Few sights in American sports are as iconic as the final stretch run of the Kentucky Derby. As the field rounds that final turn, the charge for the wire begins. Tired horses give way to those who have been waiting for their chance to find a clear path to victory, the crowd’s anticipation rising to a crescendo of elation. Many times, the winner runs alone, the only one with the right balance of speed and stamina to navigate the ten furlongs between hope and immortality. Occasionally, those last furlongs are a battle to the finish, two horses and two riders, feet and hands frantically pushing for the wire. What awaits them at the end? A blanket of roses and a place in the history books.
Every once in a while, that immortality carries over to the next generation and beyond, that something special necessary to wearing roses passed down from father to son and more. As we count down to another Run for the Roses, let’s explore one such Derby dynasty, where winning classic races became a family trait.
Reigh Count, the First
Willis Sharpe Kilmer loved Sun Briar. Kilmer purchase this chestnut colt, imported from France, for $6,000 at the Saratoga Yearling Sale in 1916. Sun Briar’s sire Sundridge had already produced a classic winner in Sunstar, who had won both the Epsom Derby and the Two-Thousand Guineas in England in 1911. His dam, Sweet Briar II, was also the daughter of another Two Thousand Guineas winner, St. Frusquin. Stacked on both sides of his pedigree, Kilmer had high hopes for Sun Briar, so much so that he imported his full brother, Sunreigh, and their dam Sweet Briar II from France. Sun Briar went on to win several stakes at two and three, including the Travers Stakes, and carried on Sundridge’s legacy, siring horses like Sun Beau, Pompey, and Firethorn.
Given Sun Briar’s success on the racetrack, Sunreigh was expected to do the same, but he was chronically unsound, never winning a race in his brief career. At stud, too, his career was short, siring only fourteen foals before his early death. In 1924, Kilmer paired Sunreigh with Contessina, a non-winner herself who happened to be the daughter of Count Schomberg, a winner on both the English flat and over the jumps. Their mating produced a handsome chestnut colt with a long splotch of white on his face. Kilmer named him Reigh Count.
At age two, Reigh Count needed seven starts to break his maiden, not quite the start that thrilled Willis Sharpe Kilmer. Notoriously impatient with both horses and trainers, Kilmer was quick to put the colt up for sale, but Henry McDaniel, who was on his second go-round as Kilmer’s trainer, saw potential in the son of Sunreigh and urged his boss to keep him. Kilmer, though, had decided to liquidate his racing holdings, selling horses like Sun Edwin, a multiple stakes winner, for $75,000 and Reigh Count for $12,000 to John D. Hertz, owner of Yellow Cab Company and Hertz Drive-Ur-Self (rental) Company. At Saratoga, Hertz had seen Reigh Count be aggressive in the stretch run of one of his earlier starts, leaving quite the impression on the businessman, who also happened to be a former boxer. He purchased Reigh Count for their nascent stable, running their horses in his wife Fannie’s name. For Hertz, Reigh Count won the Walden Handicap and the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, but finished second to his stablemate Anita Peabody in the Futurity Stakes at Belmont.
Reigh Count had been slow to show his hand at age two, but, at three, he was virtually unstoppable, especially at longer distances. He not only won the Kentucky Derby, but also was victorious in the Lawrence Realization, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and the Saratoga Cup among his seven wins in 1928. Taking advantage of their champion colt’s affection for distance, the Hertzes shipped Reigh Count to England to attempt the two-and-a-half-mile Ascot Gold Cup in 1929. Again, the son of Sunreigh was slow to find his form in England, as acclimating to a new climate, a new surface, and a turn to the right rather than the left took some time, but he finally found the winner’s circle in the Coronation Cup. In that race, he eked out a nose victory over Irish champion Athford, setting him up nicely for the Ascot Gold Cup. However, Reigh Count faced a field that included the 1928 Ascot Gold Cup winner Invershin, and could not quite get the better of him, finishing second by two lengths.
