The greatest horse I ever rode
At first Longden thought Count Fleet was crazy. Then the headstrong colt carried him past every horse in sight to sweep racing’s richest prizes in a brief brilliant partnership that has known few equals
On a brisk spring morning in 1942 at the Belmont race track near New York I was galloping some two-year-old horses that belonged to a wealthy American owner named John D. Hertz. I'd taken two or three for a few turns around the track and then Don Cameron, who was Mr. Hertz's trainer, pointed to a rangy brown fellow being saddled by one of the grooms.
At first Longden thought Count Fleet was crazy. Then the headstrong colt carried him past every horse in sight to sweep racing’s richest prizes in a brief brilliant partnership
that has known few equals
BY JOHNNY LONGDEN
with TRENT FRAYNE
On a brisk spring morning in 1942 at the Belmont race track near New York 1 was galloping some two-year-old horses that belonged to a wealthy American owner named John D. Hertz. Ld taken two or three for a few' turns around the track and then Don Cameron, who was Mr. Hertz's trainer, pointed to a rangy brown fellow being saddled by one of the grooms.
"Take him for a little ride, John,” Don said. ‘‘I don't know' much about him yet but his old man could run some.”
"Who is he?” 1 asked Don.
"A Reigh Count colt,” Don said, naming the winner of the 1928 Kentucky Derby. "Name’s Count Fleet.”
I've ridden some great horses in my thirtyone years of racing—Whirlaway and Noor and Swaps come quickly to mind—and I’ve also seen some great ones: Nashua and Citation, for example, the only thoroughbreds in the world ever to win a million dollars. But that early spring morning in 1942 was the day I first saw the greatest horse I ever rode or saw, that sleek brown two-year-old, Count Fleet, who turned out to have a mind of his own, a sense of humor and a chivalrous way wdth lady horses. He retired rich and produced a son w'ho won the Kentucky Derby. What more could you ask of man or beast?
My lofty claims for the Count are not generally shared, it’s true. But I think this is because he just wasn’t around long enough for the thoroughbred world to gauge his true worth. Early in June of 1943, while he was winning the richly fashionable Belmont Stakes by tw'cnty-five lengths, he kicked himself in the right fore ankle, inflicting an injury that never properly responded to treatment. He was only a three-year-old but because he had won everything in sight that year, including the Kentucky Derby, the-Preakness, the Wood Memorial and the Withers Stakes, Mr. Hertz retired him to stud rather than risk breaking him down permanently. Thus, just about everything most people remember about Count Fleet transpired fifteen years ago between April 17 when he won the Wood Memorial at the Jamaica track and June 5 at Belmont when he ran his last race.
I rode him in all his races—fifteen as a twoyear-old and six when he was three—and in all of his morning works, and this came about in a curious way. That morning in 1942 when I saw' him for the first time, I figured he was a crazy horse. After I got on him outside the barn we walked out on the track and he just decided we’d go the wrong way. 1 couldn't change his mind, try as I did. so we galloped away clockwise instead of counter-clockwise as traille runs on North American race tracks. This would have been fine if the track had been deserted but it wasn't. There were other jocks working other horses, and right away here were two of them heading straight for us. We went right between them in what could have been one hell of a collision.
1 got that crazy colt to a stop and walked all the way back to the barn, leading him. 1 told Don Cameron that the colt was nuts, and to keep him away from me.
The next morning I was walking past the barn and Don called to me. Don was born in Winnipeg and we were old friends from the prairie-circuit days.
“Hey. John,” he said, grinning. "You want to work that crazy colt?”
"Not me. kid,” I said.
“Oh. come on. Nobody else will.”
So I said okay, and this time Count Fleet was kind enough to go where 1 wanted him to go and he even showed a fair turn of speed.
A couple of days later 1 heard that Mr. Hertz was offering the colt for sale, along with some other two-year-olds, at $4,500. So far there’d been no takers. 1 told Don I thought they ought to take the colt off the list. Whether my word influenced him or not I don’t know', but Don suggested to Mr. Hertz that we keep the colt awhile and he came off the list.
Count Fleet wasn’t an easy colt to teach. At first he used to bear out and wanted to run all over the track. We began working him with another horse running on the outside so that he couldn't bear out.
I remember the first time I took him to the post. It was at Belmont. I looked up at Eddie Blind, the assistant starter, and said, “He’s going to the Derby, Eddie, continued on page 47
Johnny Longden tells his own story continued from page 21
“All Count Fleet wanted to do was run. He’d go right over a horse rather than go around him”
iiust as sure as I'm sitting right here.”
