Count Fleet became the sixth horse to capture the Triple Crown when he won the Belmont Stakes in 1943. What the fans of EZ Horse Betting might be surprised to discover is that the horse won the Belmont by a then-record 25 lengths. Everyone remembers Secretariat’s Belmont but the outstanding effort of Count Fleet has been overlooked by history. If one were to judge Triple Crown champions by their margins of victory in the final race of the grueling series, Count Fleet would be right up there with Big Red.
The Horse Named After Rental Cars and Taxis
Count Fleet was foaled on a Kentucky farm in 1940. The woman who bred and owned him, Fannie Hertz, was no stranger to means of transportation. Her husband, John D. Hertz, founded two icons of American transportation. Hertz was the creator of Yellow Cab and the company which would eventually become known as Hertz Rent-A-Car.
Not long before the 1940’s, horses were still mostly appreciated as a means of getting from place to place. As America embraced the automobile, horses slowly became relegated to farm work or pleasure interests. John D. Hertz seems to have been a man who appreciated the rich contribution of horses to transportation in America, and he chose the name Count Fleet for his wife’s new foal. The name is significant. It is sort of a tip of the hat to horses in America.
John Hertz had been involved in horse racing since the 1920’s. He suffered a tragic loss in 1929 when his horse stables were firebombed. 11 horses died and Hertz was so despondent that he sold his interest in the Yellow Cab Company.
Count Fleet was unattractive as a yearling. He had long legs and looked to be clumsy. To make matters worse, Count Fleet was ill-tempered. He did not like people and reacted positively to only a handful of individuals. Hertz was determined to sell the colt until jockey Johnny Longden intervened. Longden convinced Hertz to put the horse in training and Count Fleet was sent to Don Cameron.
Longden, one of the most talented jockeys of the era, knew his business. He was so convinced that the horse had promise that he convinced Cameron and Hertz to let him ride the horse when he began his racing career. What would follow was an epic journey through the horse racing history books.
Count Fleet at Age Two
The first two races for Count Fleet might have made John Hertz think he had made the wrong decision by keeping the horse in training. Even though the horse finished second in both events, Count Fleet did not register impressive performances. He was all over the track and Johnny Longden wasn’t able to control him. The horse cut from path to path and ran like he’d never been trained to compete.
It was a race on June 19, 1942 that finally got people to notice the horse. Count Fleet was entered in a race at Aqueduct. He broke from the starting gate and then, as the horses approached the turn, shot out into the middle of the track away from the field. The other horses kept on their path and Longden and Count Fleet were many lengths behind the rest of the pack. It looked like another disaster. The horse would be lucky to even finish the race after surrendering so much ground to his rivals.
Nevertheless, Longden did not panic and brought Count Fleet back down to the rail where the horse settled in and started to pick up speed. The people at Aqueduct that day were about to witness a miracle. Count Fleet caught up to the rest of the horses in the field and then began to pass them. He was moving at top speed, and in the stretch run the horse surged past the remaining leaders and went on to win the race by four lengths.
Word of this victory spread quickly. The word was that Count Fleet was a talented hopeful for the Kentucky Derby. The horse reeled off victories in stakes races and allowances before making his way to Hertz’s beloved Chicago to compete in the Washington Park futurity. There he would face a horse many people believed would be the two-year-old champion, Occupation.
Count Fleet could not best Occupation that day in Chicago. He could only manage a second-place finish. Still, the horse was being talked about as a hopeful for the Triple Crown series. His next step on the path of history was to face other hopefuls in the Champagne Stakes at the distance of one mile. Count Fleet had never raced that far before.
Jockey Johnny Longden had a plan. He broke the horse well from the starting gate and took Count Fleet right to the lead. The horse thundered away from his rivals and set a blistering pace. This was uncharacteristic for the horse and rider, and many in attendance did not think the horse had the stamina to hold on. They knew his preferred running style was to come from behind.
A challenge was presented on the final turn by Slide Rule. Count Fleet seemed to be energized by the challenge and broke away again. He would go on to win the race by sixth lengths. There could be no more doubt that Count Fleet was destined for a Triple Crown run. He had set a track record and a world record, posting the fastest mile ever ran by a horse.
The year ended with Count Fleet winning more stakes races, one of them by 20 lengths. He also faced Occupation once more and defeated the horse by six lengths. In that race, Count Fleet also set a new track record and a new stakes record.
For John Hertz, it must have been thrilling to see his horse perform so well. Like all businessmen of the era, Hertz had withstood the tragedy and the devastation of the Great Depression. He was due for a break, and the clumsy horse from Kentucky was about to give him one in his three-year-old year.
Count Fleet Wins the Triple Crown
In 1943 America was involved in a full-blown war effort. The war took priority in all sectors, including horse racing. Tracks were forced to make cutbacks in their racing schedules. Purse money and attendance declined. It seemed that Count Fleet might be derailed in his quest for the Triple Crown. The Florida racing circuit, home of some of the major winter prep races for Triple Crown events, was closed. As a result, Count Fleet and his connections found themselves in the cold surroundings of Hot Springs, Arkansas at Oaklawn Park. There, the horse continued to train in the hopes that the Triple Crown races would be conducted.
They weather warmed up and Count Fleet was sent to Belmont Park in New York in March of 1943, just two months ahead of the Kentucky Derby. A minor injury presented another threat to the horse’s campaign. Things weren’t so bad, however, and a series of good workouts revealed that Count Fleet was back to his championship form. Still, he didn’t race in 1943 until April at Aqueduct. The effort was a winning one, but the horse injured himself again during the running.
