A few years ago in Lexington, Ky., some of horse racing's elite waged a cocktail-party debate over who was the best racehorse ever to wear a bridle. Naturally somebody mentioned Man o' War, whose dominance in 1919 and '20 took on mythic proportions. Jimmy Jones made the case for Citation, the 1948 Triple Crown winner he trained for Calumet Farms. The boosters for Secretariat, the '73 Triple Crown winner, were led by his owner, Helen (Penny) Tweedy. Finally Woody Stephens, trainer of five straight Belmont Stakes winners in the 1980s, laughed and said, "You're all forgetting one of the best I ever saw. What about Count Fleet?"
Indeed, next spring will be the 50th anniversary of Count Fleet's Triple Crown, and surely he deserves mention in any conversation about the sport's immortals. Or does he? "I don't think so," says Jones, now 85. "When he won the Triple Crown, it wasn't a tough year. As the year went on, he got better and everyone else got worse. The horses he beat couldn't have won a good allowance race."
Jockey Eddie Arcaro, who rode Citation, disagrees. "That happens with great horses," he says. "Once they get to beating horses, they make it look easy. Who did Citation beat? Who did Secretariat beat? Don't let anybody kid you. Count Fleet was an extraordinary horse."
It was at Belmont Park in the spring of' 42 that jockey Johnny Longden first noticed the potential of Count Fleet, a temperamental, slightly built, almost effeminate 2-year-old son of 1928 Kentucky Derby winner Reigh Count, out of the undistinguished Quickly. Count Fleet's owner was John D. Hertz, the rental-car and Yellow Cab magnate (his horses raced in black-and-yellow silks, of course), and Longden was the contract rider for Hertz's stable. Hertz was about to sell the fractious colt for $4,500 when Longden objected. "He loves to run," Longden argued.
"The colt is dangerous," replied Hertz.
"I'm not afraid of him," Longden said.
"All right," said Hertz. "If you're game to ride him, I'll keep him."
Six months later Count Fleet, trained by Don Cameron, covered six furlongs in a Belmont Park workout in 1:08[2/5], a second faster than the track record.
The Count had 12 wins in 17 starts heading into the 1943 Kentucky Derby. Because that Churchill Downs crowd consisted mainly of Louisville residents and soldiers from nearby Fort Knox—the usual Derby patrons were deterred by wartime gasoline shortages and travel restrictions—it was dubbed the Streetcar Derby. Count Fleet went off at 1-2 odds, the shortest in the race's history, and Longden drew off to an easy three-length win in the slow time of 2:04 for the mile and a quarter. At the Preakness the Count had only three challengers and won by eight lengths. At 3-20, paying $2.30 for $2, he was the shortest-priced winner ever in the race.
For the Belmont, the third leg of the Crown, his odds tumbled to 1-20, the legal minimum payoff at the time. With the race such a mismatch, the Count's camp let the word out that he would be going for a track record. He finished in a Belmont Stakes-record 2:28[1/5] and a stunning 25 lengths ahead of Fairy Manhurst.