Of Tempers, Taxis, and the Titanic
Obviously the method worked, though, 'cause the colt was Reigh Count and the next spring he won the 1928 Kentucky Derby. A dozen years later, he had a son who not only inherited his daddy's talent, he took on his temper as well. In fact, the kid was so hard to handle, the magnate, who didn't achieve his magnatehood by makin' bad judgments, hung a "For Sale" sign around the yearling's neck.
No one bit—or was bitten, as the case may be—and Count Fleet (1940-1973) stayed at Stoner Creek. The colt was sent to trainer Don Cameron. In his first race at Belmont Park, Count Fleet bumped a colt named Vacuum Cleaner and finished a beaten second. He did it again at Aqueduct—and again was offered for sale.
This time his jockey, the legendary Johnny Longden, went to bat for him, callin' the owner and convincin' him to keep Count Fleet by sayin' he wasn't afraid to ride him. Considerin' Longden had already cheated fate when he was five years old and survived workin' in the Canadian mines, Count Fleet musta' seemed like a drive in the park.
Count Fleet made his three-year-old debut with an effortless win, then made Blue Swords and Slide Rule, both excellent horses, look like cheap claimers while winnin' the Wood Memorial. But in the Wood, Count Fleet struck his own left hind leg, and the injury was serious enough to threaten his entry into the Derby. He was shipped to Churchill Downs by rail, and Longden rode with him, holdin' ice on the horse's damaged left rear.
In the spring of 1943, the United States was fightin' WWII and severe travel restrictions threatened the Kentucky Derby until Churchill Downs president Matt Winn promised only those from the Louisville area would be present. Taxis were forbidden to be within a mile of the track (ironic since Count Fleet's owner founded the Yellow Cab Company, among other companies), and private vehicles were restricted as well. In fact, there were so many restrictions placed on the public the 1943 Run for the Roses was called the Street-Car Derby.
It didn't matter what they called it—it was an easy win for Count Fleet, with Blue Swords and Slide Rule runnin' second and third—again. The story was the same at Pimlico, where Count Fleet romped home while Blue Swords ran second, eight lengths behind. Well, at least the poor guy was earnin' feed money.
As many of these early Triple Crown winners did, Count Fleet ran in the Withers Stakes before the Belmont. Not surprisingly he won, cantering home six lengths ahead of Slide Rule, who had skipped the Preakness. That was it for the owners of Blue Swords and Slide Rule. They spared their horses' already battered egos by passin' up the Belmont, leaving Count Fleet to beat a pair of allowance class horses by twenty-five lengths. It took over three decades for that feat to be bettered.
Then again, maybe four in a row was a bit much. Count Fleet wrenched his near front foot runnin' the Belmont and the foot didn't respond to treatment. He retired early.
Later, Johnny Longden said of the Belmont…
"Going into the race, I thought he'd have to fall down to get beat, and even then I thought he could get up and win. He was that good."
…and explained what it took to ride the great horse:
"Get him out on top, give him the race track, and let him run. It was what he loved to do more than anything else."
But even though the jockey compared riding his greatest mount to bein' put in the driver's seat of a Cadillac, he admitted it wasn't always and easy ride:
"...if he didn't have racing room, he'd go to the outside or just climb over horses. If you were in close quarters with him, you were in trouble."
Ah yes—the lessons fathers teach their sons…
Count Fleet's sons and daughters and grandkids enjoyed great success themselves includin' such luminaries as Kelso and Lucky Debonair. The Count himself lived to the ripe old age of 33, dyin' the same year another Triple Crown winner finally bested his Belmont triumph.
His jockey, Johnny Longden, was still ridin' and winnin' at age 59, ultimately livin' 'til age 96 after cheatin' fate at age five. You see, John Eric Longden was born in England and his parents decided to emigrate to America, bookin' passage on that brand new, unsinkable, ocean liner, the Titanic. They missed the boat.
And the man who put Longden in the driver's seat? John D. Hertz.*
*In 1924, Hertz established the Hertz Drive-Yourself Corporation—the first rental car business in the United States. Their most famous motto, created in 1961, was "Let Hertz put you in the driver's seat."
posted by Harrison at 10:29 PM