Some readers are likely young enough that they were not even alive the last time a two-year-old champion won the Kentucky Derby. That was 19 years ago when Spectacular Bid won the Run for the Roses.
Prior to the 1980s, a two-year-old champion winning the Churchill Downs' classic was not all that unusual.
Fifty-five years ago, Count Fleet prepared for the 69th running of the Kentucky Derby on May 1, 1943. He had been voted the two-year-old champion in all polls conducted at the end of 1942.
How good a juvenile was Count Fleet? Since the legendary Walter Vosburgh founded the Experimental Free Handicap in 1933, only *one* two-year-old has ever been assigned more than 130 pounds. Handicapper John Blanks Campbell gave Count Fleet 132 pounds in the 1942 Experimental.
Count Fleet was foaled on March 24, 1940 at Stoner Creek Stud near Paris, KY, which was owned by John D. Hertz, who made his fortune early with the Yellow Cab Company, which he founded in Chicago, and later by renting cars through a company he called Hertz Rent-a-Car. Hertz had immigrated to the United States from his native Czechoslovakia with only a few dollars in his pocket.
A son of Kentucky Derby winner Reigh Count out of the mare Quickly, Count Fleet was registered in the name of Mrs. John D. (Fanny) Hertz.
Reigh Count, who won the Run for the Roses in 1928 (also racing in Mrs. Hertz's colors), had been a very important sire for most of the 1930s, but by the end of the decade, his star was dimming. He dropped off the Top 20 sires list for the first time in 1939 and 1940-- not unusual for a good sire. But John Hertz did not think much of Count Fleet and had even considered selling him during his juvenile season. Jockey John Longden talked him into keeping the colt.
Trainer G. D. (Don) Cameron took over the chore of getting Count Fleet to the races. The brown colt made his debut on June 1, 1942 on the Widener straight course at Belmont Park. In a field of 16 horses, Count Fleet finished second as the 4-to-1 second choice. (Note: It was not unusual for large fields to contest maiden races on the old Widener straight course at Belmont Park. Fields of 20 or more were common until the course was abandoned in the late 1950s.)
Count Fleet ran second again before breaking his maiden at Aqueduct. At Empire City Race Course, he won a purse by five lengths; finished second in the East View Stakes; and won the Wakefield Stakes. The last two were at the unusual distance of 5 3/4 furlongs.
At Washington Park in Illinois, Count Fleet won an overnight race and then missed by a neck of winning the Washington Park Futurity. Back at Aqueduct, he won another overnight race, before heading to Belmont Park where he won his next start, again on the Widener straight course.
Preparing for the October 3 Futurity Stakes, Count Fleet worked six furlongs in 1:08 1/5 -- unprecedented for a horse of any age at that time -- at any time. Four clockers timed him, so there was no mistake. The legendary historian John Hervey ("Salvator") reported in the 1942 edition of "American Race Horses" (Sagamore Press, 1943) that the horsemen who saw Count Fleet's workout were aghast at the speed he showed. For years after, horsemen talked about the morning Count Fleet worked in "eight and one."
Count Fleet likely left his Futurity on the track with that blistering workout four days before the race. He ran the worst race of his career, finishing third in the Futurity. He would never lose again.
In his final four starts at two and his six starts at three, Count Fleet would stamp himself as one of the greats of the 20th Century.
One week after the Futurity defeat, Count Fleet took wings in the Champagne Stakes. He met a crack field and coasted to a six-length victory. The final time was 1:34 4/5, breaking a Belmont Park track record that had been set 20 years earlier by a four-year-old, Jack High. Historians quickly headed for the record books. As it turned out, Count Fleet's time was the fastest mile every recorded by a two-year-old in the history of the sport. A faster Champagne Stakes would not be run until 1976 (Seattle Slew).
Count Fleet then won a purse at Jamaica before heading to Pimlico for the final two races of his juvenile year.
The Pimlico Futurity was one of the richest races of the year, with more than $30,000 to the winner. Despite his amazing victory in the Champagne, the Count was *not* the favorite in the three-horse field at Old Hilltop. That honor went to Occupation, who had beaten Count Fleet twice, including the Futurity, and then had gone on to score an effortless victory in the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland.
Occupation and Count Fleet ran as a team for six furlongs, but Mrs. Hertz's charge was too much. Count Fleet drew away to win by five lengths. His time equaled the track record of 1:43 3/5 for the 1 1/16 miles.
Count Fleet was 1-to-10 for his 15th and final juvenile start, the Walden Stakes at Pimlico. He won by 30 lengths, eased up at the wire.
America was deep into World War II when 1943 rolled around. While, with the exception of California, most racing continued, the winter season at Florida was cancelled that year. As a result, Count Fleet's connections decided to wait until the New York season opened in April for their two-year-old champion to make his initial sophomore start.
