Tall Tales of the Track, Kentucky Derby Edition: A Memorable Absence

January 26th, 2024

Every year, the Run for the Roses culminates in a time-honored tradition: the winner’s circle photo. That special enclosure is used only once a year and only for the three-year-old who successfully navigates a large field and a long race to hit the wire in front. As the victor is draped with a blanket of roses, the team behind the triumphant horse gathers around, including owners, groom, exercise rider, and of course, the trainer. 

In 1951, though, the black-and-white photo of Count Turf, flanked by his owner and others, is missing an important face, making this particular Derby one to remember for one unfortunate reason.

Classic Beginnings

In 1943, Count Fleet dominated the Triple Crown, winning the Belmont Stakes by 25 lengths, a mark only Secretariat could break, and then followed up his sensational career on the track with another one off the track. Like his Derby-winning sire Reigh Count, the sixth Triple Crown winner became a leading stallion, continuing the family influence on the Run for the Roses with a plain brown colt named Count Turf.

Bred by California physician Frank Porter Miller, the brown colt went through the ring at the 1949 Saratoga yearling sale. The Millers expected him to go for $8,000 to $10,000, but the colt’s paddle-like gait made him a less desirable candidate for most buyers, except one: Jack Amiel. The New York restaurateur bought the Count Fleet colt for $3,700 and named him for his sire and for his Turf Restaurant, located next door to Jack Dempsey’s on Broadway.

Amiel sent his new colt to trainer Sol Rutchick, and like all owners of young horses, had high hopes for his son of a Triple Crown winner.

One Man’s Faith

Born in Russia in 1899, Sol Rutchick emigrated to the United States at age 12. To make a living, he sold candy outside of movie theaters and eventually operated all of the candy stands inside of a chain of theaters in the Northeast. Around 1923, Rutchick was introduced to racing, which inspired him to take out his trainer’s license in 1926 and then sell his business and start a public stable in 1928. Amiel was one of Rutchick’s clients in the early 1950s, and Count Turf was among his horses in the trainer’s barn at Jamaica Race Course.

At two, Count Turf won only one of his 10 starts, the Dover S., and finished second in two others, his juvenile season not quite as successful as his sire’s. The beginning of his three-year-old season was more of the same, winning only once in 10 starts, but Amiel liked what he saw from the colt. He watched Count Turf get stopped by traffic in the Wood Memorial and then reset and come on again in the stretch, unfazed by the troubled trip. Though his colt did not win, Amiel was still keen on a trip to Louisville for the 1951 Derby, which was shaping up to be a wide-open affair with a field of 20. Rutchick, for his part, was reportedly not quite as confident.

Because his wife was ill, the trainer immediately did not travel to Louisville with Count Turf but told his team that he might fly in later. Amiel stood in for Rutchick during the week leading up to the Derby. He also sent exercise rider Fred Case to work his charge since Count Turf could be difficult to handle and Case knew him well. The owner recruited jockey Conn McCreary to ride his colt in the 10-furlong classic; though McCreary had been down on his luck, he had won the Derby and Preakness on Pensive seven years earlier. That experience would come in handy in that large field on Derby Day.

Count Turf and McCreary navigated the 1 1/4 miles easily, the jockey biding his time behind the frontrunners early and then weaving his colt through traffic until the top of the stretch. With a clear path ahead of him, the son of Count Fleet accelerated in the straightaway, drawing off to a four-length win. In the winner’s circle, the plain brown colt was draped with the iconic blanket of roses, a grinning McCreary in the saddle, and an effervescent Amiel by his head. As the photographer snapped the black-and-white image of team Count Turf celebrating their win, one important face was missing from the photo: Sol Rutchick.

A Memorable Edition

The trainer’s absence did not go unnoticed; articles about Count Turf’s win mentioned that the trainer had not made the trip. As a result, two stories emerged about the day’s events. One was that Rutchick had not had much faith in his charge’s chances in the Derby and had elected not to make the trip, sending an assistant trainer instead. The other came from the trainer himself: he had initially elected to stay in New York with his wife, but then changed his mind and booked a Saturday morning flight to Louisville. Despite his efforts, Rutchick missed his flight by 10 minutes and instead went to Jamaica to watch the day’s races. Everyone who saw him there asked him why he was not in Louisville. Tired of the incessant questions, the trainer went home and listened to the race on the radio, pleasantly surprised by Count Turf’s performance.

The following year, Rutchick had two Kentucky Derby starters, Count Flame and Master Fiddle, and of course, he was at Churchill Downs to watch them run. Unfortunately, his charges finished fourth and fifth behind Hill Gail, denying the trainer his chance to make up for his absence the year before.

Count Turf was the first of Count Fleet’s progeny to win a classic stakes, followed by Counterpoint winning the Belmont that same year and then One Count winning that stakes the next year. The Derby-winning son of Count Fleet was the third generation to win the Run for the Roses, a distinction only matched by Ponder, Pensive, and Needles. However, the 1951 Kentucky Derby might be better remembered for a missed plane and an absent trainer rather than for the son of a Triple Crown winner who made that Derby his own.