakes record to be tied by Citation in 1948 and finally broken in 1957 by Gallant Man.

Unfortunately, the next day Count Fleet was so sore they couldn’t get him out of his stall. Some say that he hurt his fetlock, his leg or his knee. Some say that the injury involved a tendon and the limb was fired. What is known is that the country waited in hopes that the Count would return to racing only to be disappointed. After reaggravating the injury, the Hertzes retired Count Fleet to stud at their farm in Kentucky; where he was born. He went on to become a very successful sire, and his blood runs through all three of my thoroughbreds.

In Racing in America 1937 – 1959, Robert Kelley wrote a chapter called “The Year of Count Fleet” and said:

This year in Thoroughbred racing (1943) will always be remembered as “Count Fleet’s year.”  And that is an interesting thing, for Count Fleet ran only six times during the entire season and he was out of action before the end of June.  Not in modern years has there been a greater impression left on racing people than that left this season by the son of Reigh Count out of Quickly.

Count Fleet’s sophomore year was like a skyrocket flaring across the sky to reach its climax of blinding white, then suddenly blacking out.  Man o’ War and, in later years, Citation had somewhat the same effect on the sport.  But the shortness of this one, with complete dominance over racers of all ages and sex, is almost without parallel in the Thoroughbred annals.

Here is a quick video biography of Count Fleet.

Was Count Fleet a super horse? Does he deserve to be mentioned in the same breadth as Man o’ War and Secretariat? I believe so.

Longden, recounted in “The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America,” says it all:

“The only jockey to ride the Hertz colt in a race, Longden also exercised him at times, and he later stated that once, just once, he turned the brown flash loose for an instant, to satisfy his curiosity concerning how fast Count Fleet really was—but he felt such a surge of power that he took him in hand again almost immediately, fearful of the consequences.”

Count Fleet lived to the age of 33. Assault, another Triple Crown winner died in 1971 leaving Count Fleet to be the last of the Triple Crown winners to be alive. Some say that he was waiting for another horse to win before he left this world, and the horse that came along won and raced like he did; the amazing Secretariat. After failing to stand for two days, he died from an apparent blood clot on December 3, 1973 only a few months after Secretariat won the Belmont.

When Longden was asked who was the best horse ever, he responded emphatically Count Fleet.

“I guess it’s no secret the way I feel about him. I’ve said it a thousand times-he was the best I ever rode and the best I ever saw. Maybe I’m prejudiced. because we won the Triple Crown together, but there was a horse who could do anything-go five-eights or five miles, run on a bad track or a good one, rain or shine, hell or highwater, it made no difference to him. Just give him clear sailing ahead, and I don’t honestly think the horse was ever foaled who could beat him.”

Author: reenchantedhorses

I'm an artist, writer, and a lover of thoroughbreds. I was born and raised in horse racing, and now I wish to help rehome them, educate people about how fantastic they are, and show what they can do.

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