We finished second that day, but it mimed out that I knew what I was sulking about.
Still, Count Fleet remained quite a problem as a two-year-old. All he wantid to do was run, and it didn't make any Jifference to him in what direction. I know one thing: on the day he was running I didn't ever have to reduce to ride him. because I couldn’t sleep the night before for wondering what he'd think of next. We didn’t know which way he'd go—he was green, you see, and full of spirit. He’d run over horses, climb right up their backs, rather than go around them if he decided that's where he wanted to go.
But I persevered with him. I'd talk to him. I'd say, "Come on. boy." or Let's go. Count.'' or something like that to make him familiar with my voice. Eventually he got to know me. He wouldn't let anybody else on his back and it got so that I could do anything with him, mostly by talking to him and never ignoring him when I walked by his stall. I’d say, “Hello, you crazy jolt.” in a soft voice as he stood with his head poked out from the stall. I'd rub his nose and stroke his big brown head.
Love at first gallop
It was out in Chicago that year that the Count displayed his chivalry. We were in a juvenile stakes in which there was a two-year-old filly named Askmenow, and I guess my boy Count Fleet took her name literally. I had him well back in the pack and then I began to move with him with about half a mile to go. He picked up speed nicely and was moving up on the leaders when suddenly he came upon Askmenow, clipping along in third place.
Do you think he'd go past that filly? No, sir. He came right up alongside and stayed there. Askmenow’s jock looked across at me and snarled, "Get him offa me!"
“I’m tryin' to get him offa you,” I shouted back. "He won't come off."
He wouldn't either. He just stayed nuzzled there, refusing to leave even after we'd gone under the wire—in third and fourth positions, I might add—and when we'd jogged around to the back stretch I had to jump down and haul him away from that filly.
Back at Belmont the Count set a world’s record for a mile for two-yearolds by winning the Champagne Stakes in one minute thirty-four and four-fifths seconds, and then we shipped down to Baltimore for the Pimlico Futurity, a $25,000 stakes at a mile and a sixteenth. The two best other juveniles around that year were Occupation and Vincentive, and both were entered so that the race stirred up quite a bit of interest.
My old friend Georgie Woolf, with whom I grew up in southern Alberta, was aboard Occupation and he took command at the start. The Count went wide on the clubhouse turn, which he hadn't done for quite a spell, but I got him straightened out on the back stretch, and through the last three furlongs we slowly took command. We went head and head for a few strides, but then Occupation began to give way, and
Count Fleet became the year's best twoyear-old.
In his six races as a three-year-old, Count Fleet won on all kinds of track, fast and slow, wet and dry. He just loved to run. In the Wood Memorial
the track was fast but the weather was cold and raw. The Count went to the post a I to 4 favorite, and as he came out of the number-four stall he ran into trouble. The horse in number-two stall cannoned into Vincentive in number
three, forcing Vincentive over on us.
We didn't know it at the time, but that start almost cost Count Fleet the Kentucky Derby. We got clear, all right, and won handily in a canter, but when he was roughhoused at the start the
Count received a nasty cut on the left rear hoof and pulled up bleeding.
I looked at that foot and I said, “Well, there goes the Derby.”
Don Cameron, the trainer, went to work on it but then Count Fleet developed poisoning in the wound en route to Kentucky. Don worked with him for ten days—the Derby came up two weeks after the Wood Memorial—and finally we were able to work out a couple of days before the race. Sulfathiazole took care of the poisoning, but I stayed with the Count the whole week before the Derby because my wife Hazel was expecting a baby and hadn’t come to Louisville. In fact, our son Eric, who turned fifteen a few weeks ago, was born the following Saturday while the Count and I were winning the Preakness.
It’s been mentioned earlier in this series that every race, whether it’s for $100,000 at Santa Anita or $500 at Calgary’s Victoria Park, is pretty much the same to me; that my whole thrill is just being up on a horse in a race. But I guess there is something different about the Kentucky Derby, probably because it’s so highly publicized. It’s one you sure want to win. I was a little worked up, I must confess, but not Count Fleet. In the paddock before the race, with the crowd buzzing and an electric excitement filling the air, he just stood there still as a stone while Don Cameron saddled him. He was completely relaxed. The other horses must have felt the excitement because you could see their muscles quivering. Don lathered the Count’s injured foot with sulpha and then smeared axle grease over the sulpha to keep dirt out of the cut, and then we were on the track.