On April 9, Count Fleet appeared in a public trial between races at Jamaica. Under regular rider Johnny Longden, the son of Reigh Count worked a mile in 1:39 2/5, and was eased to 1 1/8 miles in 1:43 3/5. Trainer Cameron had all along been pointing to the Wood Memorial at Jamaica Race Course for the horse's first start, but changed his mind a week before that race and entered the colt in the $3,000 St. James purse on the Tuesday before the Wood. On a deep, muddy track, Count Fleet coasted to victory.
The weather remained raw and cold for the Wood the following Saturday, but the track had dried out. A field of eight showed up, with Count Fleet held at odds of 1-to-4 at post time. Longden sent Count Fleet to the lead immediately in the Wood. His stiffest challenger, Blue Swords, drew along side after a quarter, but the count pulled away. He reached the mile marker in 1:36 2/5, two full seconds faster than the Jamaica track record. The horse was so within himself that Longden eased him to the wire in 1:43, missing the track record by two-fifths of a second.
It should be noted that in his final four starts at two and in his first five starts at three, Count Fleet was so far superior to his opposition that Longden put the horse away at the sixteenth pole. Many of Count Fleet's interior fractions in these races suggested a track or world record was on the way, but the jockey and trainer saw no reason to work the horse any harder than necessary for victory. As a result, many railbirds were left wondering just how fast Count Fleet could run if he Longden wasn't always standing up as the horse approached the wire.
The Kentucky Derby that year was one of the "streetcar derbys" because of the war-time ban on the use of automobiles. Only locals were encouraged to attend the races. Attendance at Churchill Downs on Derby Day was only estimated. Some said 45,000; others reported 60,000.
At post time for the derby, Count Fleet was 40 cents on the dollar. Blue Swords was second choice at 9-to-1. In describing the race, John Hervey wrote in the 1943 edition of "American Race Horses" (Sagamore Press, 1944):
"To attempt anything like a circumstantial description of this, the 69th Kentucky Derby, as a contest, would be to essay the impossible; for the reason that it proved to all intents and purposes, a "one-man show."Count Fleet rushed to the lead out of the gate and was simply on cruise control for the entire mile and one quarter. Once again, Longden eased the horse in the final furlong, as Count Fleet won by three lengths.
Some 30,000 packed the house at Pimlico for the Preakness. At 15 cents to the dollar, Count Fleet took the lead right out of the gate and slowly widened. He was three lengths in front after a quarter; four lengths in front at the half; five lengths in front at the mile; and eight lengths in front at the finish. Again, Longden eased the horse to the wire.
The Preakness of 1943 was only one week after the Derby, so that left four weeks until the Belmont Stakes. In between the two, Count Fleet entered the Withers Stakes at Belmont. At 5 cents to the dollar, he tiptoed through the mud to win by five in the extremely fast time of 1:36 for the mile. The Withers' record of 1:35 4/5, established 23 years earlier by the immortal Man o' War, remained the standard.
Belmont Stakes time came around and Hertz, Longden and Cameron all agreed that it was time to turn Count Fleet loose -- to see how fast he could run. With only two weak opponents, going after a time record would be difficult. At post time, Count Fleet was 5 cents to the dollar.
In a race much like that which the mighty Secretariat would run in the Belmont Stakes 30 years later, Count Fleet simply took off. By the time he reached the top of the stretch, he was 20 lengths in front of the field. The margin reached 25 lengths at the wire. The colt missed the world record, but broke the Belmont Stakes record set by War Admiral in 1937.
Count Fleet headed for the barn looking no worse for his effort. However, hours later it was noted that he had rapped one hind leg. Cameron told a press the following day that the wound was superficial and that his horse would be ready for the July 4 Yankee Handicap at Suffolk Downs and the July 24 Arlington Classic in Chicago.
But, Count Fleet soon became more crippled and was turned out for the year. He returned to Stoner Creek Stud to rest until the 1944 season. He never returned to the track.
Despite his brief campaign in 1943, Count Fleet was the almost unanimous choice for Horse of the Year in every poll. His record for the year was 6 wins in 6 starts. His final lifetime mark was 21 starts, 16 wins, 4 seconds and 1 third.
Hervey wrote (op cit):
"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."Hervey says there were many knowledgeable horsemen around who put Count Fleet in the same category as the legendary Man o' War.
Count Fleet went on to be a strong factor at stud. He sired 37 stakes winners (9%) from 433 foals. His best year was 1951 when he was the nation's leading sire, according to statistics from the 1952 edition of the American Racing Manual (Triangle Publications, Inc., 1952).
During 1951, Count Fleet was represented by five winners of more than $100,000 -- the standard of excellence in that era. Included in this group were two champions, Horse of the Year Counterpoint and three-year-old filly champion Kiss Me Kate. The group also included Count Turf, upset winner of the 1951 Kentucky Derby. This was the first triple sire in Kentucky Derby History (Reigh Count sired Count Fleet who sired Count Turf, all three winners of the Kentucky Derby). Some years later, Pensive, Ponder and Needles would become the second triple.
Count Fleet was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs in 1961. He lived to the ripe old age of 33.