Triple Crown Turning Point: Counting the Fleet in the Market
By 1943, the United States was more than a year into World War II, with Allied forces fighting in both Europe and the Pacific. For many, the racetrack has been a distraction, a place to get away from the weight of reality and find characters who root for tough times. As the Triple Crown season dragged on that year in the midst of wartime rationing, it gave fans a dynamic duo to cheer: Count Fleet and Johnny Longden, a winning combination.
But their adventures on the racetrack almost never happened. The stubborn and boisterous colt tested the patience of his owners, leading John and Fanny Hertz to try to sell Count Fleet before they had a chance to realize its endless potential.
The turning point for the Triple Crown winner came when a conversation between owner and passenger led to a fateful decision that allowed Count Fleet to become a champion on the racetrack and in the breeding fold.
Count Fleet’s story truly begins with a boy running away from home. In 1890, at the age of eleven, John D. Hertz left his family to make his way in America on his own. Born in what is now Slovakia, Hertz came to this country as Sandor Herz, son of Jacob and Katie, the family later changed his name after they settled in Chicago. Alone with his fifth grade education, Hertz worked as a newspaper maker and then as a delivery van driver. He even tried his hand at boxing, but found more success as a promoter rather than a fighter.
When he met his future wife Frances Kessner, better known as Fanny, her parents weren’t too thrilled with Hertz’s choice to live. The young man gave up his days on the courts to settle down with Fanny, and resorted to car dealerships instead.
While working in sales, Hertz had the idea to take used cars that had been traded and set up a taxi service in Chicago. This grew into the Yellow Cab Company and then other business ventures, including Hertz Rent-A-Car, which helped make John and Fanny Hertz wealthy enough to indulge in another love: horse racing. In 1927, the couple bought two-year-old Reigh Count from her breeder, Willis Sharp Kilmer, known as the owner of the immortal Exterminator, for an alleged $10,000. Hertz saw the colt attempting a savage attack on a competitor in a race at Saratoga. Former boxer John Hertz was impressed by the colt pluck and decided to add it to their stable. Reigh Count will restore their belief in winning many of the sport’s biggest races.
At the age of three in 1928, Reigh Count won the Kentucky Derby, then added the Saratoga Cup, the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Lawrence’s realization to his tally that year. The following year, he sent the derby-winning Hertz team to England, where they won the Coronation Cup and then finished second 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 dad and dam have never won a race, had more than made up for it with his winning run and then did himself better in stud.
Realizing the potential
The 1928 Kentucky Derby winner began his career at Leona Heights Securities Ranch in Hertz, Illinois before moving to Claiborne Ranch and then to Stoner Creek Stud in Paris, Kentucky. She covered a mare named Quickly.
It might not have seemed the perfect match for the horse who won the Kentucky Derby and then finished second in the Ascot Gold Cup, two world-famous races. But Quick, who won 32 out of 85 games in six seasons, was a runner who set one record and tied another two. Hertz believes that pairing Reigh Count’s distinction as a long-distance horse with a runner like Quickly can produce a foal with the right balance of both.
And he was right. On March 24, 1940, she quickly gave birth to a brown colt with a spot of white and white breech sock, Count Fleet. Powerful and turbulent, Count Fleet had a lot of guts evident in Reigh Count and showed the speed that promised dam pedigree and on-track performance. However, this stubborn nature prompted Hertz to sell it. Initially, its price was $5,000, with no buyers. The colt’s behavior, age and racing career frightened potential buyers.
Later, Hertz sent the colt to coach Don Cameron at Belmont Park. He brought jockey Johnny Longden to Breeze Count Fleet to learn about this unknown lot, as the Hertz were still looking for a buyer. An experienced rider with more than a decade of riding under his belt, Longden can say the two-year-old has the ability, including the desire to simply run all day—when the colt’s violent nature isn’t trying to kill the man on his back. At an exercise in Belmont Park, Longden attempted to guide Count Fleet around two of the horses who were heading toward them, but the colt stubbornly insisted on staying in his lane, and somehow managed to squeeze between the two instead. Hertz was afraid that the colt would hurt Longden or anyone else. Selling Count Fleet was the best option.
But the asking price of $4,500 was still prohibitive for a colt with a dubious reputation. Sure, he could run all day, but the colt’s behavior frightened the other knights. Several inquiries were received about Count Fleet, with the highest bid being offered at $3,500, far less than Hertz wanted. When Longden caught the wind that Herts were still bent on selling, he raced to contact the owners with pleas to keep the colt. But John Hertz was hesitant. “The colt is dangerous. `One day, I fear it will cause you serious injury,” the businessman said to Longden.
“I’m not afraid,” said Longden simply. Hertz acquiesced and remained Count Fleet in yellow and black silk under Cameron’s care. From his first race at the age of two to his last race at Belmont Park, Longden was the only rider to ride Count Fleet in his 21st start.
The race in history
Over the course of two seasons, Count Fleet racked up a record of 16 wins, four seconds and a third place finish. After opening his 3-year-old season with a wildcard victory and the Wood Memorial, Count Fleet came to the Kentucky Derby as the favorite and easily won. Preakness was pretty much the same, with Count Fleet winning eight lengths over a field of just three others. The colt that had been on sale the previous year for just $4,500 was on the verge of winning the Triple Crown.
Over a mile and a half in Belmont Park, all Longden had to do was hold out as Count Fleet captured the Belmont Stakes in record time by an incredible 25 lengths, a margin of which 31 lengths outperformed the honesty 30 years later.
A cloud hung over the Belmont Stakes’ victory, though: The colt injured a tendon in his right front leg. Really, it wasn’t so much dangerous as it was stubborn. Despite being halted for the remainder of his 3-year-old season, a comeback attempt in the fourth saw Count Fleet unable to regain the form that had been his signature for those 21 races. He retired to Stoner Creek Stud to stand by his father.
In 1927, Willis Sharp Kilmer’s impatience led him to sell the Reigh Count before the colt reached its peak, and the Hertz were the beneficiaries, getting a colt that became a champion on the racetrack and in the breeding fold. Fifteen years later, the Hertz did pretty much the same thing. If it wasn’t for Johnny Longden’s intervention, they would have lost a superstar. His defense of 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 go on to become a higher father, his name being found in many of the champion lineages, including his Triple mates. Winners of the American crown pharaoh are justified.