Pleased with their champion, the Hertzes retired Reigh Count first to their Illinois farm, then moved him to Claiborne Farm from 1936-1939, and finally settled him at their new farm, Stoner Creek Stud near Paris, Kentucky. There, Fannie Hertz paired Reigh Count with their Haste mare, Quickly, to produce a rambunctious brown colt they named Count Fleet.
Count Fleet, the Second
Sun Briar, full brother to Reigh Count’s sire Sunreigh, might have looked more the part of a champion Thoroughbred, but his stablemate Exterminator, nicknamed “Old Bones” for his gangly form, proved to be the better horse, winning the Kentucky Derby among his fifty victories in his long career. While Reigh Count might have been called handsome, his best son Count Fleet was less so, but, boy, could he fly!
Reigh Count had proven time and again that he possessed the talent to tackle a distance, winning multiple races at distances ten furlongs and longer. Because Reigh Count was so good at running long, Hertz preferred to pair him with mares with speed-heavy pedigrees, like Quickly. A daughter of Haste, her pedigree included Rock Sand, the English Triple Crown winner, but also Correction, a full sister to the legendary sire Domino. On March 24, 1940, Quickly foaled a brown colt with a hind sock and a wee smudge of white on his forehead, “a gangling little brown chow-hound that was promptly named Count Fleet.” For all of the promise held within his pedigree, though, Quickly’s gawky colt proved to be a challenge from day one.
This ugly duckling tended to be a headstrong little guy, nicknamed “Bully” by Stoner Creek farmhand Sam Ramsen. “He never really wanted to hurt you,” Ramsen remembered, “He always wanted to be on the go, like something was after him all the time.” Count Fleet was one of the Reigh Count yearlings that Hertz wanted to sell in 1941, but his dam scared prospective buyers away. Quickly might have been speedy, but she was also frequently raced, amassing thirty-two wins in eighty-five starts in her six seasons on the track. This turned off buyers who believed that a broodmare that was too frequently raced did not have enough left over to become a good broodmare. Such prejudices left the Hertzes with this bullish colt, who they sent to trainer Don Cameron with a price tag still attached.
Assigned to ride Count Fleet was jockey Johnny Longden. Longden himself had quite the story: Johnny was born in Yorkshire, England, and was set to emigrate to the United States with his mother and siblings, but the train to Southampton was late and the family missed their scheduled voyage on the Titanic (!). The family settled in Alberta, Canada, where Johnny and his father both worked in mining until the young Longden’s love of horses and horse racing prompted him to leave Alberta for sunny California. Don Cameron hired Longden to ride for Fannie Hertz, and, on June 1, 1942, a love affair began.
Count Fleet blew the break, banging into another horse, and yet managed to finish second in his debut. Two weeks later, he repeated that performance, but, for all of his quirks, Longden saw the potential of this son of Reigh Count. When the jockey discovered that Count Fleet was still for sale, he called the Hertzes himself and convinced them to keep the colt. The owners were concerned that Count Fleet was dangerous, but Longden, who was in his mid-30s with a family at this point, countered, “I’m not afraid.” The Hertzes’ decision to keep the quirky colt was quickly rewarded.
Count Fleet broke his maiden in his next start and went on to win ten of his fifteen starts at age two, including victories in the Champagne and Wakefield Stakes, and the Pimlico Futurity. In his last start of 1942, he won the Walden Stakes at Pimlico by twenty lengths. He was voted the Champion Two-Year-Old Colt, assigned the highest weight in the Experimental Free Handicap, 132 pounds. No other horse had ever been assigned so much in the eight decades of the Jockey Club’s rankings.
