The debate over John D. Hertz's greatest impact on the Thoroughbred industry typically falls on one of two sides.
On one hand, the master of Stoner Creek Stud in Paris, Ky., campaigned a pair of Kentucky Derby winners: Reigh Count and homebred Triple Crown winner Count Fleet, both of which became stallions of note.
The other side of the argument is felt every time a horseman gets off a plane in a new destination and heads straight for the rental car desk.
Hertz, a native of Austria-Hungary, emigrated with his family to Chicago at age five, and worked his way up the ladder from selling newspapers to writing in them. He later moved on to selling cars, but when he had a backup of supply, he adapted to the situation to found the Yellow Cab taxi company. In 1924, he moved into the rental car space with Hertz Drive-Ur-Self System, known today as the Hertz Corporation.
In the time between scrapping to sell papers and running major transit companies, Hertz got his first hands-on exposure to horse racing as a jockey's valet at a bush track in Roby, Ind. He ventured into ownership in the early 1920s at the behest of artist Roy Carruthers and Jack Keene, one of the eventual founders of Keeneland Race Course.
Hertz, whose horses raced under the name of his wife, Frances “Fannie” Hertz, started locally, basing their Thoroughbred operations at Leona Stock Farm in Cary, Ill. They purchased the 1914 Belmont Stakes winner Luke McLuke to be their foundation stallion, and found early success with the homebred Anita Peabody, who was named champion 2-year-old filly of 1927.
The Hertzes found their biggest star yet when they purchased Reigh Count, then a 2-year-old running at Saratoga for Swamp Root tonic magnate Willis Sharpe Kilmer. During a trip to upstate New York, Hertz watched Reigh Count pass a foe at the sixteenth pole and, adding injury to insult, reach over and bite his rival on the neck.
Hertz, who in a past life was an amateur boxer, could appreciate the colt's moxie, and bought Reigh Count for $12,000. Reigh Count won the 1928 Kentucky Derby and Jockey Club Gold Cup the following year en route to Horse of the Year honors, and he traveled to England to win the Coronation Cup in 1929. “I always loved a fighter, man or horse,” Hertz said.
Hertz had become successful in his business and Thoroughbred endeavors, but the paranoia of dealing with outside threats, including pressure from the local mafia during his taxi-owning days, never left him. The trophies on his mantle were attached to a siren that sounded whenever a piece was moved, loud enough to be heard throughout town.
Despite his accomplishments, Hertz was unsatisfied with the output of his Illinois farm, and he bought the parcel of land in central Kentucky that became Stoner Creek Stud in 1939 on the advice of Arthur B. Hancock Sr., of nearby Claiborne Farm. While Hertz went down in history as the head of Stoner Creek Stud, he noted in a 1956 address to the Thoroughbred Club of America that his horses raced under his wife's name for a reason.
“The greatest day of my life was when I married Fannie,” he said. “We decided then that all the big decisions would be made by me, and the little ones by Fannie. Well, we never had any big decisions after that. She decided them all. She owns Stoner Creek Stud in Paris, all the horses and stock thereon, and myself.”
After starting his stud career in Illinois, Reigh Count was relocated to Claiborne in 1936, then he was moved to the Hertzes' new operation in 1939. His first crop as a Stoner Creek resident included a colt named Count Fleet, who would ensure the farm remained at the forefront of the industry for decades to come.
Racing as a homebred, Count Fleet was named champion 2-year-old male of 1942, then became the sixth Triple Crown winner the following season, on his way to being named Horse of the Year. When Count Fleet was four, the wealthy Texan William Tecumsah Waggoner offered Hertz a reported $1 million for the colt, but he was rejected.
“I think a fellow who would pay $1 million for a horse ought to have his head examined,” Hertz said after the negotiations. “And that the fellow who turned it down must be absolutely unbalanced.”
Count Fleet retired to Stoner Creek in 1944, and achieved greatly at stud, led by 1951 Kentucky Derby winner Count Turf, Belmont Stakes winners Counterpoint and One Count, and champion sophomore filly Kiss Me Kate. He was North America's leading sire of 1951, and he went on to be the broodmare sire of the mighty Kelso.
Hertz died in 1961 at age 82, at which point Stoner Creek had grown to 730 acres.
The farm found a new purpose as a Standardbred facility following Hertz's death. Connecticut-based Norman Woolworth and North Carolina textile company owner David Johnston, both highly successful in the harness realm, purchased the land and raised five Hambletonian winners. Count Fleet, already a pensioner at the time of the purchase, remained on the farm and he was buried there following his death in 1973.
The land continues to be a fertile ground for Standardbred runners, eventually being purchased by Margareta Wallenius-Kleberg of Sweden. Today, the property is leased by Steve and Cindy Stewart, who merged Stoner Creek with the nearby Woodlawn Farm to form Hunterton Farm. The operation bills itself as the world's largest Standardbred farm that doesn't stand a stallion, and it is a perennial leading sale consignor, breeding over 200 mares per year and selling about 150 yearlings.
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