Calmest horse in the barn
The Count broke from the number-five gate and I took him to the top after a horse called Gold Shower tried to stay with him for about a quarter of a mile. He just kept galloping along, not extending himself, and nobody came up to challenge us. We came off the last turn a length ahead of Blue Swords and headed down the famous home stretch with speed in reserve, pulling steadily away and winning by a good three lengths. People who’d bet that Count Fleet would win the Derby got $2.80 for a two-dollar ticket.
Back in the barn afterward he was still relaxed. It can be dangerous to go near a big bullish colt after a race. Most of them are tense and excited and wrought up after the concentrated strain and effort of a race, and you can have a hand badly chewed if you’re not careful. But I remember that Mrs. Hertz held out a couple of lumps of sugar to Count Fleet and he took them with his lips and didn't even get her fingers wet.
Then he saw Don Cameron, who usually gave him his sugar. Don apparently reasoned that there'd been enough sugar because he wasn’t offering any. But when Count Fleet made up his mind to do something, as I’ve indicated, he just went right ahead and did it. He walked over to Don, waited for the sugar, and when he didn't get it he gave Don a thumping push with his head and walked away.
In his next few races Count Fleet had even less trouble than he’d had in the Derby. He was a 1 to 7 favorite for the Preakness and he shot to the front like a skyrocket and drew farther and farther in front. He came swinging down the stretch with long hurtling effortless leaps and won by eight lengths. Wayne Wright, the jockey on the third-last horse, New Moon, grumbled afterward:
“Dammit, I couldn’t even see the
By the time we got to the Belmont Stakes, after winning the Withers, people were talking about no other horse. Count Fleet still had not been pressed JO we still didn't know just what he could do flat out. 1 was eonvinced he could break every record in the book if í challenger would bring out his best.
Unfortunately, the Belmont Stakes on .lime 5 was not to be the day. The track was fast and the weather beautiful but we’d scared off competition by this time. Only two horses from a long list of eligibles. Fairy Manhurst and Deseronto, went to the post against the Count ¿nd he won the mile-and-a-half race by vhat the chart-callers decided was twenty-five lengths, although it might even have been thirty. It was just no contest.
And though Count Fleet won as he pleased he didn't set a record. In the stretch he began to shorten his stride as though limping slightly, and I suspected then that he’d kicked himself coming off the last turn. That must have been vhat happened because certainly no horse was close enough at any stage of the race to rough him.
Thus, when Mr. Hertz decided to retire Count Fleet, there never again was in opportunity to see what he could do if he extended himself. It's my personal opinion that he could have beaten any horse that ever ran. He could do everything—come from behind or go right to the top or overcome a roughhousing —on any kind of a race track.
There have been other great horses in my time—Nashua and Swaps, for example, the glamour horses of recent years. There's really no way of telling but I think Count Fleet would have horrified both of them. Count Fleet could go the first eighth of a mile in under eleven seconds and the last eighth in less than twelve—in other words, he had speed and stamina at both ends. I think if Nashua or Swaps or both tried to stay with the Count early in the race they'd have nothing left at the end. And if they laid back at the start it's my opinion he'd move so far in front they’d never catch him.
Whirlaway was another great horse. Whirlaway's mark of two minutes, one and two-fifths seconds is still the Kentucky Derby record. He was an exciting horse, too, because he’d come from far back with a terrific burst in the stretch, lifting the crowds with that great dash in front of the grandstand. But, personally, I feel that was a fault. I feel he'was what we call a one-run horse, meaning that if he made his run at the start he had nothing left at the finish. He wasn't versatile in the manner
Count Fleet was. Whirly had to come from away back, or not at all. Possibly this is drawing fine lines, but when you're dealing with great horses the line must of necessity be fine.
I didn’t ride Nashua, but I did ride both Swaps and Whirlaway. In fact, Swaps provided me with a $9,040 cheque for less than two minutes’ work one afternoon three years ago. This was in the Santa Anita Derby on Feb. 19. The added money for nomination and entry fees, on top of the $100,000 put up by the Santa Anita management, totaled $137,500. The winner’s share was $90.400 and, as usually happens in stakes races, I received ten percent of the prize. My friend Willie Shoemaker usually rode Swaps for owner Rex Ellsworth, as he did later that year in winning the Kentucky Derby. But Willie had made a previous commitment to ride Blue Ruler, as an entry with Eddie Arcaro on Jean's Joe, in the Santa Anita race. So Mr. Ellsworth and his trainer Mish Tenney h i reel me. Shoemaker's commitment cost him the nine thousand I won; he was third with Blue Ruler while Arcaro and I fought through the stretch sitie by side. Swaps and I nailed him by a head.