At three, with Longden aboard, Count Fleet continued his dominance. The graduation from two to three meant that he had filled out his frame, progressing from ungainly juvenile to handsome sophomore. But that growth had not changed the colt’s personality. He maintained that intensity that had made Longden fall for him in those early races, often requiring forty-five minutes to cool out after a workout. That intensity would power him through his Triple Crown campaign, powering past every horse that faced him. He won his first race of 1943 with such ease that his winter book odds for the Kentucky Derby dropped from 4-5 to 2-5, but he nicked his foreleg during the race, which Cameron initially dismissed as incidental. His next race, the Wood Memorial, was more of the same: a victory but another nicked leg. A distressing trend was starting: Count Fleet seemed to strike himself with his own hooves in the process of running these important races. Cameron kept an eye on his charge during the run-up to the Derby, concerned that the wound would keep Count Fleet out of the race.
Fortunately, Cameron was able to keep his colt healthy enough to meet the starter for the Kentucky Derby on May 1, where he faced a field of nine others. He led from gate to wire, shaking off any challenger with ease. With his victory, Reigh Count became the fourth Kentucky Derby winner to sire another Derby winner, joining Halma, Bubbling Over, Gallant Fox, and Bold Venture. Count Fleet would continue his dominance in both the Preakness and the Withers Stakes, winning both by multiple lengths and setting the stage for his run at history in the Belmont Stakes.
Only two others faced him at Belmont and those two were pretty much competing for second place money anyway. A half mile into the mile and a half, Count Fleet was already eight lengths ahead. At a mile and a quarter, he was twenty lengths in front. At the wire, the margin was twenty-five lengths, a record margin of victory that would be exceeded in spectacular fashion thirty years later by Secretariat’s thirty-one-length Belmont margin. Count Fleet had won the sixth Triple Crown with such ease that it seemed little could stop this juggernaut with the 1943 season only half done. Of course, there was one opponent that the son of Reigh Count could not outrun: injury.
He struck himself again during the Belmont, hitting his left fore ankle with one of his hooves. The injury did not look serious, but it stubbornly refused to heal completely, leaving Cameron with no choice but to recommend retiring Count Fleet for the year. The Hertzes had planned to bring their Triple Crown champion back at age four, yet that pesky ankle had turned into a splint that could turn into something more serious if Count Fleet raced again. Instead, the Hertzes elected to send him to Stoner Creek to stand alongside his sire. There, the horse that they had tried to sell twice with no takers became a leading sire and broodmare sire, producing stakes winners like Counterpoint, One Count, Kiss Me Kate, and Count Turf, some of the many foals that would continue Count Fleet’s influence on the history of racing in this country.
[Video: Watch Count Fleet win the Triple Crown]
Count Turf, the Third
Frank Porter Miller, a California physician, decided to parlay his time and experience as a dog breeder into breeding thoroughbreds in the 1940s. Initially, he and his wife had owned their own stable of fair racehorses, but found racing to be less satisfying than breeding, redirecting his energy toward commercial breeding. The Millers maintained a farm in Riverside County, but sent their broodmares to Kentucky for breeding. In 1947, they sent Delmarie, a daughter of 1925’s two-year-old champion Pompey, to Stoner Creek Stud to visit the court of Count Fleet. Delmarie foaled a plain bay colt on April 27, 1948 at Stoner Creek; the colt was then sent back to California until the Saratoga yearling sale the following year. Miller expected his son of Count Fleet would fetch $8,000 - $10,000 at the sale, but the colt’s paddle-like motion put off some buyers. Jack Amiel, a New York restauranteur, purchased the colt for $3,700 and named him Count Turf, ‘Count’ for his sire and ‘Turf’ for his Turf Restaurant on Broadway.
Count Fleet had yet to have that breakthrough crop of foals that would later define his time at stud, but things were about to change with Count Turf. Amiel sent the colt to trainer Sol Rutchick, a Russian immigrant who operated a public stable at Jamaica Race Track. Rutchick had a reputation as a good trainer, but, when it came to Count Turf, the colt seemed to befuddle his trainer. Rutchick insisted on racing Count Turf on the lead, but Amiel and his jockeys thought the colt would perform better coming from behind. Much like his sire, though, Count Turf was a determined runner, but was not quite as consistent at age two. He won one of his ten starts that year, winning the Dover Stakes and finishing second in two other stakes races.
