My Favorite Year


The following was written for cathartic purposes and to share the memories of a year in racing that, from a personal standpoint, has never been duplicated. Be forewarned, though, it is extremely long, so proceed at your own risk.

When people think of 1969, the flood of events that come spewing forth include man walking on the moon, Woodstock, the Manson murders, Chappaquiddick, Vietnam, the New York Mets winning the World Series, and Broadway Joe guaranteeing a Super Bowl victory.
 
In a year of such turbulence and unlikely sporting events, there was something pure and innocent about it, mainly to a 22-year-old former page boy and printer’s apprentice who was attempting to break free from the bonds of Wall Street and escape into the newly discovered world of Thoroughbred racing.
 
Sitting in Battery Park every morning, feeding the pigeons, reading Sam Toperoff’s captivating book “Crazy About Horses,” and following what still remains the most exhilarating and magical Triple Crown campaign ever, the realization hit that Wall Street was a thing of the past. Racing was all encompassing, a breakthrough into another world, but with no future for an unemployed, unskilled, and a not very ambitious young man who barely made it out of high school and still lived with his parents.
 
But by the end of 1969, racing amazingly had catapulted itself from a hobby to a profession (from copy boy to statistician to head librarian to national correspondent); the Morning Telegraph was where he wanted to be more than any place in the world; and there was no turning back.
 
But let’s back up and replant the seeds from which would sprout the most memorable season ever, following in the footsteps of immortals such as Damascus, Dr. Fager, and Buckpasser.
 
One of the most memorable days of 1968 had come at Saratoga in the Hopeful Stakes when a home movie taken on an old 8 millimeter camera captured two rising stars – Top Knight and Reviewer – being saddled.
 
Going into the race it looked as if the powerful Phipps family, owner of Reviewer, was on its way to sending out its fifth consecutive 2-year-old champion. Reviewer, another in the long line of Bold Ruler offspring to dominate the 2-year-old ranks, was undefeated in four starts, including impressive victories in the Sapling Stakes and Saratoga Special and seemed on his way to following in the footsteps of previous Ogden Phipps-Wheatley Stable juvenile champions, Bold Lad, Buckpasser, Successor, and Vitriolic.
 
Four days before the Saratoga Special, however, a sleek liver chestnut son of Vertex named Top Knight turned in a breakout performance winning a 5 ½-furlong allowance race at Saratoga by six lengths in near-track-record time. He previously had broken the newly rebuilt Belmont Park’s record for 5 ½ furlongs, romping by 15 lengths in a maiden race before coming from far back to finish sixth in the Sapling.
 
In the 6 ½-furlong Hopeful, Reviewer, favored at 7-10, was away a step slowly from the rail. He took the lead nearing the quarter pole, but Top Knight blew right by him to win by 2 ½ lengths in 1:16 flat, two fifths off the track record. The 2-year-old division had a new leader and a top prospect for the classics. Reviewer came out of the race with a hairline fracture of the left front cannon bone and was put away for the year.
 
Top Knight went on to romp by six lengths in the Futurity and 3 ½ lengths in the Champagne, but could only finish a fast-closing third in the Garden State Stakes behind Phipps’ late-running Beau Brummel, whom he had beaten handily in the Champagne. Despite the defeat in a race that was probably one too many, Top Knight was voted champion 2-year-old and established as a clear-cut Future Book favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
 
That late summer and fall, several other youngsters emerged in maiden races that would have a major impact on the Derby trail and eventually help define this crop as one of the deepest and most talented of all time. Their names still roll off the lips -- Majestic Prince, Arts and Letters, Ack Ack, Dike, Al Hattab, and Fast Hilarious.
 
The last five joined Top Knight in Florida to embark on the Derby trail, while Reviewer, now fully recovered, was sent directly to New York. Majestic Prince was based in California and was creating quite a buzz. The Prince, as he became known, was racing’s golden boy. As a physical specimen, the red chestnut son of Raise a Native was as close to perfection as any horse in memory. At the 1967 Keeneland July yearling sale, he sold for a then-world-record $250,000. Purchased by Frank McMahon from the Spendthrift Farm consignment, Majestic Prince was turned over to former riding legend Johnny Longden to train. With the controversial Bill Hartack aboard, The Prince would capture his first six starts, all in California, including runaway scores in the Los Feliz, San Vicente, and San Jacinto Stakes. He then romped by eight lengths in the Santa Anita Derby, but still was dismissed by the experts back East, who felt he had beaten nothing and had run his 1 1/8-miles in the Santa Anita Derby in a “slow” 1:49 1/5. But what they didn’t notice was the ridiculous ease with which he won and the long, graceful strides that seemed to propel him off the ground. He was a thing of beauty, whether in action or not.
 
