Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 91 days to go!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 91 days to go!

91 Days!!! 1928 Reigh Count, winner of both the 1928 Kentucky Derby and 1929 Coronation Cup in England, came from a humble start, being born of Sunreigh and Contessina, two non-winners. He was though, from promising bloodlines. Sunreigh was a full-brother to 1917 2YO Champion, the import *Sunbriar, and he only sired 14 foals. Contessina was a half-sister to Beppo, an English stakes winner. He was bred by Willis Kilmer (the owner of Exterminator) and foaled at his Court Manor Stud in Virginia. Kilmer had bought both *Sunbriar and Sunreigh, full brothers.

Sunbriar would become the best 2YO in 1917, while Sunreigh, the non-winner would be used as a stallion. He bred Sunreigh to Contessa, whose sire Count Schomberg, was a durable horse that raced both over the flat and hurdles. His initial training was by Henry McDaniel, who had at one time trained Exterminator. McDaniel returned to training Kilmer’s string of horses, becoming fond of Reigh Count, thinking the colt had a lot of ability that he just hadn’t yet grown into. Reigh Count hadn’t been winning; as a result Kilmer was interested in selling the colt. The starting price was $5000, however, when McDaniel tried to buy him, Kilmer raised the price. McDaniel did his best to try to convince Kilmer against selling the youngster, even though he had lost his first 6 races. Nevertheless, against his advice, Kilmer sold Reigh Count to John D. Hertz (of the car rental fame) for $12,500 after he won a maiden race. Kilmer had raised the price to $15,000 after the win, though he couldn’t decide on a fixed price, so Hertz pulled out the checkbook, making out the check for the $12,500 that he had first been quoted, and Kilmer took the check. McDaniel quit over the sale. Hertz had wanted to buy Reigh Count since he saw the colt try to savage a horse that was passing him in a race.

A former boxer, Hertz was impressed with this as it was a sign that he wanted to win, even when he didn’t have the energy. Hertz turned Reigh Count over to his trainer, Bert Mitchell, who liked what he saw in the growing colt. Racing in Hertz’s wife Fannie’s silks, Reigh Count was entered into the Hopeful Stakes, only managing 8th. He would run in a race at Belmont 12 days later, turning it around and winning. Hertz would then enter the “Count” in the Belmont Futurity, along with their stable star, the filly Anita Peabody. He made a good showing in finishing second behind her, many thinking that he could have passed her if the jockey had asked. Pleased with his turn around, they raced him in the Eastern Shore Handicap where he again came in second.

From there, he shipped to Churchill Downs, where he gained a victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (making him the first horse to win the Jockey Club and the Derby). After shipping back to Pimlico, the best he could manage in the Pimlico Futurity was 5th, due to the rough riding of Earl Sande, who pushed Reigh Count into the rail. The poor finish didn’t stop those in charge from making him the high-weight for the Walden Handicap, where he carried the Derby weight of 126 pounds, giving from 8 to 33 pounds to the other competitors. Undeterred by the impost, Reigh Count would still prove the best. His four impressive wins, along with his gutsy placings, would earn him Co-Champion 2YO honors. Reigh Count would winter with Anita Peabody (who was Champion 2YO Filly), as well as the rest of Hertz’s string, at their Leona Stock Farm near Chicago. The goal for both was the May 19th, 1928 Kentucky Derby, and the plan was to ship them to Louisville as soon as possible to begin their sophomore year training.

The week of the Kentucky Derby, while preparing to break for a workout, the filly stepped on Reigh Count’s right coronet, causing a big gash. The cut would cause the colt to remain in his stall leading up to the big race.

For three days leading up to the Kentucky Derby, Louisville was deluged by rain, nearly four inches falling on the track. The superintendent did his best to keep the track in good condition, but it was all for naught as there was a huge downpour during the race before the Derby. The track was a muddy mess as the 22 horses made their way to the paddock to be saddled for the great race. Mrs. Hertz oversaw the saddling of Reigh Count, their lone starter in the Derby, as Anita Peabody stayed in the barn. Fannie ran her hands over the Count’s legs and soothed and whispered to him as he was made ready. As jockey Chick Lang made his way to the paddock, Mrs. Hertz shook his hand and wished him good luck. The rain slowed to a drizzle as the field made their way to the starter.

The start was good, with Reigh Count breaking slow. He trailed the field for the first mile of the race in 5th, when Lang started to ask his mount for a little more. Responding well over the heavy mud, they quickly moved into 2nd. Once they reached the stretch, Reigh Count moved forward, taking kindly to the conditions, easily passing Misstep to take the lead. From there the tandem drew away, splashing to an easy three lengths victory, in the slow time of 2:10 2/5, due to the heavy track.

Mrs. Hertz became the third woman to own a Kentucky Derby winner, accepting the trophy and thanking the press. She gave Lang $15,000 for the winning ride, as well as a $5000 car. Unfortunately, at some point during the race, Reigh Count also received a cut on his hock. Along with the other gash, he developed blood poisoning that kept him stall bound for three weeks, missing the Preakness and Belmont. He would make his way back to the races in good form, winning five more stakes races, including taking on older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup where he proved victorious. His challenging campaign earned him Champion 3YO Colt honors, as well as 1928 Horse of the Year.

As a 4YO, Reigh Count was sent to England to take on their best. After losing three races, Lang went to trainer Mitchell and asked to be taken off of Reigh Count. He realized that the riders there rode with long reins due to the hilly nature of the courses; furthermore since he had always ridden with short reins, he knew it would be too difficult to change styles. Lang suggested switching to a top English jockey that was used to the tracks there. Agreeing to the switch, Mitchell secured the services of top jockey Joe Childs, who rode the Count to victory in the mile and a half Coronation Cup. Wanting the jockey as well for the Ascot Gold Cup, Childs was under contract to Lord Harewood, who wouldn’t let him ride. As a result, Mitchell had to secure Harry Wragg at the last minute, who rode the colt to a second place finish. After the race he told Mitchell that he felt that they could have won if he had known Reigh Count better.

Retired to stand in Illinois, Reigh Count had limited opportunity. He was then sent to Claiborne Farm and finally his owner’s Stoner Creek Stud, where he passed away in 1948. He was a very successful sire, becoming only the fourth Kentucky Derby winner to sire another winner, when his son Count Fleet won the Triple Crown in 1943. Count Fleet in turn sired 1951 winner, Count Turf.

Time Magazine reported that Hertz had turned down an offer of $1 million for Reigh Count, a monumental sum at the time for a race horse, saying "I think a fellow who would pay $1,000,000 for a horse ought to have his head examined, and the fellow who turned it down must be absolutely unbalanced.”

(Photos are of Reigh Count (with Blaze), most likely with Anita Peabody. Courtesy of the Kentucky Derby Museum archives.)

Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum