Count Turf wins the Kentucky Derby, 1951

Mar 2nd 2010 07:28 pm |

Count Turf with jockey Conn McCreary (Turf and Sport Digest)

Last week, I did an article that started with the 1952 Kentucky Derby.  Coincidentally, this week, I have a post about the 1951 Kentucky Derby. Count Turf — like Canonero, Mine That Bird, and Dark Star — was a nondescript colt and many questioned his entry in the ’51 Derby, including his trainer.

After Count Turf finished 5th in the Wood Memorial, trainer Sol Rutchick resisted his owner’s desire to run in the Kentucky Derby. Count Turf’s owner, Jack Amiel, reportedly told his trainer, “Well, get a plane and give me a man to saddle the horse for the race and we’ll go without you.”

And so it was, Rutchick never made it to Churchill.  He said later he had every intention to go, but  missed his flight the morning of the race. According one account, he listened to the race in his apartment, with a plane ticket to Kentucky in his pocket.

In 1967, the Turf and Sport Digest published a story called “Jack Amiel’s Big Day,” about Count Turf and his owner. The article begins with an account of Amiel, and Count Turf’s jockey Conn McCreaery, encountering famed jockey Eddie Arcaro the night before the big day.

Here is part of author Herb Goldstein’s piece from 1967:

“On the eve of the 1951 Kentucky Derby, Eddie Arcaro was battling a steak in Louisville’s Old House when he was joined by Jack Amiel, Conn McCreary, and a sports writer.

“Arcaro, who was to handle Cain Hoy [stable’s] favored Battle Morn in the Run for the Roses the next afternoon, asked candidly, ‘Who do you like?’

“‘Are you kidding? I like my horse,’ Amiel cracked. ‘I’m going to win it.’

“‘You’re nuts,’ Arcaro said.

“McCreary, who had ridden only four winners that season after having retired from the saddle the previous year, gave his opinion.

“‘He’s right Eddie,’ declared Conn. ‘We are going to win.’

“‘You’re both nuts,’ Arcaro stated emphatically, and went back to his beef.

“The sports writer, who had been Amiel’s guest for ten days in Louisville, secretly agreed with Arcaro. Unknown to his host, he had picked C.V. Whitney’s Mameluke to win the next day. He was convinced Arcaro was right in his estimate of Amiel and McCreary as soothsayers.

“Amiel, who owned a New York frankfurters-and-hamburger pit named The Turf on the corner of West 49th Street and Broadway, also was the proprietor of a three-year-old named Count Turf, which was named for the hash house. Picking McCreary to ride his horse seemed a union of unusual distinction. McCreary had nothing but past as jockey and Count Turf had no future. In fact, McCreary with his four wins, had three more than Amiel’s horse that season.

“Seventy-nine writers on hand to cover the Derby had been polled by the Associated Press and not one had selected Amiel’s colt to finish in the top three. The Churchill Downs’ price-maker had placed the colt in the mutuel field, a move which at least meant he would get some play.

“Sol Rutchick, who trained the colt for Amiel, wasn’t even in town, though he was expected to saddle Count Turf for the race. Rutchick…was in New York with the other 24 members of his public string. [as mentioned above, he never made it to Louisville]

“Arcaro had one parting blast before leaving the restaurant. ‘Jack,’ he announced, ‘Count Turf just isn’t the kind of horse you bring to the Derby.’

Headline from the Daily Racing Form, May 7, 1952

Jack Amiel’s colt, with his washed-up jockey, shocked Arcaro and everyone else on Derby day.  The Daily Racing Form’s Charles Hatton saw it this way:

“Count Turf amazed perhaps the largest crowd that ever saw a horse race in America when he surged out of the dust curving for home and won the richest of all the Kentucky Derbys by four decisive lengths. J.J. Amiel’s colt was one of the ‘mutuel field,’ but he left the choices up the stretch…The New York restauranteur’s surprising son of the Derby winner Count Fleet earned $98,050 for running the historic mile and a quarter in a 2:02 3/5 in dry going and returned those who played the mutuel coupling $31.20…

