By Chris McGrath
Lots of people have been borrowing wartime terminology and metaphors for the current crisis. Yet it has long worried me that global leaders now belong to a generation with no memory of the second World War, never mind any direct involvement. Hardly a coincidence, perhaps, if populism and nationalism around the world are driven by people without their parents' visceral grasp of the stakes involved, when those sources of political energy overheat.
Whether a pandemic-indifferent to borders, race or creed-will renew their sense of the collective interests of the species remains to be seen. For now, those of us younger than James E. Bassett, III (in years, that is; scarcely possible in spirit) should be wary of conflating our present fears or frustrations with far greater sacrifice in times past; and remember how “The Greatest Generation” obtained their resilience, growing up in the Depression, before having it tested on Okinawa (with Mr. Bassett) and elsewhere.
Certainly it would be no bad thing to summon up the spirit of '43 today, when we honor that year's GI Kentucky Derby winner in a Grade III sprint at Oaklawn.
Count Fleet! You see that name now, and you have to ask yourself how Colonel Winn would have responded to the dilemmas lately facing Churchill Downs. Certainly it's hard to imagine him putting his name to some of the statements, dripping with syrup and cynicism, issued by his successors this spring.
In 1943, when the Derby was threatened by wartime transport restrictions, Colonel Winn assured everyone that it would be staged on the first Saturday in May, “even if there are only two horses in the race, and a half dozen people in the stands.” In the event, the “Streetcar Derby” was witnessed by as many as 65,000 locals; out-of-towners donated their empty boxes to servicemen from Fort Knox; and the American Turf was rewarded by its sixth Triple Crown winner.
Count Fleet's career, remember, was over well before the September date proposed by Churchill Downs for a “Derby”.
He had begun what became the longest retirement of any Derby winner-thanks to Mr. Gus Koch, the long-time general manager of Claiborne, who remembers nursing him through a bout of colic when still at Stoner Creek. But Gus would get his reward. Because it was only because of his solicitude for the stricken champion that he happened still to be working that Sunday afternoon, when a bunch of girls drove out to the farm from Lexington. Count Fleet permitted Gus to be distracted from his duties long enough to be introduced to Theresa, subsequently the mother of their 10 children-a blessing in which we can all share, with so many of them well known and respected in the industry today.
Count Fleet lived 33 years, eight months and nine days. He had been trained by Don Cameron, who has been an aviator in “the war to end all wars”; and all but saw out the Vietnam War, where Gus had served with the Marines Corps.
Durability had already been evident in Count Fleet's track career. Though unraced until June, he made 15 starts as champion juvenile, including four in 25 days before breaking the world record for a 2-year-old at a mile, in the Champagne S. That's the kind of iron we could all do with, right now: not just in our horses, but in those of us who might be charged with that hint of decadence. So in raising yet another toast to Oaklawn today, as the oasis relieving our barren spring, let's also drink to the example of Count Fleet.
Happily, his memory is preserved by a fascinating race, matching two horses of wildly different profile. The guy with the medals across his chest–if, with perfect hypocrisy, I may employ military metaphor myself–is Whitmore (Pleasantly Perfect). And the guy who looks incredibly dashing in uniform, but has so far only distinguished himself among fellow cadets, is Hidden Scroll (Hard Spun).
Whitmore won the Count Fleet in 2017 and 2018, and only the molten speed of subsequent Eclipse Award winner Mitole (Eskenderya) could deny him last year. He has also made the GI Breeders' Cup Sprint podium in each of the past two editions; and beat none other than City Of Light (Quality Road) in the GI Forego S. a couple of summers ago. Moreover he arrives Saturday off an unprecedented fourth consecutive success in the Hot Springs S.
As a gelding, Whitmore will not be able to replicate these splendid genetic wares. But at least that means he can continue to advertise the skills of Ron Moquett–the kind of trainer that is the lifeblood of this game.
Unlike many of his rivals, Moquett was not born to the business. Paradoxically, you could say that his vocation goes a lot deeper than that. He started at the bottom, on country tracks in Oklahoma, and has grafted his way through professional and personal adversity to leave nobody in doubt as to his horsemanship. It's a tough environment, for a barn like this, caught between the super-trainers and those with the kind of sinister glister now interesting the Feds. But Moquett, as usual, is having an excellent hometown meet (with lesser resources than the three above him in the standings) and his handling of Whitmore confirms his absolutely eligibility for the national stage.
In these strange times, that's exactly what Oaklawn has become anyway. For the time being, we are all in uncharted waters. At the best of times, however, Thoroughbreds instruct us in how to deal with unpredictability.
Early last year, remember, people were asking whether Hidden Scroll might be the horse to requite Bill Mott's craving for the Derby success that would set a seal, not on the esteem of his peers–of which he had long been assured–but on the bald assessment of posterity. They were excited to see such a temperate trainer fast-tracking Hidden Scroll from a 14-length debut romp on Pegasus day to the GII Fountain of Youth S., where he ran creditably enough to start favorite for the GI Florida Derby next time. When Mott meanwhile won the GII Tampa Bay Derby and GII Wood Memorial with another Juddmonte homebred in Tacitus (Tapit), few people thought Country House (Lookin At Lucky) was the best in the barn.
Like Count Fleet, of course, Country House would have been out of the picture for a September “Derby.” So however long the footnote required under Country House in the annals–and it's threatening to take about half a page, with the Feds promising a postscript to the relegation of Maximum Security (New Year's Day)–he will remain a stronger link in the historic chain than any that may be forged this year.
Tacitus having since confirmed his Grade I caliber in the Derby, Belmont and Travers, it's the third Mott musketeer who must now step up. Interestingly, even as Hidden Scroll was being tried on the Derby trail, Mott was contrasting him with Hofburg (Tapit)–who had himself hurried into two Classics for the same firm the previous year, despite only breaking his maiden in March–as having a lot more natural speed. Sure enough, he's now trying him as a sprinter.
It was always a little rich to speak of Mott “finally” nailing the Derby, when he had only ever made eight attempts. And he would hardly be the first to have tried a sprinter for Classic size first. In Europe, we all remember how the masterly Sir Michael Stoute ran Ajdal (Northern Dancer) at Epsom before halving him in distance the following month for the G1 July Cup, where he promptly announced himself the fastest horse in Europe. Once upon a time, after all, even Whitmore took his Derby chance.
Hidden Scroll didn't have a lot to beat when resurfacing in an allowance sprint at Gulfstream, but all the original electricity seemed to be there as he coasted home by 12 1/2 lengths in 1:09.25. Unmistakably, however, he reaches a crossroads Saturday. Besides Whitmore, he has specialists like Flagstaff and Bobby's Wicked One–both sons of Speightstown–on his case. If he can whip that lot at their own game, he'll look worth every syllable of last year's hype.
Yet I can't help rooting for Whitmore in his own backyard. The Count Fleet means so much to his trainer, who has a genuinely reverent sense of Turf history. And even in a race that will be over in a heartbeat, we can all take the long view.