Seventy-five years ago, in the midst of World War II, America needed a sports hero. Ted Williams had soldiered up, as had Joe DiMaggio and Joe Louis. In their stead stood a leggy bay colt, Count Fleet, who would catch the public’s fancy and offer an escape, however brief, from the perils of the day.
Fractious and temperamental, Count Fleet won the Triple Crown in 1943, the sixth horse to do so. He breezed in every race, winning the Kentucky Derby by three lengths, the Preakness (one week later) by eight and the Belmont Stakes by 25. Between the latter two, the seemingly inexhaustible Count Fleet squeezed in another victory, the Withers Stakes.
He was simply “The Count” to his fans, who delighted in asking the question, Is The Count fleet?
“At a time of shortages and restrictions, he captured the imagination of the country,” said Evan Hammonds, executive editor of The Blood Horse, which ranked Count Fleet No. 5 of the 100 top thoroughbreds of the 20th century.
At Pimlico, on May 8, nearly 30,000 fans — many wearing work coveralls, having come straight from their shifts at the Glenn L. Martin aircraft plant or local shipyards — squeezed into Old Hilltop to see Count Fleet romp in a four-horse field.
Grantland Rice, the best-known sportswriter of the era, described The Count’s style that day as “taking those kangaroo leaps and glides without the slightest show of effort.”
Afterward, The Sun called Count Fleet “hotter than the rivets at Sparrows Point.” And Johnny Longden, his jockey, called his mount “a hell of a horse” before rushing to New York to be with his wife and son, who’d been born that morning.
The Belmont Stakes was Count Fleet’s last race. He hurt an ankle and retired, having won 16 of 21 races and never finishing worse than third. Successful at stud, he was the grandsire of Kelso, five times U.S. Horse of the Year and the No. 4 thoroughbred on The Blood-Horse list.