Count Fleet in the Withers

The Rail, the New York Times racing blog, launched this week for the 2009 Triple Crown season, and this post appeared there yesterday.

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They certainly got the name right.

One can imagine Mrs. John D. Hertz, breeder and owner of a brown colt born in 1940, looking at his pedigree—the colt was by Reigh Count out of Quickly—and cleverly fashioning a name derived from those of his parents.

Hindsight might make us think she knew, might make us think she saw something in the young horse whose name would come to reflect his astonishing performance on the racetrack. His first name was redolent of the racing royalty he would become, wearing a Crown at age three; the second was the adjective that might better than any other describe him.

Count Fleet. It was perfect.

The sixth winner of Thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown comes to mind this week, because in addition to winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont in 1943, he also won the Withers—the last horse to win that race and the Derby. While most of the racing world turns its eyes to Louisville, some of us look to our local tracks, and those of us here in New York mark Aqueduct’s closing weekend and the 130th running of the Withers. First run in 1874 (the year before the first Kentucky Derby), the race is named for David Dunham Withers, a founding father of racing in New York.

Back then, the Withers wasn’t a Derby prep; it was raced after both the Derby and the Preakness, and was another stop on the heavily-travelled road of three-year-old racing. Not uncommonly for mid-century horses, Count Fleet raced a lot—fifteen times as a two-year-old, compiling a record of 10 – 4 – 1. Off from November of 1942 to April of 1943, he returned to his winning ways in April at Jamaica, and won the Wood Memorial four days later. Second off a layoff indeed.

A mere two weeks later, he easily beat a field of ten in the Kentucky Derby, and the following week won the Preakness by eight lengths. Twenty-five days, four races, four wins. Fourteen days later, he added the Belmont and the Triple Crown, in the last race of his career. In 21 starts, a career that lasted only 370 days, according to David Grening in Champions, Count Fleet never finished off the board. Below, his Derby win.

Grening tells us that with a month between the Preakness and the Belmont, trainer Don Cameron decided to enter his horse in the Withers. The fields were small following Count Fleet’s dominating win in the Kentucky Derby, and he faced only two at Belmont. Proving that problems with public transport to and from that track are not a recent occurrence, New York Times writer Bryan Field noted that that the 22,000 fans who showed up to see the race “had a much harder time getting to and from the track than Count Fleet had getting around it,” due to war-time rationing that meant that fans could “only attend races by streetcar or horse-drawn vehicles,” according to Grening.

While Field’s statement might indicate that Count Fleet took the easy way around the track, his own article tells us otherwise: “But as the swing came into the homestretch, a gasp went up from the crowd when it was seen that Count Fleet was running about midway between the two rails—that is about forty feet off the inner rail.” Ahead at every call, Count Fleet won by five lengths “wide, easily.”

Andy Beyer notes that determining speed figures for these old races is an “exercise in futility”: Count Fleet won by wide margins in small fields, and in the days before electronic timers, race times are not necessarily reliable. Nonetheless, Beyer has occasionally tried to analyze the greatness of classic horses, and he estimates that by some calculations, Count Fleet’s speed figures might have reached 150, though cautioning that such figures would be impossible to establish with any certainty. What seems indisputable is that Count Fleet was, in Beyer’s words, “one of the really, truly, all-time greats.”

These days, the Withers runs a week before the Derby, and today’s relatively lightly raced Derby contenders would no more run two races in two weeks than, oh, stay on the track beyond their sophomore season. A look at the entries reveals that only Supreme Summit has a name that hints at historical greatness, but it doesn’t come close to the grandly prescient name bestowed on a baby colt over sixty years ago, a baby colt who more than lived up to his name.

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