“…Little Conn McCreary, who had won the 1944 Derby on Pensive, had the mount on the sleek bay and gave him the benefit of a well-judged ride…

“…The tremendous throng that filled every nook and cranny of the Downs, to the stable roofs along the backstretch, sensed that this would one of the best shows in Derby history and they weren’t disappointed. Though the winner came from an unexpected quarter, he was given a splendid ovation, from the time McCreary guided him up the flower-bordered path to the charmed circle until Governor Wetherby of Kentucky presented Amiel the Derby’s gold trophy…”

Eddie Arcaro, who told Count Turf’s owner that he didn’t belong in the race, finished a non-threatening sixth aboard the post time favorite Battle Morn. The chart caller used the coldest terms in his arsenal to describe the effort of Arcaro’s mount: “no excuse.”

Hatton, Charles, “Count Turf Gains Stunning Derby Triumph,” Daily Racing Form, May 7, 1951
Goldstein, Herb, “Jack Amiel’s Big Day,” Turf and Sport Digest, August 1967

Watch Count Turf win the 1951 Kentucky Derby in slow motion


Filed in Amiel, Jack,Arcaro, Eddie,Count Turf,Kentucky Derby,McCreary, Conn,thoroughbred racing history,Turf and Sport Digest

13 Responses to “Count Turf wins the Kentucky Derby, 1951”

  1. bill marshall says:

    As Trader Clark tells the story, Rutchick refused to go to Louisville with Count Turf. Clark does not include anything about Rutchick missing a plane. I’m going to do some more research on this at Keeneland this spring. I’ve been thinking about this for my feature story on Derby day for the Chronicle next year. I know of no other Derby won by a horse whose trainer did not think enough of his chances to make the trip, although I understand that Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons missed Nashua’s Derby due to ill health. Of course, Swaps got in the way.

  2. John McCreary says:

    There is a wonderful book named, The First 100 Years of the Kentucky Derby, and in it is the best account of the ’51 Derby. My father rode Count Turf that day and on the trophy ceremony asked why didn’t the winning jockey get a cup. Churchill Downs made one for him and every jockey since ’51. I have the cup and look at it often.


    You should be very proud of your father and his accomplishments.

    My father was a very humble and great individual as well.

  4. John Van Voorhis says:

    Hi John, I loved it–thanks for getting it on the net–Larry forwarded it on. Count Turf and you both have pretty good wheels and shoulders to carry different people –me included!! Hope the summer is going well. Take care.

    John V V

  5. Joseph Amiel says:

    John, I remember your dad with great affection. He often rode my dad’s horses, but my most vivid recollection is greeting him and my dad with my mother and sister when their train from Louisville arrived at Penn Station. My dad insisted on opening the wooden case carrying the derby cup for us all to see. He and your dad had been staring at it in their train compartment all the way to New York.

    In the absence of the Sol Rutchik, the trainer, my dad, an experienced horseman, had been training Count Turf himself. The night before the race he phoned us and said Count Turf was working so well, he believed the colt would win and that he had just gotten off the phone after vainly imploring Rutchik to take a morning plane that would get him to the track in time for the race. My dad’s feeling and mine as well was that Sol feared the embarrassment of not having a competitive horse in the country’s most prestigious race. Not being there for what would have been the peak of his career remained a much greater embarrassment for the rest of his life.

    My dad felt that previous jockeys had ridden Count Turf incorrectly by staying near the lead and using him up. Conn was a great come-from-behind rider with the guts to wait until the very last, but precisely the right moment to make his move. In the full newsreel of the race, you can see him elbowing his way through traffic to a good position at the first turn, sure that he had powerhouse under him. As he later said, he could have moved at any time because he had so much horse. It was the greatest moment of my father’s life in racing and, I suspect, of Conn’s as well.