His three-year-old year did not start off auspiciously either. Count Turf ran ten times, starting at Hialeah in mid-January and then shifting to Jamaica in April. Of those ten, he won one, but was training well. Watching Count Turf’s rough trip in the Wood Memorial, Amiel started seeing roses: “He was stopped dead in the stretch,” his owner recalled, “Another horse came over on him. Still he made another run.” Much like his sire, Count Turf had displayed the determination necessary not to give up even when met with traffic. Amiel was prepared to send him to Louisville; Rutchick was not. The trainer was not convinced that the colt was Derby material, but Amiel overruled him. With the right jockey, Amiel felt like Count Turf would find the mile and a quarter Kentucky Derby much to his liking.
Amiel recruited Conn McCreary, who had won the Derby and the Preakness on Pensive in 1944, but, by 1951, he was down on his luck, barely getting by and nearly out of racing altogether. With Rutchick unwilling to participate in training Count Turf for the Derby, his assistant George Sulley and Amiel, who was a lifelong horseman, took up the mantle of trainer in his stead. They prepared Count Turf for the Derby, which was shaping up to be a twenty-horse field. When it came to wagering on the Kentucky Derby, Count Turf had been lumped in with four others to make up the field, a bet-one-get-four-more situation. The son of Count Fleet made no one’s lists of top three predicted finishers. The only radars he was on was his owner’s and McCreary’s. Despite Amiel’s confidence, Rutchick remained in New York, supposedly having missed a Derby-morning plane to Louisville.
Count Turf handled the traffic of a twenty-horse field with aplomb. McCreary wove him through horses, picking spots to change position as horses tired. On the final turn, McCreary took Count Turf around a fading Repertoire and entered the stretch with momentum on his side. He zipped to the lead, pulling away to win by four lengths. Improbably, Count Turf had duplicated the Kentucky Derby wins of both his sire and his grandsire, showing off the same speed and endurance that both Count Fleet and Reigh Count had demonstrated in their own turns around Churchill Downs.
Amiel’s faith had been rewarded with roses. McCreary’s luck turned around after his turn on Count Turf, his career revived for another nine years before he finally hung up his tack. Count Turf did not run in the Preakness as he had not been nominated, but did attempt the Belmont Stakes, finding the mile and a half a bit too long. He was injured during that race and did not run again until his four-year-old season. That season too was shortened by injury, but Count Turf returned at age five to run a handful of races, including a win in the Questionnaire Handicap at Empire City Racetrack. Unfortunately, he was injured in the stretch of that last victory and retired to stand stud, first in Kentucky and then in Maryland.
At stud, Count Turf sired one hundred winners from 154 foals, with two stakes winners, but was not able to do what Count Fleet or Reigh Count had done and produce another classic winner. Regardless, this third-generation Derby winner signaled Count Fleet’s impact on the pedigrees of American Thoroughbreds. Count Fleet appears twice in Triple Crown winner American Pharoah’s pedigree and multiple times in Justify’s as well, not to mention his presence in the pedigree of every Kentucky Derby winner of the last decade.
Spanning two continents and three generations, this family of Kentucky Derby winners dominated racing in their time and the echoes of their accomplishments still ring through the sport today. They realized Derby dreams and paved the way for many more to do the same decades later. When we cheer the field thundering down the stretch, when the Twin Spires ring again with the thrill of that finishing kick, marvel at the possibility of seeing three generations of greatness come together once again under a blanket of roses.
Jennifer Kelly is a horse racing historian, blogger, and writer known best for her book Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown. She is currently working on Foxes of Belair, which will cover the careers of father-son Triple Crown winners Gallant Fox and Omaha and the man that bred them - William Woodward. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter so you can keep up with her work!
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