Back in Florida that winter, Top Knight debuted with a late-running victory over the impressive Hibiscus winner, the fleet-footed Fast Hilarious, but was disqualified and placed third. Winning the other division was Cain Hoy Stable’s Ack Ack, who out-dueled the hard-hitting Al Hattab by a head.
 
Top Knight then was upset in the nine-furlong Everglades Stakes by Rokeby Stable’s late-developing Ribot colt Arts and Letters, who powered to a three-length score while in receipt of 10 pounds from Top Knight. Ack Ack was a non-threatening fourth and showed he wasn’t up to a mile and a quarter at that time, pointing instead to the one-mile Derby Trial, which he won by seven lengths, equaling the track record.
 
But at equal weights, Arts and Letters proved no match for Top Knight, who defeated him handily in both the Flamingo and Florida Derby, both in fast times. In between, Arts and Letters also finished second to Al Hattab in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. It was apparent he was still a work in progress.
 
Meanwhile, up in New York, Claiborne Farm’s flashy chestnut Dike, who had failed to show his best form in Florida, demonstrated a powerful closing kick, coming from far back to win the Gotham Stakes and defeating Reviewer and Al Hattab in a thrilling three-horse photo in the Wood Memorial. Reviewer was back in form after winning the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes under 130 pounds, but he and Al Hattab had no designs on the Kentucky Derby, leaving Top Knight and Majestic Prince as the two heavy favorites, with Arts and Letters and Dike not far behind.
 
Arts and Letters had one more opportunity to prove he was no bridesmaid after his three second-place finishes. That came in the Blue Grass Stakes, run nine days before the Derby, and the smallish chocolate colored chestnut dazzled the crowd with a stunning 15-length romp over Arkansas Derby winner Traffic Mark. His time of 1:47 4/5 was two-fifths off Round Table’s track record.
 
There was another horse who still had something to prove to the Eastern press corp, and that was Majestic Prince, the Hollywood golden boy who had beaten up on inferior competition in slow times. Longden decided to prep The Prince in the seven-furlong Stepping Stone Purse at Churchill Downs the Saturday before the Derby, where he would get a good test from the speedy Fast Hilarious.
 
All Majestic Prince did was demolish Fast Hilarious by six lengths in 1:21 3/5, just a fifth off the track record. California’s pretty boy was for real.
 
The stage was set for one of the most anticipated and intriguing Kentucky Derbys in years. So powerful were Top Knight, Majestic Prince, Arts and Letters, and Dike that only four others were entered – Traffic Mark, Fleet Allied, second to Majestic Prince in the San Vicente and third to Ack Ack in the Derby Trial, and two no-hopers, one of whom was the Ohio-based sprinter Ocean Roar, the likely pacesetter.
 
By Derby Day, Majestic Prince’s reputation had soared and he was made the 7-5 favorite, with Top Knight 2-1 and Arts and Letters (who was being ridden for the first time by Braulio Baeza  after an injury sidelined Bill Shoemaker) and Dike both 4-1. Top Knight’s odds reflected the concern many people had over his five-week layoff, which was extremely rare back then. The other three were running back in two weeks, nine days, and seven days, which was more the norm.
 
Ocean Roar, as expected, shot to the lead, with Arts and Letters and Top Knight in excellent position on the inside and Majestic Prince right in the hunt on the outside. Dike, in his typical style, was taken back and sat patiently, waiting to make his big late run.
 
As he had done in the Florida Derby, Top Knight took over the lead approaching the half-mile pole, with Majestic Prince closing in from the outside and Arts and Letters looking for an opening along the rail. Whether it was the five-week layoff or a physical ailment that many believe was the catalyst for the layoff, Top Knight began his retreat that would result in an uncharacteristic fifth-place finish.
 
