Triple Crown Turning Point: Counting the Fleet in the Market
By 1943, the United States had been engaged in World War II for more than a year, with Allied forces fighting both in Europe and in the Pacific. For many, the racetrack served as a distraction, a place to get away from the weight of reality and find personalities to support in difficult times. When that year’s Triple Crown season took place amidst wartime rationing, it gave fans a dynamic duo to cheer on: Count Fleet and Johnny Longden, a winning combination.
But their adventures on the racetrack almost didn’t happen. The stubborn and boisterous colt tested his owners’ patience, leading to John and Fannie Hertz trying to sell Count Fleet before they had a chance to realize his bottomless potential.
The turning point for this Triple Crown winner came when a conversation between owner and rider led to a fateful decision that saw Count Fleet become a champion on the circuit and in the breeding shed.
Lay the foundations
The story of Count Fleet really begins with a boy who runs away from home. In 1890, at the age of 11, John D. Hertz left his family to make his way alone in America. Born in what is now Slovakia, Hertz came to the country as Sandor Herz, the son of Jakob and Katie, the family later changing names after moving to Chicago. Alone with a fifth-grade education, Hertz worked as a newspaper editor, then as a delivery wagon driver. He even tried his hand at boxing, but later found more success as a promoter rather than a fighter.
When he met his future wife Frances Kesner, better known as Fanny, his parents weren’t too thrilled with Hertz’s choice of life. The young man gave up his pugilist days to settle down with Fannie, turning instead to selling cars.
While working in sales, Hertz came up with the idea of taking back used cars that had been traded in and starting a taxi service in Chicago. This spawned the Yellow Cab Company and later other business ventures, including Hertz Rent-A-Car, which helped make John and Fanny Hertz wealthy enough to pursue another love: horse racing. . In 1927, the couple purchased the 2-year-old Reigh Count from her breeder, Willis Sharpe Kilmer, best known as the owner of the immortal Exterminator, for an alleged $10,000. Hertz had seen the colt attempt to brutalize a competitor during a race in Saratoga. The former John Hertz pugilist admired the colt’s courage and decided to add him to their stable. Reigh Count would reward his faith with victories in many of the sport’s biggest races.
At the age of 3 in 1928, Reigh Count would win the Kentucky Derby, then add the Saratoga Cup, Jockey Club Gold Cup and Lawrence Realization to his tally that year. The following year Hertz sent their Derby winner to England, where they won the Coronation Cup and then finished runners-up in the Ascot Gold Cup. His career was enough to make him a Hall of Famer, but this champion didn’t stop there.
Reigh Count, whose sire and dam have never won a race, more than made up for this with his winning career and later did better at stud.
Realize the potential
The 1928 Kentucky Derby winner began his stud career at Hertzes’ Leona Heights Stock Farm in Illinois before moving to Claiborne Farm and then Stoner Creek Stud in Paris, Ky. In his first season in the new her owners’ Kentucky breeding farm, Reigh Count covered a mare named Quickly.
She may not have seemed like the ideal match for a horse that had won the Kentucky Derby and then finished second in the Ascot Gold Cup, both world famous races. But Quickly, who had won 32 of her 85 starts in six seasons, was a sprinter who had set a track record and tied two others. Hertz believed that pairing Reigh Count’s excellence as a long-distance horse with a sprinter like Quickly could produce a colt with the right balance of both.
And he was right. On March 24, 1940, Quickly gave birth to a brown colt with a white spot and a white rear sock, Count Fleet. Headstrong and rambunctious, Count Fleet had plenty of guts evident in Reigh Count and showed the speed promised by his dam’s pedigree and on-track performance. However, this stubborn nature prompted Hertz to sell it. Initially, its price was $5,000, with no takers. The colt’s demeanor, age and Quickly’s racing career scared away potential buyers.
Later, Hertz sent the colt to trainer Don Cameron at Belmont Park. He brought in jockey Johnny Longden to help Count Fleet get a feel for this unknown quantity, as the Hertzes were still looking for a buyer. An experienced jockey with over a decade of riding under his belt, Longden could tell the 2-year-old possessed the abilities, including a desire to just run around all day – when the colt’s stubborn nature wasn’t trying. actively killing the man on his back. While training at Belmont Park, Longden attempted to guide Count Fleet around two horses coming towards them, but the colt stubbornly insisted on staying in his lane, somehow managing to sneak between the two instead. Hertz was afraid the colt might hurt Longden or someone else. Selling Count Fleet was the best option.
But the asking price of $4,500 was still too high for the colt of questionable reputation. Of course, he could run all day, but the colt’s behavior scared other riders. Several inquiries about Count Fleet came in, with the highest price offered at $3,500, well below what Hertz wanted. When Longden got wind that the Hertzes were still determined to sell, he rushed to call the owners with ways to keep the colt. John Hertz, however, was reluctant. “The foal is dangerous. One day I’m afraid he will hurt you badly,” the businessman told Longden.
“I’m not afraid,” Longden said simply. Hertz acquiesced and Earl Fleet remained in yellow and black silks under Cameron’s care. From his first race at age 2 to his last race at Belmont Park, Longden was the only jockey to ever ride Count Fleet in his 21 starts.
Race in History
In two seasons, Count Fleet amassed a record 16 wins, four seconds and one third place. After opening his 3-year-old season with victories in an allowance race and the Wood Memorial, Count Fleet entered the Kentucky Derby as a favorite and won easily. The Preakness was much the same, with Count Fleet winning by eight lengths on a field of only three others. The colt that the previous year had gone on sale for just $4,500 was poised to win the Triple Crown.
Over a mile and a half to Belmont Park, all Longden had to do was hold on as Count Fleet won the Belmont Stakes in a record time of 25 lengths, a margin bettered by the 31 lengths of the 30-year-old Secretariat later.
However, a cloud hovered over the victory of the Belmont Stakes: the colt had injured the tendon of the right front leg. Really, it wasn’t so much serious as stubborn. Although he took the remainder of his season as a 3-year-old, an attempted comeback at 4 saw Count Fleet unable to regain the form that had been his signature for those 21 races. He was retired to Stoner Creek Stud to stand by his father.
In 1927, Willis Sharpe Kilmer’s impatience led him to sell Reigh Count before the colt reached full fitness, and the Hertzes took advantage, obtaining a colt that became champion on the racetrack and in the shed. breeding. Fifteen years later, Hertz almost did the same thing. Without the intervention of Johnny Longden, they would have missed out on a superstar. His plea for the stubborn colt was the turning point that paved the way for Count Fleet to become the sixth to win the Triple Crown and then become a top sire, his name found in the pedigree of many champions, including that of his fellow Triple Crown Winners American Pharoah and Justify.