06/21/2017 1:46PM

Count Fleet - cementing his name in history

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COUNT FLEET

1944  C. HEWITT

“THE CHAMP”.

The words were scratched into wet cement nearly three-quarters of a century ago. In the front left corner of a Belmont feed room, a room sometimes dirty and not overly well lit, the words are indecipherable at times. A leaky nearby washer sometimes wets them, and people working there occasionally walk across them.  It seems no one – even those stabled there – notice them.

Yet when the light is just so – or, well, when a visitor pushes the door back, studies the floor, grabs a scrub brush, crouches down and gets to cleaning – the words beckon. They are a loving shout-out to one of the greatest horses in our history, etched by a man long since forgotten.

Above: Count Fleet, John Longden up, 1943 Kentucky Derby winner's circle.  Photo DRF archives

Many fans know Count Fleet’s name, of course, largely because every list of Triple Crown winners includes it, along with mention of the year 1943.  Students of racing history might remember he was associated with John D. Hertz of the Hertz rental car fame (Count Fleet was bred and raced in the name of John’s wife Fannie).  Count Fleet’s jockey was John Longden.

A few diehard fans know Count Fleet’s stellar record (21-16-4-1) and that his overwhelming Belmont Stakes win – his final race -  was voted one of the greatest racing moments of the 20th century. Considering that he left Belmont forever 73 years ago, it's a longshot that many folks remember seeing Count Fleet race in person.

But back when racing was revered and enthusiastic turf writers occasionally reached deep with superlatives, Count Fleet was often headline news.  Among his nicknames were “the busy brown bullet,” “Mr. Moneybags,” “The Fleet,” “The Count,” “the turf’s glamor boy,” “Count Cukoo” (when young), the “mercury-legged brown son” and “the wonder horse.”   And there were others.

His stable name was Old Zeke for a long time, because of the manner in which he relaxes.  He puts his head down, his ears go flat, his eyes droop and he looks 100 years old.  But now the grooms and the foreman of the Hertz barn call him simply The Champ.

- Bob Considine, Cincinnati Enquirer, May 16, 1943

There are countless Count Fleet articles both online and in history books, so the writing that follows isn't a race-by-race biography of our sixth Triple Crown winner.  Yet pondering “C. Hewitt’s” words recently inspired me to study up on the Champ. 

Above/below:  References to Count Fleet can be seen in various spots around Belmont Park, including behind the grandstand (above), on a wall of composite photos of Belmont Stakes winners (top right photo below), on metalwork near the paddock and on a sign in the infield.  Until recently, Belmont also had tall road signs in the backstretch, named in honor of various horses, but I couldn't find any there on a recent visit.

Count Fleet was a son of the Hertzes’ 1928 Kentucky Derby winner Reigh Count, out of their mare Quickly.  Hertz offered Count Fleet as a yearling for just $4,500 but there were no takers, in part because the small colt wasn’t considered very attractive, body- or face-wise - a claim that writers relished writing throughout his career.

In addition, Count Fleet occasionally flashed a difficult attitude.

Sam Ransom…was the first person on his back. … Ransom was drafted into the Army.  Before leaving, he came into my office to bid me good-bye, and on that occasion said to me, “Mr. Hertz, don’t ever sell that leggy, brown colt.  He has tried to kill me in every way I know of, not out of meanness, but he sure has brushed me up against every tree and barn on the place that he could.  Mr. Hertz, when that leggy, brown colt wants to run, he can just about fly!  

The Racing Memoirs of John Hertz, as told to Evan Shipman 1954

Once Count Fleet reached the racetrack, Johnny Longden, too, had difficulty with him.  In his biography, Longden recounted a tale of a workout early on when the headstrong colt chose to split two horses - heading in the opposite direction - that were in his way.  Longden simply couldn’t control him to steer him around. 

Regardless of potential dangers, however - he said the colt almost killed him that day - Longden chose to keep riding him.