Except for an incident involving trainer Ben Jones it's possible that I’d have ridden Whirlaway through his 1941 campaign. the year he won the Triple Crown under Arcaro. The summer before, when Whirly was a two-year-old, I was assigned by Jones to ride him in the Pimlico Futurity. It had rained most of the week so B.n and I walked the race course the morning of the Futurity and we discovered a puddle of water in the turn for home. Ben warned me to watch for that puddle.
But what he didn't tell me was that in his training Whirlaway had shown a tendency to run wide on the turns and that he had developed this characteristic alarmingly. As the race was run, we were doing fine as we came to that turn for home and I eased Whirly a little wide to avoid the puddle.
But instead of “easing” wide, Whirlaway went straight to the outside rail and by the time I'd got him straightened out we were beaten. In discussing the race with Whirlaway's owner, Warren Wright, Jones expressed dissatisfaction with Jockey Longden for letting the colt run wide. I never rode Whirly again. Arcaro was given the mount the following May in the Kentucky Derby and. wearing a special bit designed to curb his tendency to bear out, Whirly won.
In fact, 1 rode for Calumet Farms only once more in all the subsequent years. That was the Golden Gate Handicap near San Francisco in 1953 when Jones asked me to ride a horse called Fleet Bird. We did pretty well, too, in this $25,000 stakes, traveling a mile and three-sixteenths in one minute, fifty-two and three-fifths seconds, a world's record that still stands.
I have another world mark in the record hooks—a five-and-a-half furlong sprint in which I rode Porterhouse, a horse something like Whirlaway in that he's got to come from away out of it. Well, we came from away out of it Iasi year at Hollywood Park. In fact Ray York, who finished fourth, made me chuckle in the jocks’ room afterward.
"John," he said, walking up to me, “you went by me so fast I thought for a minute my horse had broken down."
Porterhouse was cut out to be a real good horse hut he was injured as a twoyear-old. Now he's coming hack. The last time I looked he'd won $400,000.
One of my all-time favorites is a horse called St. Vincent, an English-bred bought by George Gardiner of Toronto and the Alberta Ranches stable which is owned by my Calgary friends Max Bell. Frank McMahon and Wilder Ripley. My son Vance is the stable's trainer and I must say he did a fine job with St. Vincent, a rather small chestnut with some flaxen hair in his mane and tail. He won the $100,000 San Juan Capistrano handicap at Santa Anita in 1955 in a driving three-horse blanket finish with Determine, who'd won the Ken
tucky Derby in 1954, and a horse named Gigantic. St. Vincent won that one pretty much on guts atone, and I love a horse like that. We weighed him after the race and he was only 880 pounds, close to two hundred pounds lighter than most mature thoroughbreds. He looked like a little Indian pony, but what determination he had. You ride something like that and it gives you a shiver up your back.
I think Alberta Ranches has a fine stallion in another imported horse called Indian Hemp. I remember a race at San Francisco’s Tanforan track in 1953 when we had rough competition in the stretch from Willie Shoemaker on Stranglehold. Indian Hemp is an Irishbred with a lot of stubbornness. In that race, Shoemaker seemed to anticipate me because when I moved with Indian Hemp he took out after me and went into the lead in the stretch. In fact, Willie appeared to have the race won with the wire racing toward us, but I guess I’d rated Indian Hemp just right. He still had something left when I asked him, through my whip, for a little bit more.
We grabbed Stranglehold a couple of jumps from the finish and nipped him by a nose.
But, really, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, there was only one horse for me— Count Fleet. I often wish we could have gone all out just once with him but, as it is, he’s done all right. One of his sons, Count Turf, won the Kentucky Derby in 1951 and that same year his progeny won purses worth $1,160,847 to make him the year’s leading sire. You can see him now, if you’d like to, down at Stoner Creek Farm in Kentucky where he’s still roaming the lush pastures, unquestionably doing what he wants to do most of the time. Count Fleet was always a horse with a mind of his own. He was a big rough fellow but he never caused me any real trouble. That was left to lesser horses, and in the next installment of this series I’d like to tell you about some of racing’s occupational hazards—the injuries that can end a man’s career and, in some cases, his life. ★
Part III of Johnny Lotigden’s story will appear in the next issue of Maclean’s.