    Thank you, Kevin, for describing again their extraordinary victory

  6. Bob Caito says:

    After reading “Jack Amiel’s Big Day” in Turf & Sport Digest in 1967, I became a horse racing fan for life. Jack had faith in his horse and jockey Conn McCreary.
    He refused to listen to the so-called experts and he was rewarded for his determination. I remember when Thoroughbred Record published it’s 1971 Kentucky Derby edition and stated, “Has it really been twenty years since Jack Amiel ran across the track at Churchill Downs like a man on a pogo stick?”. And I remember when Blood Horse reprinted a Red Smith column describing the scene at Penn Station that Joseph Amiel mentions above. Jack Amiel was extraordinary man and an inspiration to all people who refuse to give up–in spite of the odds.
    Joseph, if you are reading this entry, I would like to ask if you have Count Turf’s Kentucky Derby trophy that your father was so proud of.

  7. Rick Meli says:

    Growing up with you and knowing your father as I did was truly a special experience in my life. It is easy to see why he accomplished what he did and left such great legacy for you to follow.


    Thank you for the article about my father. I was four years old when my father couldn’t get a mount and had to ask trainers if he could exercise their horses for free. The gloom in our house was thick.
    I met Jack Amiel years later as an adult, and you would have thought we had been friends for years. I got a call from my father that Jack wanted to see me at the restaurant, Jack Dempsey’s. There was a mural of the winner’s circle he wanted me to have. Unfortunately, it was impossible to remove. The restaurant was closing it’s doors. He did give me one of the last, best cheese cakes ever. Jack was a class act.
    My brother is the custodian of the trophy. Both Derby wins are inscribed on it, 1944 and 1951.

  9. ben says:

    he’s my great grandpa

  10. George Derry III says:

    I have heard and told the legend of Count Turf over 50 years, since boyhood. My father’s uncle was Count Turf’s breeder (Dr Frank Porter Miller).

    I never knew about the restaurant named “The Turf” and the connection with Count Turf.

    Thank you for the exciting telling of the race.
    George Derry III

  11. Nelson Champagne says:

    I seem to remember an event that happened in the Winner’s Circle after the Derby
    that no one here has mentioned. A headstrong Count Turf was acting up due to all
    the hoopla that is Derby day– so much so that Jack Amiel wound up and clocked
    him with a fist to the jaw. All well meant — and received. Loved Jack and the Count. Thanks for this memory, everyone

  12. james morgan says:

    I got to know Conn McCreary when he was a trainer at Hialeah in 1969. He was a modest and highly intelligent man. I was working on the backstretch at the time and noticed the sign, Conn Mc Creary Stables. He was sitting in a folding aluminum chair outside talking with the trainer sitting next to him, Ira Hanford. I too had read the Turf and Sport article on Count Turf and that was the basis of our initial conversation.

    Conn was responsible for introducing me to Jules Fink, of Jules Fink and the Speed Boys, in 1970 when I was working on a book. Woody Stephens had trained for Fink and McCreary had ridden some of his horses. He told me how Fink would “swap” horses with other gamblers – horse for horse – and eventually bury them with longshots.

    There is a nice mention of Conn in Tom Ainslie’s The Jockey Book – “he has a clock in his head.” We also watched together from the Press Box when Sandy Hawley, the hot apprentice of the year, won a race. Conn was very interested in Hawley’s riding style sitting back in the saddle, and commented, “He has a lot to learn.” I enjoyed visiting his plaque and Hall of Fame display at the National Museum of racing in Saratoga.

  13. Joe Amiel says:

    Wow! What wonderful stories about that race. Jack Amiel was my fathers older brother and I grew up loving horses almost as much as my uncle. He was also one of the top restaurateurs in New York both at the 1939 world’s fair and on Time Square and inspired me to own and operate my own restaurants for almost 50 years, still doing it. He often took me to early morning training sessions at all the NY tracks and then visited the yearlings who would be racing the following year. He was a man of great inner srrengh and courage and was nick named by columnists, “the Mayor of Broadway. thanks for those memories…Joe Amiel