John Hertz's story read a bit differently.  In his autobiography - which isn’t exactly a study in humility - Hertz said the first time Count Fleet and Longden partnered, Count Fleet saw a rub rag on the track and tried to jump the inside rail.  Longden dismounted immediately, walked Count Fleet back to the trainer and told the man he’d best find a new exercise rider.

While I knew that it was unusual and to the best of my knowledge had not been tried at so early a stage, I suggested that the trainer slip a pair of blinkers on the colt.  The trainer reported within the next day or two that he had used blinkers on the colt and that he had breezed in them like a lamb.

The Racing Memoirs of John Hertz, as told to Evan Shipman, 1954

Oddly, Hertz never mentions trainer Don Cameron’s name in his book, at least that I could find, only referring to him as “the trainer.”

Longden also says that, just before Count Fleet started, he heard that Hertz might sell the colt for $4,500.  Longden rode a bicycle to a pay phone to talk him out of it.  Assuming that happened, Hertz forgot to put that in his autobiography (although, on the up side, he didn't call Longden "the jockey" throughout the book).

Regardless of details, there’s no arguing Count Fleet could be problematic at times.  His 5 losses, all at age 2, were likely due to his difficult ways, swerving or otherwise being inattentive to the task at hand.  It’s said he lost the Belmont Futurity because of l’amour, refusing to pass a filly named Askmenow.

Yet Hertz, Longden and Cameron all agreed that Count Fleet was not evil. Each felt the colt was, rather, unusually intelligent and competitive, and that he liked to have things his own way.

Hertz, especially, didn't mind those characteristics in a horse. He picked out Reigh Count at Saratoga, in fact, because he saw Reigh Count bite a rival during a race.  “I have always loved a fighter, man or horse,” Hertz later said.

Count Fleet stopped munching a mixture of clover, timothy and alfalfa to take a playful nip at his exercise boy at Belmont Park today and Trainer Don Cameron’s eyes glowed as he looked at the wonder horse of 1943.

“He’s a big fake,” the ruddy-faced Scotsman smiled.  “He wouldn’t hurt a baby.  Watch.”

Cameron shoved a ham-like hand into the stall and the Count flashed his big teeth toward them like a man without a ration book diving into a steak.  Inches away the mouth closed and the shiny brown horse nuzzled Cameron’s hand with his velvety nose.

“See what I mean?” Cameron asked. …

- Oscar Fraley (UP), Nevada State Journal, April 4, 1944

When you consider his record of 16 wins in 21 starts, with 4 seconds and a third, it’s clear that, regardless of weakness in looks or personality, Count Fleet was a very good racehorse.  But he was more than that.

13 times in his 21 races he was odds-on, including being 40-cents-on-the-dollar in the Kentucky Derby and 1-20 in his final two starts. He won the Walden Stakes by some 30 lengths and his final start, the Belmont – despite suffering an injury in the race – by 25 (newspaper accounts initially said 30 lengths but the number changed to 25 in later accounts).  

Oh, and because such things were done in those days, between the Preakness and Belmont he added the then-important Withers to his resume. 

The record for betting on one horse in a race was broken on Belmont day when $249,916 was plunked down on Count Fleet, an astonishing number for the times. And the track paid the price, an out-of-pocket $15,912.02 to cover their minus pool.

Above:  Count Fleet, John Longden up, wins the 1943 Belmont by 25 lengths, setting a new stakes record of 2:28 1/5.  Photo by Mike Sirico/NYRA

Count Fleet also set his own records. He set a new world record for 2-year-olds in the Champagne Stakes, equaled a track record when winning the Pimlico Futurity, and set a stakes record in the Wood Memorial. And that 25-length Belmont Stakes romp, in which he was injured?  He set a stakes record then, too, besting War Admiral’s mark (the record was equaled by Citation in 1948 and broken by Gallant Man in 1957).

There were occasions Count Fleet even broke track records in his workouts, and he zoomed around the barn so quickly when cooling out, tugging so lustily on his hotwalkers, that they had to take turns with him.

