The Heart That Wears the Crown: Count Fleet

July 7th, 2023

The horses that have worn the crown have forged their path their own way, each marking and being marked by the era they competed in. From Sir Barton’s pioneering turn and rivalry with Man o’ War to Whirlaway's sweep and domination beyond the classics, the first five Triple Crown winners were diverse personalities, some aloof and some personable, but all dominant. 

Count Fleet swept into his classic season like no other. Virtually unbeatable at three, his trip through the three races was marked not by grinding stretch runs for the win but by the ease behind his victories, the clear joy he had in the running. The heart that wore the sixth Triple Crown was one that was both headstrong and ecstatic in one small brown package.

A Bullish Personality

The Hertzes had built their lives on hope. From his earliest years scraping by, his odd jobs eventually leading to the Yellow Cab and then Hertz Rent-A-Car, to their unwavering support of their stallion Reigh Count, Fanny and John Hertz wanted to build on the stallion’s success on the racetrack with the same in the breeding shed. Yet, by the end of the 1930s, Reigh Count’s time at stud had not yet yielded a horse as talented as he was, a Kentucky Derby winner who had also won in England, winning the Coronation Cup before coming in second in the Ascot Gold Cup.

The Hertzes were determined to find a way to capitalize on the late-developing stayer form that had become characteristic of Reigh Count’s foals. After stints at their farm in Illinois and at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, the stallion moved to the couple’s newly acquired Stoner Creek Stud, adjacent to Claiborne, where he covered a mare that balanced out his staying power. Quickly, a mare by the sprinter sire Haste, had set or equaled multiple records on the racetrack before joining the Hertzes' broodmare band. In March 1940, she foaled a plain brown colt with a white hind sock. The Hertzes would name him Count Fleet, hoping that he would prove to be the best of both sire and dam.

Instead, the smallish Count proved to be a bit ornery. Like his sire, he wanted things his own way, and while he did like people, he tended to be a bully. “He never really meant to hurt,” remembered farmhand Sam Ransom, “He just always wanted to be on the go, like something was after him all the time.” Unimpressed by his attitude and his conformation, the Hertzes were willing to sell Count Fleet as a yearling, pricing him around $5,000. He was even part of a package deal that interested King Ranch trainer Max Hirsch, but, in the end, the Count was left behind. 

That was fine with Johnny Longden. Once the colt arrived at the barn of Don Cameron, the Hertzes’ trainer, this son of Reigh Count was still a bit of a wild card. Longden got aboard for a workout and found that Count Fleet indeed was, as Ransom put it later, “like getting out of a Model T and jumping into a Cadillac.” But age had not tempered the colt’s propensity to seek his own way.

Longden recalled a particularly adventurous workout at Belmont Park. The colt was running as he pleased when the Hall of Fame jockey spotted two horses coming at them. Unconcerned that a collision might be imminent, Count Fleet was resolute in his path and somehow Longden managed to steer between the two safely. 

After that, no one else wanted to ride the Reigh Count colt. The incident sealed the Hertzes’ decision to put the Count back on the market. 

A Dominant Dynamo

He had not even started his first race and had yet to demonstrate anything other than stubbornness, the deep, prodigious talent only hinted at in morning workouts. The Hertzes priced him at $4,500, and had a few trainers come by Cameron’s barn to check him out. When Longden saw the colt being shown off to a potential buyer, he discovered that the Hertzes had put Count Fleet up for sale and hopped on a bicycle to the nearest phone. He called John Hertz and asked him to keep the colt.

“Please don’t sell him,” Longden said. “He’s a good horse.”

“Well, he might hurt you,” the owner replied.

“No, he won’t hurt me,” Longden pleaded. “He just likes to run.”

And run he did. His two-year-old season in 1942 saw him start 15 times, with 10 wins, four seconds, and one third. He raced anywhere from five furlongs to 1 1/16 miles, his season spanning five months and six racetracks. He finished third in the Futurity Stakes at Belmont Park, one of the most prestigious juvenile races of the first half of the century; though, Longden called on the colt to pass the filly Askmenow, but he would not leave her, allowing another colt Occupation to take the race. The reason? The filly was in season and the Count had no interest in racing at that moment. In November, the Count won his last start of the year, the Walden Stakes at Pimlico, by 30 lengths. 

A Stubborn Soul

Throughout that season and into the next, Count Fleet was decidedly himself. He would fight Longden whenever the jockey tried to wrap up on him, bolting to the outside resentfully. He needed two handlers to cool him down, walking him for 30 minutes each. Reigh Count’s colt just wanted to run.

His boundless fondness for racing also made him prone to injury. In his first start of the year, the St. James Purse, Count Fleet returned to the barn with a minor cut on his left foreleg, but that healed quickly. Then, in the Wood Memorial, two weeks before the 1943 Kentucky Derby, another horse nicked him, opening a cut on his left hind, right at the coronet band where the flesh of his leg met the hard shell of the hoof. On the trip from New York to Louisville, Longden helped soak the hoof, wrapped in a sulfa dressing, in ice and Epsom salts, the swelling fortunately abating as they counted down the days to Derby.

Count Fleet rewarded the efforts to nurse that hoof back to full health with easy wins in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Recovered from his injury and ready to run even after his two classic wins, Cameron sent the Count postward for the Withers Stakes between the Preakness and Belmont, and, of course, the other two horses in the field were no match for the brown colt. He took the race by five lengths over a muddy track, showing no ill effects from his five races in five weeks.

Of course, that left one more race to earn his crown, the Belmont Stakes. By this point, it was getting tougher to find horses to face him. Only two others did, forever relegated to the footnotes of history. At the end, Count Fleet was alone at the front, but his exuberance for racing coupled with Belmont’s wartime practices left him with an unwelcome souvenir: an injury. Count Fleet struck himself in the Belmont; the rough track, watered and graded only in the morning rather than between races in an effort to save both water and gas, compounded the situation a bit more, but Count Fleet did not show it. His margin of victory was 25 lengths; only Secretariat’s 31 lengths in 1973 could top that. With that, the Count stood alone at the top.

The next day, Count Fleet could hardly walk, a tendon in his right front leg the culprit. He would not race again at three; the Hertzes kept him in training into 1944, but a workout showed that he was not the same horse. He had done enough. The Count was retired to Stoner Creek Stud; his first home would become his last.

A King to the Last

So precious was the sixth Triple Crown winner to his owners that they would not let him stay outside at night. Later in life, Count Fleet would object to being left outside after dark, insisting that he must come in even when other horses would remain in their paddocks overnight. Even into his 20s, retired from stud duty, the Count would check out the mares around him and run through the grass, bones popping, never losing that joie de vivre that had marked him since his earliest days. He just loved to run.

The heart of Count Fleet was one of a horse born to run, a Triple Crown winner whose legacy rivals that of Man o’ War and Secretariat. He was never out of the money in a career cut short by injury and followed up his greatness on the track with the same in the breeding shed. What he left behind was a long list of great horses like Count Turf and Kelso, with his genes and a lifetime of memories for all who saw him run.