Triple Crown head-to-head: Count Fleet vs Seattle Slew

Apr 28, 2020 by James Scully/

In anticipation of the virtual Kentucky Derby: Triple Crown Showdown, we're analyzing several intriguing head-to-head match-ups. This installment of the series pits Count Fleet against Seattle Slew.

Why Count Fleet vs Seattle Slew?

Pace makes the race, and Count Fleet and Seattle Slew were known for blitzing rivals on the front end. They are arguably the speed of the speed among the 13 Triple Crown winners.

Count Fleet established a new world record for a mile at age 2, and seven of his last eight stakes wins came wire-to-wire, the exception being the Pimlico Futurity where he was a head back at the first call before dominating in track record time. Seattle Slew refused to ever settle behind horses, leading at the first pole in 9-of-10 stakes wins, the exception being the Kentucky Derby where he spotted the field several lengths after breaking sideways and rushed forward to contest the pace.

The case for Count Fleet

Owned and bred by John D. Hertz of rental car fame, Count Fleet wasn’t imposing physically, a narrow and leggy type, but he could fly. Maturity issues dogged him early in his career as the temperamental colt often became unruly at the gate, resulting in slow starts, but observers witnessed Count Fleet’s speed during an October workout at Belmont Park at age 2. According to several clockers, the blossoming youngster completed 6-furlongs in a remarkable 1:08 1/5, faster than most track records at the time, and Count Fleet became known as the horse who worked “eight and one.”

With his head in the game, Count Fleet won the final 10 starts of his career in front-running fashion. The dark bay was quick from the gate, leading by open lengths at the first call most times, but he did face pressure in a 10-horse Kentucky Derby field. After whipping through an opening half-mile in :46 3/5 (extremely fast for the era), Count Fleet drew off to win by an easy three lengths under the Twin Spires.

Count Fleet concluded his career with three dazzling performances of superiority in 1943, winning the Preakness by eight lengths, the Withers by five lengths, and the Belmont Stakes by a record 25-length margin. He established a new track record in the latter, competing 1 1/2 miles in 2:28 1/5, but sustained a career-ending ankle injury.

“I don’t know the great horses like Man o’ War because I wasn’t around then,” Hall of Fame jockey Johnny Longden said. “But the Count is the greatest I’ve ever ridden. Got everything, speed, heart – just everything.”

Seattle Slew’s rebuttal

An awkward-looking yearling who sold for $17,500, Seattle Slew developed into a powerful front-runner who carried his speed a route of ground. He was so big and fast, trainer Billy Turner had trouble finding riders who could keep Seattle Slew from running off in morning workouts.

Seattle Slew won all three of his juvenile starts wire-to-wire by open lengths, including a smashing 9 3/4-lenth triumph in the Champagne (G1), and the champion 2-year-old entered 1978 as the Kentucky Derby favorite. Some observers doubted the colt’s proclivity for longer distances because of his blistering speed.

After opening his 3-year-old season with a track record performance at 7-furlongs, Seattle Slew had no difficulty stretching out in distance. He did so in the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby despite washing out badly in the post parade and missing the break, dashing through traffic to duel through a wicked opening half-mile in :45 3/5 before winning for fun.

In the Preakness, Seattle Slew hooked up in a vicious speed duel with Cormorant through opening splits in :22 3/5, :45 3/5, and 1:09 4/5 while under a hand ride, drew off to reach the mile mark in 1:34 4/5 (faster any horse had ever run a mile in the middle leg of the Triple Crown), and then won by four lengths under wraps. Seattle Slew made his first start over an off track in the Belmont Stakes, strolling to a facile four-length decision in the mud.

No horse could run with Seattle Slew in the early stages and survive. He easily defeated front-running 1978 Triple Crown hero Affirmed in both meetings. Bet down as the odds-on favorite 14 times, Seattle Slew won 14-of-17 career starts.

The verdict

Count Fleet and Seattle Slew brought high speed to their engagements, and both runners established multiple track records. Count Fleet’s fractional times were accomplished over slower tracks in the 1940s, so they may not compare favorably to later counterparts, but there’s no doubting his front-running theatrics. He was a dynamic presence during the 1943 season, with the potential to achieve a more revered legacy before his career was cut short due to injury.

However, it is impossible for me to envision Count Fleet being in front of Seattle Slew at the first call in the virtual Kentucky Derby. Seattle Slew was faster than premiere sprinters at the time, born with a burning desire to be in front every step of the way, and his resolve was legendary. Seattle Slew would always be a threat to lead wire-to-wire.

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