Count Fleet: America's Wartime Triple Crown Hero
By Jenny Kellner
On June 1, 1942, when the world was locked in the deadliest conflict in human history, a 2-year-old brown son of 1928 Kentucky Derby winner Reigh Count stepped onto the main track at Belmont Park.
The colt, an ornery youngster, was named Count Fleet, and it was only happenstance that he was continuing to carry the colors of his breeder and owner, Fannie Hertz, wife of John D. Hertz. Unhappy with the colt’s bad manners, Hertz, a former sports writer turned automobile salesman and the founder of both the Yellow Cab Company and the rental car company that bore his name, had tried unsuccessfully to sell him, but found no takers.
That spring morning at Belmont, sent off at 4-1 under Johnny Longden, Count Fleet swerved at the start, bumped into a horse named Vacuum Cleaner, and finished second. He did virtually the same thing two weeks later at Aqueduct, which did little to further endear him to his owner or his trainer, Don Cameron.
Ironically, it was Longden who stopped Hertz from selling the colt outright.
“The colt is dangerous,” Hertz told the jockey. “Someday I am afraid he will do you serious injury.”
“Whatever you do, don’t sell him,” replied Longden. “I’m not afraid of him. I’ll ride him.”
“Then, I’ll take him off the market,” said Hertz.
Count Fleet won his third start and six of his next seven, but then finished a disappointing third in the Belmont Futurity. Longden then figured out how the colt needed to be ridden.
“You had to let him go to the front and sit there,” Longden told Lexington, Ky.-based writer Billy Reed in an interview. “I didn’t have to rate him, he’d rate himself. After I let him go to the front he never got beat.”
By the end of 1942, Hertz was glad he had not parted with the lean brown colt, who won 10 of his 15 starts as a 2-year-old, including a record-setting victory in the Champagne and a 30-length romp in the winning the Walden Stakes at Pimlico en route to championship honors. More tellingly, he was assigned a record 132 pounds in the Experimental Free Handicap and was already being hailed as the successor to Man o’ War.
His 3-year-old campaign, which began with a 3 ½ length victory in an allowance at Jamaica, would be as brief as it was memorable. He brushed aside seven rivals in the Wood Memorial, again winning by 3 1/2 lengths, and by the time he arrived in Louisville via train he was the 2-5 choice over nine in the wartime “Streetcar Derby,” so called because of wartime restrictions on gas and oil.
Unbeknownst to his fans, however, was that Count Fleet had sustained a deep gash in his leg in the Wood, which was successfully treated on the day-and-a-half railroad trip from New York.
“I went with him to the boxcar and soaked him in Epsom salts,” Longden told Reed. “He was standing up in the stall. We had a tub, and every six to eight hours we’d tub him with Epsom salts to keep out the inflammation.”
When the gates sprang open, it was a fully-healed Count Fleet on top, and he went wire-to-wire for a three-length victory over Blue Swords. A week later, in Baltimore, it was the same story, only the Preakness margin was eight lengths. As a prep for the Belmont, Cameron sent Count Fleet out for a tune-up in the Withers Stakes, in which he sailed home a five-length winner.
On June 5, in the Belmont Stakes, only two dared line up against “The Count” – Fairy Manhurst and Deseronto – but it could have been a dozen, so dominant was he in galloping home 25 lengths in front, a record which stood until Secretariat’s 31-length victory thirty years later.
But it came at a price. That evening, it was discovered that Count Fleet had bowed a tendon. He never raced again but there was no question he would be named Horse of the Year.
“His achievements were so dazzling, his record so splendid, that not only does he stand out – he throws into the shade all other Thoroughbreds of 1943, without regard to age, sex, or other qualifications,” wrote historian John Hervey.
Retired in the fall, Count Fleet went onto a successful career as a sire. Among his progeny were 1951 Horse of the Year Counterpoint and 1951 Kentucky Derby winner Count Turf, which completed the first “triple sire” in Derby history as the grandson and son of Derby winners.
Count Fleet died at age 33 at Stoner Stud, near Paris, Ky. and was buried in the central place of honor in its cemetery.
Click here to view the 1943 Belmont Stakes results chart