Warren Mehrtens with two of his sons and the family Cocker Spaniel back in the day. (Photo courtesy of the Wingert family)
By Michael Lewis
UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Chris Wingert doesn’t have to justify why he would love to see history made at Belmont Park Saturday.
The reasons are in the Cosmos B center back’s DNA and sporting history.
Wingert is the grandson of Warren Mehrtens, who rode Assault to the 1946 Triple Crown. Mehrtens is one of 11 jockeys who won all three jewels of horse racing’s most elite club.
And he would like to see Justify win the Belmont Stakes to claim the Triple Crown.
“I can’t say that I’m a huge horse racing fan or that I am knowledgeable on the subject,” Wingert said earlier this week. “But of course, when a Triple Crown comes up, it makes that much more interesting for me and my family.”
That would include Wingert’s mother, Noreen, who is Mehrtens’ daughter, and his father Norm.
“We definitely get into it a bit and when it comes down to the Belmont,” Chris said. “We always watch it. We used to root against it because we like the rarity of winning it and that my grandfather was one of 10 people, before recently and now one of the 11. Eddie Arcaro had done it twice.
“What happened a few years back, we thought it was cool because now its back in the news and people are talking about. It’s been so long, 30 years. We thought it was cool.”
Wingert was referring to American Pharoah becoming the first horse to win all three big races in 2015, breaking a 37-year drought since Affirmed accomplished the feat in 1978.
“It’s not that we want it to happen every year, but I thought that it’s cool that somebody is able to pull it off,” he said. “You see how happy they are and how it can change a bunch of lives, which is cool.”
Mehrtens, a New York City native, was 25-years-old when he and Assault rode into history. He passed away Dec. 30, 1997.
Wingert was “incredibly proud,” of his grandfather’s accomplishment.
“I love to talk about it,” he said. “He’s a real humble guy and wouldn’t really won’t bring it up much. But of course, everybody else in the family talked about it. So, I guess I’ve known about it since I can remember, since I was a little kid. It’s such a cool and unique thing that every time anyone brings up horse racing, I, of course, kind of mention it and throw it out there.
“And people who find out any other way want to ask me about it, if they have any interest and they’re usually super surprised or they don’t believe me. At first, they think, ‘I don’t think Chris knows what he’s talking about’ because it’s such a rare feat.
“He was really down to earth, a low-key guy that was never going to brag about it. He never cared too much, never took himself too seriously, which made him that much cooler.”
No doubt that Mehrtens started a family athletic tradition. His son-in-law, Norm Wingert, was a goalkeeper with the Philadelphia Atoms, who played in the original North American Soccer League.
Mehrtens started out as a diver and was “a real good athlete,” according to Chris Wingert.
“I forget who it was, somebody had seen him and realized what a good athlete he was and how small he was. ‘Oh, you should try riding horses,’ ” he said. “He started doing that in Brooklyn when he was growing up and he was very successful at it.”
When he was young, Mehrtens had a rare ailment that stunned his growth, Wingert said. None of his children were affected. He grew to 5-2 and 100 lbs.
Mehrtens didn’t let that get in the way of becoming a horse racing legend.
“He definitely made the most out of that,” Wingert said. “He took what most would consider would be a negative or an obstacle and propelled him into such a unique story and accomplish something so great.”