Through it all, the Count was no pet.  He was apparently polite when his Fannie Hertz gave him sugar cubes, but it’s said he enjoying acting sweet when other visitors approached to pat or kiss his head – and then he swung his head to slam them.

Niceties (or lack of) aside, this was clearly a colt who understood and relished his job.  Also clearly, he was more than just very good.  He was the shortest-priced Kentucky Derby future book favorite in history at the time at 5-2.  And in the 81 seasons since the Experimental Free Handicap was created, Count Fleet remains the only horse to be weighted at over 130 pounds – at an astonishing 132 pounds.

There were writers during Count Fleet’s time – even some who saw Man o’ War - who wondered if he was the greatest Thoroughbred of all.  In 1989, the esteemed breeder Ogden Phipps told Edward Bowen of The Blood-Horse that Count Fleet was the best racehorse he ever saw.

"I was particularly impressed that the man who bred and raced Buckpasser and Easy Goer harked back to someone else's horse as the best in his memory," Bowen says. "That's a real sportsman!"

Even more recently, when The Blood-Horse compiled their list of the 100 top racehorses of the 20th century, Count Fleet galloped home in fifth – in front of the likes of Dr. Fager, Native Dancer, Seattle Slew and Spectacular Bid.  

How good Count Fleet was will never be known for certain.  Longden, who went on to become the rider of more winners than any jockey in world history – and rider in the most races – rated Count Fleet the best horse he had ever seen.  The only jockey to ride the Hertz colt in a race, Longden also exercised him at times, and he later stated that once, just once, he turned the brown flash loose for an instant, to satisfy his curiosity concerning how fast Count Fleet really was – but felt such a surge of power that he took him in hand again almost immediately, fearful of the consequences.

- William H.P. Robertson, The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America, 1964

The injury Count Fleet suffered during his Belmont Stakes romp led to a long recovery period and, each time it seemed he’d return, he reaggravated his injury. Despite high hopes, his retirement was finally announced in July 1944, more than a year after his Belmont win.  I wonder, on what date in 1944 did C. Hewitt write in that cement...perhaps upon the colt’s retirement?

Count Fleet was shipped to the Hertzes’ expansive farm in Paris, KY, where he was born 4 years earlier.  There, at beautiful Stoner Creek Stud, Count Fleet proved both an excellent sire and, over time, an excellent broodmare sire.  He was the country’s leading sire in 1951 and, 12 years later, its leading broodmare sire. 

Among Count Fleet’s top runners are names still familiar to many, like Horse of the Years Counterpoint and One Count, Kentucky Derby winner Count Turf, and champion Kiss Me Kate.  Count Fleet's daughters produced such memorable horses as champions Lamb Chop and Quill, top broodmare sire Prince John, Kentucky Derby winner Lucky Debonair, and the 5-time Horse of the Year Kelso.  Mr. Prospector descends from Count Fleet as well.

When Assault died in 1971, Count Fleet remained as the only living Triple Crown winner.  Some romantics - including my young self - fancied he was politely sticking around until another horse won the Crown. Secretariat earned his in 1973 and Count Fleet, 33, died December 3 of that year.  He was buried in the farm cemetery.

(By then, Stoner Creek Stud was a Standardbred farm, but Count Fleet was allowed to live out his days there.  It’s said that when the farm’s famous stallion Nevele Pride died and was buried in 1993, he and Count Fleet’s headstones were swapped so that Nevele Pride’s stone would have the cemetery’s place of honor.  I’ve not found anyone who was there to confirm that story, but it’s fun lore.)

Above/below: Triple Crown winner Count Fleet at age 27, in 1967 at Stoner Creek Stud near Paris, KY.  Photographer John C. Wyatt

Above/below:  The beautiful, well-maintained Stoner Creek Stud farm cemetery.  Below, Nevele Pride (left), Meadow Skipper (center, obelisk) and Count Fleet are in the front.  

Above:  Although they are buried elsewhere on the farm, there is a stone for Count Fleet's sire and dam Reigh Count and Quickly in the cemetery.

Reading now that Count Fleet’s career ended due to injury in 1944 doesn’t sound startling, but imagine back then.  Racing was at its peak, nearly everyone read the newspaper and Americans needed distractions from World War II.  The war was so worrisome, in fact, that a photo of the 1943 Belmont Stakes showed a large board in the infield that, among other things, read IN CASE OF AIR RAID KEEP CALM.

In a time when writers wrote minutiae about his attitude, look, races and connections, Count Fleet was a friend, an American hero.  Even his name sounded like victory. 

Count Fleet came and went “like an army with banners”…  And to say that he was immeasurably superior to everything else of his age is just that….  It may be trite, but it is just as true to say that “since Man o’ War” no other three-year-old has squandered his opposition with such easy or moved through the “classics” with such invincibility.  The sudden way in which his light went out added to the startling effect of it all. The “blaze of glory” was extinguished at its brightest – so complete that by contrast the ensuing blackness was almost Stygian.

The above was written by the famed racing writer John Hervey, aka Salvator, in American Race Horses (1943).  In Racing in America 1937 – 1959, Robert Kelley wrote a similar - but Stygian-free - chapter called “The Year of Count Fleet”: 

This year in Thoroughbred racing (1943) will always be remembered as “Count Fleet’s year.”  And that is an interesting thing, for Count Fleet ran only six times during the entire season and he was out of action before the end of June.  Not in modern years has there been a greater impression left on racing people than that left this season by the son of Reigh Count out of Quickly.

Count Fleet’s sophomore year was like a skyrocket flaring across the sky to reach its climax of blinding white, then suddenly blacking out.  Man o’ War and, in later years, Citation had somewhat the same effect on the sport.  But the shortness of this one, with complete dominance over racers of all ages and sex, is almost without parallel in the Thoroughbred annals.

In that same book, John Hervey also considered "greatness" in regard to Count Fleet.  The words still hold true today:

Generations ago that wisest of racing critics, the late W. S. Vosburgh, laid it down as an axiom that the safest line to follow is to concede that the newest turf idol is assuredly the greatest, for by so doing one is always sure of voting with the majority… As racing goes, enthusiasts have short memories... They require new gods to worship, and if a season or two hence, these deities show feet of clay, by that time still newer ones have displaced them

 

I grew up worshiping Count Fleet, with an old photo of he and Johnny Longden taped on my bedroom wall. I read book stories about his stunning feats, studied photos of him, drew pictures of him.  To me, he was the stuff of dreams.  And he couldn’t have been more handsome.

I sometimes wonder how many children tape Count Fleet photos to their walls – or make them their computer desktops - nowadays. With countless information at our fingertips now, it seems more difficult for stories in dusty books, with their grainy black-and-white photos, to impress.  I wonder many young people now even look through racing books as I did, spending hours scouring library shelves for books with the Dewey Decimal’s number 636.1 (horses) or 798 (horse racing) on the binding.

I hope some do.

So, now, back to those simple words written in cement in the feed room of barn 39 at Belmont Park. 

Although a few people who work there call it the “barn Kelso built,” saying it was Mrs. Allaire du Pont’s barn, Count Fleet must have resided there.  There’s simply no reason for C. Hewitt to have otherwise written those words there.

When researching Count Fleet’s name and “Belmont” and “barn,” countless old newspaper articles come up.  Most are basic fare - that the horse was at Belmont and awaiting various engagements or recovering from injury.  Yet a precious few chronicled his day-by-day life, easy to envision when looking down the shedrow all these decades later.

There are nine horses in the Hertz barn at Belmont but the apple of everybody’s eye is the Count, known to all hands as the “Champ.” And never was there an infant that received more care.  Never is the Count left alone. Night and day there’s a man in his stall and a fine wire screen over the door prevents anything from being thrown into his quarters…

In three hearts he rules supreme, those of assistant trainer Charley Hewitt, exercise “boy” Billy Hodges, a little withered man of 60, and Bottom Rail, the “Champ’s” stable companion. Hewitt, a British soldier in the first world war, lives for the Count, even keeping a huge scrapbook for the Hertz Hurricane.