The Wood Memorial Stakes was next on the agenda. Count Fleet was installed as the 1-4 prohibitive favorite, and most racing insiders believed the odds were justified. Bad luck would once more rear its ugly head, though, as Count Fleet suffered a three-inch gash near the band of a hoof. It was a gruesome injury but Count Fleet battled Blue Swords for the lead and reeled off an impressive victory.
After the race, veterinarians were compelled to remove a portion of the left hind hoof. For many horses, this would have been the end of a racing career. Medications were packed into the wound in the effort to prevent an infection. At this point, Hertz and his team could only hope that the horse would survive. There were still potential breeding revenues to consider.
In Kentucky, there was talk of calling off the Kentucky Derby due to the war. There were travel restrictions imposed on out-of-state residents. No cars could be driven to the event. Hertz and company decided to risk the trip and shipped Count Fleet to Kentucky before the travel ban could prevent them from going. News of Count Fleet’s participation energized horse racing fans. The horse was made the favorite in the morning line and 60,000 people showed up on race day.
The Count Fleet camp was mum on the subject of the horse’s injury. Some observed that the horse seemed to have healed and was posting good workouts. There was another horse, Ocean Wave, who had not suffered the trials endured by Count Fleet. Some quietly whispered that Hertz should have retired his horse instead of challenging Ocean Wave. As things turned out, the consideration of such things was moot. Ocean Wave was scratched in the hours leading up to the race, leaving Count Fleet to face Blue Swords and other horses he had previously defeated.
Count Fleet broke from the starting gate and made for the lead. This was now the preferred running style of Longden for the horse. But this time, other jockeys were wary of the tactic. Multiple horses, including Blue Swords, were sent to challenge Count Fleet. It soon became apparent that the jockeys had a nefarious plan in mind. They would box in the champion colt and try to impede his progress.
As the horses approached the first turn, Longden managed to break Count Fleet free from the obstructions that surrounded him. The horse quickly caught up to the leader, Gold Shower, and took the lead. But the old rival Blue Swords, waiting patiently through all of the trouble encountered by Count Fleet, was ready to make his closing run. Blue Swords took aim at Count Fleet and got within a length of the lead as the horses headed for home. It was not enough. Longden simply made a clucking sound and his horse opened up for a three-length win.
When the horse made his way back to the winner’s circle, the eyes of his connections were on his left front foot. There was another injury, likely suffered when Count Fleet was boxed in by his rivals. This time, the scrape was minor. It was on to the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore.
Just four horses showed up at Pimlico to challenge Count Fleet. The combination of the war and the horse’s reputation served to narrow the field considerably. The horses that did enter the race were no match for the colt who won by eight lengths. Count Fleet was now within one race of making history. Before heading to the Belmont Stakes, Hertz and company decided to run the horse in the Withers Stakes at Belmont Park. No one is sure why. Perhaps they felt that Count Fleet would benefit from a run over the Belmont surface before the Test of the Champion in June. Count Fleet won the Withers with ease, even though his was almost 40 feet off the rail for the entire race. This may have been because Hertz and his team did not want to risk another injury.
On June 5, 1943, Count Fleet entered the starting gate of the Belmont Stakes as an overwhelming favorite. Just two other horses decided to challenge Fleet. His odds were just 1-20, but the people who came to watch were more interested in seeing him win than in cashing a bet. Count Fleet did not disappoint. He destroyed his competition and won the race by 25 lengths. No horse in history had managed to win the Belmont by such an impressive margin. The record-setting victory would stand until a horse named Secretariat won the Belmont by 31 lengths in 1973.
An auction was held after Count Fleet’s Triple Crown victory. The silks worn by jockey Johnny Longden were sold for $50,000 in war bonds. There were comparisons with Man o’ War. America celebrated a new champion. While all this was going on, John D. Hertz was agonizing in his office. It was not immediately disclosed, but Count Fleet had injured himself once more in the Belmont.
Hertz issued a melancholy statement in which he declared his love for Count Fleet and for horse racing. Repeated injuries would send the horse to stud. He entered stud service in July of 1944 and went on to become one of the most prolific sires in racing history.
America’s Forgotten Champion
It is sad that Count Fleet is never mentioned in the same breath as Secretariat. When examined side-by-side, the horses are somewhat evenly matched. Count Fleet won 16 times in 21 starts and never finished worse than third. Secretariat also won 16 of 21 starts and only finished worse than third once. Count Fleet won the Belmont by 25 lengths, Secretariat by 31. Why then, do so many people remember Secretariat and forget about Count Fleet?
One reason could be that winning the Triple Crown in 1943 was not considered as rare as it was in Secretariat’s day. By the time Count Fleet did it, six horses had claimed the title since Sir Barton accomplished the feat in 1919. When Secretariat won in 1973, there had not been a Triple Crown winner since 1948. The long drought perhaps gave Secretariat’s win greater meaning, much like it has done for American Pharoah.
Another reason could be that television played a large role in Secretariat’s incredible campaign. The only people who were able to see Count Fleet win were those who attended the races in person. For whatever reason, horse racing fans consider Secretariat the greatest horse of all time when Count Fleet might have a legitimate claim to that title.
There was one person who did not forget Count Fleet. Charley Hewitt.
Hewitt was an assistant trainer for Don Cameron, the man who led Count Fleet to the Triple Crown. One day, Hewitt noted wet cement that was placed in the Cameron barn at Belmont Park. Hewitt bent down and inscribed Count Fleet’s name in the wet cement with the words, “The Champ.”
The cement block is still there.
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