With Thoroughbred racing's spring classics prelude in full song, Oaklawn Park will be tuning up its candidates in the Arkansas Derby (G1), the centerpiece for the track's April 10 card that comprises three other stakes.
One of those, and the only other graded race on tap, honors a three-time spring classic winner from 78 years ago: Count Fleet.
Oddly enough to have a race named in his honor, Count Fleet never set foot on the Oaklawn track, and seemingly even odder for a winner of the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby, 1 3/16-mile Preakness Stakes, and 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes, the race is the six-furlong Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3).
But, judging from his race record, Count Fleet, a smallish brown colt with muscular quarters and shoulders, was a bit of an anomaly. He might have fancied shorter trips but his competitive fire carried him furlongs farther.
Bred by successful Chicago businessman, John D. Hertz and his wife, Fannie, Count Fleet was sired by the Hertzes' 1928 Kentucky Derby winner Reigh Count out of the hickory-tough (85 starts with 32 wins over a six-year racing career should fall into that category) mare Quickly, a daughter of the speedy and aptly named Haste.
Born in 1940 in the first crop of foals at the Hertzes' newly established Kentucky farm, Stoner Creek Stud, Count Fleet did not impress, so Hertz put his ugly duckling up for sale and got no takers at $4,500 ($80,500 in today's market).
Fortunately for his owners, Count Fleet was a typical Reigh Count foal: tough, sturdy, and late-maturing.
Trained by Don Cameron and ridden by John Longden, Count Fleet started 15 times as a juvenile. Prior to his six-length victory in the Oct. 10 Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park, he had never raced farther than 6 1/2 furlongs in 11 starts, becoming riper and riper in experience all the while. Count Fleet never lost again.
A victory in the Pimlico Futurity by five lengths and a score by a city-block 30 lengths in the Walden Stakes at Pimlico Race Course were enough to earn him the title as champion 2-year-old male of 1942.
From 15 starts that year that averaged 6.4 furlongs, Count Fleet had won 10, never finished worse than third, and earned $76,245.
So good were Count Fleet and his connections, that as other classic hopeful 3-year-olds butted heads in other parts of the country, Count Fleet strolled out of the starting gate at Jamaica Racetrack April 13, where he took a mile-and-change allowance by coming off the pace to win by 3 1/2 lengths. Four days later he added the 1 1/16-mile Wood Memorial with a gate-to-wire dusting of Blue Swords by the same margin.
In Louisville for the May 1 Kentucky Derby, Count Fleet met rival Blue Swords and eight other rivals over a trip nearly two furlongs farther than he had ever traveled before. A three-length parrying of Blue Swords' attacks at 10 furlongs thrust him into the winner's circle.
Fewer chose to face Count Fleet in the Preakness. Blue Swords tried again but he fell to Count Fleet's scythe-like strides by eight lengths.
With his eye on the Belmont prize, the connections prepped Count Fleet in the Withers Stakes, where he won by five over just two opponents.
Count Fleet was a five-cents-to-a-dollar favorite for the Belmont. Two dared him but to no avail. His 25-length winning margin set the ultimate standard until Secretariat deep-sixed it 30 years later.
An injury sustained in the Belmont ended Count Fleet's racing days and he retired to stud at Stoner Creek.
Count Fleet died at 33 in 1973.