- Oscar Fraley (UP), Nevada State Journal, April 4, 1944

So there he was:  Charley Hewitt.  C. Hewitt, the man who felt it important to etch Count Fleet’s name into cement.  Hewitt was British, a war veteran and, obviously, an unusually sentimental sort. 

Many other articles reference Hewitt.  He was often quoted about how Count Fleet was feeling or how he traveled to various races.  Although most referred to him as Charley, a Blood-Horse article was more formal:

Charles Hewitt, assigned by trainer Don Cameron to take care of Count Fleet in the racing stable, is at the farm (Stoner Creek Stud) with him.  To Hewitt he is, without reservation, “the best horse I ever saw. 

“They fault his conformation,” said Hewitt, “but he can do the job.”

I asked Hewitt his impression of the colt’s action, his way of going in races.

“Very good,” he said.  Then he paused a moment, searching for the right way to say it.  “Impressive is the word, I guess. Impressive – and easy.  That’s the best thing about him, the way he runs.  He doesn’t pound the ground like most horses.  He doesn’t have to dig in and push, but sort of rocks along as if it were the easiest thing in the world.  He stretches way out with his forelegs, like this – way out…  Nice horse to handle too.  A bit high strung but a good doer; always eats well….”

And then there were these wonderfully image-invoking words in a Chicago Tribune article of April 30, 1944:

Barn 30, which is Count Fleet’s home at Belmont Park, is a veritable “zoo” with the John D. Hertz string…. The stalls are thickly populated by hens, roosters, wild mallard ducks, two goats, and the stable dog…. Pete, a rooster raised by Charley Hewitt, the stable foreman, gives ground to no one… the rooster’s special delight is pecking away at Trainer Don Cameron’s ankles.

It’s barn 39 nowadays, and I wonder if the article was in error or if the barn number has changed.  As it’s been 73 years since the Champ retired, the latter is certainly possible.  How I wish that barn, and others, had signs thereon to help people recognize the rich history therein. Where Man o’ War was stabled at Belmont and Saratoga, for instance, remains a constant curiosity to me. There are rumors about various barns but no certainty.  Shouldn’t we know?

Anyway, a heartfelt thank you to C. Hewitt and his beloved “Champ” for bringing Belmont’s aging barn 39 to new life for me. Now, when I pass by, I picture Count Fleet – perhaps not the handsomest horse in the history of our sport but among its all-time swiftest.  The bay colt struts down that shedrow, intimidating people, dragging hotwalkers and dazzling reporters. He rests at night - as do the hens, ducks, goats and the rooster - with protective mesh at the stall front and someone with him to keep him safe.

And although I could find only one lousy old newspaper photo of Charley Hewitt, his face details indiscernible, in my mind’s eye I can picture the British veteran.  He is studying every move of his famous charge, and gluing newspaper articles into large albums, updating reporters with his English accent, and smiling as his rooster Pete torments Don Cameron. 

And, one day in 1944, he is crouching down to record a love story in wet cement.

                 *                 *                  *

I can find no mention of Charley Hewitt after 1944 in my online searches, despite heartfelt attempts. I’ve tried with various catch words like “assistant trainer,” “Count Fleet,” “John D. Hertz,” “Thoroughbred” and “Don Cameron.” If anyone knows what became of him, I would love to learn more about him.

With thanks to Debra Cedano for first posting a photo of the feed room floor on her Facebook page, Tom Hall at
The Blood-Horse for his always kind assistance, and Susie Raisher for her help locating and photographing Hewitt's words.

Abigail Anderson of The Vault wrote a very good Count Fleet story last December, and it is from Abigail that I got information about John Longden's biography.  Abigail's story:  https://thevaulthorseracing.wordpress.com/tag/count-fleet/