Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 76 days to go!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 76 days to go!

76 Days!!! Count Fleet was bred and owned by the the Hertz’s, of car rental fame. The brown colt was by their Derby winner, Reigh Count, out of the hard-knocking Haste mare, Quickly, who had won 32 of her 85 starts. The high-spirited and quirky colt couldn’t attract any buyers when John Hertz tried to sell him along with some other yearlings. While the others found buyers at the farm, Count Fleet did not.

When he finally entered training with Don Cameron, the farm’s contract rider, jockey Johnny Longden, rode the rambunctious colt in all of his workouts, as well as eventually all of his races. Due to the difficulty the colt posed during his training, Hertz again tried to sell the colt. When Longden saw a trainer inspecting his mount, he jumped onto his bike, rode to the closest store and called John Hertz. Longden pleaded with the owner not to sell the colt; however, Hertz told him that he was worried that the fiery youngster would eventually cause Longden harm. The jockey then convinced Hertz that he wasn’t afraid of the colt, resulting in Hertz deciding that if Longden was brave enough to continue with him, so would he. The spirited colt could fly, in spite of having difficulty figuring out the gate, which caused him issues in his first few starts. In his first race, he was left some 50 yards at the gate in a 5 furlong outing. Even with the late start, Count Fleet still managed to rally to finish second, only a length and a half behind the winner. While training for the Belmont Futurity, he worked 6 furlongs in 1:08 1/5, one second faster than the Belmont track record for the distance, leading his connections to finally realize that they may have something special on their hands. He went on to finish 3rd in the race, due to a late start, as well as being distracted by a filly that ran in the race. She finished in front of him. Eventually, he ran in a race that the break through finally came.The assistant starter, knowing the juvenile’s gate quirks, smacked him on the back end and yelled as soon as the gates opened. Count Fleet broke perfectly, winning the one mile Champagne in track record time, finishing in 1:34 4/5. From that point on, “The Count” as he became known, never lost another race. He finished his season having won 10 of his 15 starts; with his 5 furlong victory in the Pimlico Futurity, 30 length win in the Walden Stakes, plus a victory in the Experimental Free Handicap while toting 132 pounds, the once unwanted colt won 2YO Champion Colt honors.

As a 3YO he started his season by winning an overnight stakes, as well as the Wood Memorial, even though he injured his coronet. They shipped The Count to Louisville, not sure that he would make the Kentucky Derby. Longden rode in the railroad car with his charge, putting ice on the injury in addition to soaking it. Due to the word of his injury, nine others entered the Derby to face him. The colt quickly recovered from the injury, able to make the starting gate.

The 1943 race was unique in that it marked a time that the historic Kentucky Derby was nearly shut down because of the war. Due to the threat, Matt Winn took it upon himself to convince everyone that the race would go on, and that he would discourage those that were out of town to not make the trip. The National Tire Association decreed that no race meetings could be conducted at tracks that were mainly attended those arriving by car. Winn closed the parking lots to encourage visitors to not drive. He also asked out of town Derby box holders to give their tickets to members of the armed forces that were stationed near Louisville. Winn announced that “The Kentucky Derby will be run, even if there are two horses in the race and two people in the stands”.The 1943 and 1944 runnings would be known as the “Street Car Derby”, as trains weren’t allowed to make special trips, resulting in people having to take the street cars in to attend the race.

Count Fleet didn’t disappoint the crowd of over 61,000 that showed up to watch him win. They made him the shortest priced favorite since Bimelich contested the race in 1940. Longden guided him to an easy break, following in third for the first 3/8 of a mile before the colt decided to take over. Longden knew that there wasn’t any trying to take The Count back, doing so would just lead to his bolting. He knew his mount well enough to know that it was best to just let him run his own race. Letting him go, Count Fleet charged ahead, winning easily by three lengths in a time of 2:04 2/5. Mrs. John D. Hertz started horses in the Kentucky Derby twice, winning with both Reign Count and Count Fleet.

One week later, the Derby victor would face only 3 others in the Preakness. Again, they would trail, this time The Count decided he’d had enough after a half mile. At that point, the tandem pulled up next to Vincentive who was leading under George Woolf. Longden looked over at Woolf as they raced next to them for a moment, then said, “Well, goodbye George” as Count Fleet took off. They would win by 8 lengths, finishing one second off of the track record, which many thought he would have easily broken if he was asked. With the Belmont being a month away, Count Fleet would run in the Withers to keep sharp. The team would win the mile contest by 5 lengths, running in 1:36 over a muddy track. The connections were then on to the Belmont where only 2 others would show up to take a shot at winning. Early on in the race, Count Fleet stumbled, hitting his front ankle. Johnny Longden tried to take a hold of the feisty colt, having a hard time getting control of the horse; Count Fleet grabbed the bit and ran off. The pair coasted home, winning the race by an amazing 25 lengths, setting a record that held until Secretariat’s 31 length victory.

After becoming the 6th Triple Crown winner, in the saddling enclosure following the race, his race-worn silks were auctioned off for $50,000 in War Bonds. The injury didn’t seem to be that serious, with Cameron thinking that he would return before the end of the season. Unfortunately he popped a splint, added with the ankle injury not seeming to heal, Hertz decided to retire his colt, not wanting to return the champion as a patched up horse. Though he didn’t race again after the Belmont, his unbeaten season combined with the impressiveness of his races earned Count Fleet 3YO Champion and Horse of the Year honors. He was the fourth Kentucky Derby winner to be sired by another Derby winner, becoming a part of the first 3 generation of Derby winners, as his son Count Turf won the 1951 running. The only other 3 generation sequence is that of Pensive, 1944 winner, Ponder, 1949 winner, and Needles, the 1956 winner. He was the leading sire in 1951, due to Count Turf’s Derby victory, in addition to Kiss Me Kate who won 3YO Filly honors as well as his son Counterpoint winning Horse of the Year. He would sire one other Horse of the Year, his son One Count.

The Count was successful with his sons, also proving to be a great broodmare sire. Count Fleet continued being his own horse in retirement, always demanding that he be returned to the barn at sunset, leading some to believe that he was afraid of the dark. He would live to be 33 years, 8 months, and 9 days, the oldest living Kentucky Derby winner.

Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum