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 t