Memories of Count Turf and the Kentucky Derby, 1951

Apr 20th 2011 06:18 pm |

One of the things I love best about operating this site are the times I receive feedback from the family, friends, and fans of the people, places, and horses I write about. In a few cases, posts at Colin’s Ghost have become mini-message boards of memories (see Atlantic City Racetrack, part 1 and 2)

In 2010, a post I wrote about the 1951 Kentucky Derby winner Count Turf received comments from the family of the winning jockey (Conn McCreary) and the son of the owner (Jack Amiel). I corresponded with them over the weekend and am happy to put their wonderful memories in the spotlight here at Colin’s Ghost.

In 1951, Count Turf shocked all but a few when he won the Kentucky Derby. He was owned by Jack Amiel, the owner of a restaurant called The Turf, located at the corner of 48th and Broadway in New York City. The colt’s trainer, Sol Rutchick, never made it to  Louisville for the ’51 Derby (you can read why below).

I wrote a post last year and quoted from an article published in Turf and Sport Digest called “Jack Amiel’s Big Day.”  In the article, the author wrote:  “[Jockey Conn] McCreary had nothing but past…and Count Turf had no future.”  People in the racing world didn’t think much of Count Turf’s chances.  He was part of the field bet on Derby day (15 to 1) and won “going away” according to the official chart (check out the newsreel footage here).

This past summer, John McCreary posted this about the 1951 Kentucky Derby: “…My father rode Count Turf that day and at 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.”  [Sidenote: Mr. McCreary’s dad also won the Derby in 1944 aboard Pensive.]

About a month later, Joseph Amiel, the son of Count Turf’s owner, replied with memories of his own:

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 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.

Over the weekend, I sent an email to Mr. Amiel and he sent me some additional memories that I present here for the first time:

….My dad got into horse racing because he truly loved horses. He had ridden as a boy and put my sister, Linda, and me up on horses to learn to ride when each of us reached the advanced age of two-and-a-half.

When my dad phoned us back home in New York from Louisville the night before the Derby, he himself related that he and Conn had run into [jockey Eddie] Arcaro at that restaurant and what had been said.  His comments weren’t bluster or trash talk. After he caught Count Turf working a mile in an easy 1:37 and change days before the race, he told us in a phone call he believed he had brought the winner to Churchill Downs.

Incidentally, a sad coda to Count Turf’s career is that the horse had not been entered for the Preakness. Sent back to New York, where many horses were coughing, he caught an upper respiratory infection and was out of training for a couple of weeks. To get him fit, he was entered in a three-horse allowance race with Bold, the five-length winner of the Preakness. Bold was out of the race fairly early. Conn made one big run and caught the third horse at the wire.

But Count Turf wasn’t ready to run the mile-and-a-half Belmont, the New York crown jewel my father and Sol Rutchik wanted so much to win. Not only did he fade quickly, he came out of the race with an injury that kept him out of training till the following year. After he beat Gold Capitol in California the next winter, another injury put him out of racing yet again.

He was finally sound and fit as a five year old. In his last race, the Questionnaire Handicap, he cracked a bone during the stretch run, but had so much heart he still managed to hobble home the winner. He was then retired to stud.

Fortunately, for my dad, Conn, and Count Turf, two years before, on a May afternoon in Louisville, everything went absolutely right.

With thanks for your bringing this story again to those who love horse racing, Joe Amiel

And many thanks to you, Mr. Amiel and Mr. McCreary for sharing your memories!

Filed in Amiel, Jack,Count Turf,Kentucky Derby,McCreary, Conn,thoroughbred racing history

3 Responses to “Memories of Count Turf and the Kentucky Derby, 1951”

  1. gary says:

    Sidenote…the early favorite for the ’51 Derby, and 2-y-o champ was Uncle Miltie…60 yrs later and another Uncle M……. pulls a symetrical spring swoon…..if history doesn’t repeat,at least it rhymes //// garyD

  2. One of the most exciting things about the online media boom is that it gives a voice to many who would not otherwise have the chance to offer their observations and information about points of interest.

    Count Turf was not well-respected before the Kentucky Derby, nor greatly lauded afterward. The comments from those close to him and his people are welcome additions to the historical record.

    Not only that, but the press of the day reported only certain segments of information about racing and racehorses and owners. If the story fell outside those accepted lines, it did not get coverage, and we can all see the results in the paucity of information left to us from newspapers and magazines covering the sport decades ago.

    With the web, we get another swipe at the brass ring.

    Cheers, Frank.

  3. RG says:

    1951 was a great year for 3yos. Probably the most amazing was Bold. Didn’t run his first race of the year till May 9th(won) then came back May 14th and ran 3rd(last) in a prep. Was then unshod and had his feet treated. Shoes back on and worked(5/8 1:02) the day before the Preakness. Wins the Preakness on May 19th in a front running 7 length romp. Quite a lot of work in 11 days.
    Had a shin problem in the Belmont prep Mr. Amiel mentioned and was sent to the farm where he was killed by lightning the next summer before he could return to racing.

    Alerted, Battlefield, Bold, Counterpoint, Count Turf, Uncle Miltie and the filly Kiss Me Kate. Just a hint of what the 50s had in store for us.

    If Graham Motion thinks Uncle Mo was entitled to bounce in his second race back…then maybe????