Majestic Prince stuck his head in front nearing the quarter pole, but in a flash, Arts and Letters came shooting through along the inside to take a short lead into the stretch. The Prince responded immediately and stuck his neck back in front, as Dike closed in for the kill. The stately Prince maintained a short lead, with the smaller Arts and Letters refusing to buckle. Dike was now gaining, but only in inches. At the wire, it was Majestic Prince by a neck, with a tenacious Arts and Letters a half-length in front of Dike. The Prince had covered the 1 ¼ miles in a solid 2:01 4/5, coming home the final quarter in a rapid :24 1/5, as did his two adversaries.
 
The racing world had a new hero, and Californians were jubilant. Top Knight came back for another try in the Preakness, but Dike waited for the Belmont and was substituted by another Claiborne closer, California Derby winner Jay Ray. Al Hattab also showed up in another eight-horse field.
 
The story of the Preakness was pretty much the same as the Derby, although Arts and Letters was squeezed by Majestic Prince going into the first turn, causing him to drop much farther back than he liked. Top Knight once again showed he had lost his form, finishing a well-beaten fourth, but The Prince and Arts and Letters put on another show. The Derby winner took the lead at the head of the stretch and bounded clear, but Arts and Letters was flying well out in the middle of the track.
 
Baeza hit Arts and Letters right-handed and the colt drifted in toward Majestic Prince, who could now look his rival in the eye again. The pair battled to the wire, with The Prince winning by a head.
 
“Baeza told me if he had ridden Arts and Letters before the Derby he never would have been beaten,” trainer Elliott Burch said years later. “And he was fouled by Majestic Prince in the Preakness, causing him to drop far back. There was a foul claim that wasn’t allowed, but it was pretty obvious. I also think he would have won had Baeza not hit him. When he did, the horse shied from the whip and pinned his ears.”
 
So, for the first time in history, racing had an undefeated horse attempting to sweep the Triple Crown, something that hadn’t been accomplished in 21 years. Here was a true glamour horse who epitomized the beauty, nobility, and courage of the Thoroughbred. The New York newspapers couldn’t get enough of The Prince. All the while, the foreboding presence of Arts and Letters was lurking in the background. In the back of everyone’s mind, they knew that it was Arts and Letters who would be the one who relished the 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont.
 
Racing fans, like those today, wondered if any horse would ever sweep the Triple Crown following the failures of Carry Back (’61), Northern Dancer (’64), Kauai King (’66), and Forward Pass (who was awarded the ’68 Derby after the Butazolidin positive and subsequent disqualification of Dancer’s Image).
 
But The Prince was different. This was to be a horse for the ages. Longden, however, felt the colt wasn’t 100% and was beginning to feel the effects of the rigors of the Triple Crown. Shortly after the Preakness, he shocked everyone by announcing that Majestic Prince might not run in the Belmont. The news filled the entire back page of the New York tabloids. McMahon backed his trainer, but the pressure to run became too intense and several days before the race he announced The Prince would run, especially after a Sports Illustrated article suggested he was ducking Arts and Letters. Longden was incensed that McMahon had overruled him and the two could be heard in a shouting match at the barn. But the universal thinking was, no Derby and Preakness winner skips the Belmont unless he has a serious injury. That’s like making it to gates of the pantheon and deciding you’ve gone far enough.
 
When Majestic Prince had shipped to Belmont Park, photographers followed him everywhere. The media couldn’t get enough of this undefeated Hollywood star. A full page photo of the colt walking off the van appeared on the back page of the Daily News. Articles on him appeared every day in the New York papers.

A week before the Belmont, however, the mood began to change after Arts and Letters defeated older horses, including champion Nodouble, in the Metropolitan Handicap, drawing away to a 2 1/2-length victory in a blazing 1:34 for the mile over a dead track under Jean Cruguet, substituting for Baeza, who had the call on Ogden Phipps’ Vitriolic. Arts and Letters had come from 10th in an 11-horse field, closing his final quarter in a spectacular :23 1/5.
 
Arts and Letters’ trainer, Elliott Burch, had used the Met Mile as a steppingstone to a Belmont victory twice before, with Sword Dancer and Quadrangle.
 
Burch was amazed at the little colt’s resiliency (he stood just over 15.1 hands) and his ability to bounce back off tough races. You don’t see horses explode like that in the Met Mile against top older horses having just run two grueling races in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
 
Only five days after his victory, Arts and Letters blew out a blistering half-mile (two days before the Belmont), galloping out five furlongs in an unheard of :57 3/5, pulling up six furlongs in 1:11. Repeat, two days before the mile and a half Belmont. Majestic Prince worked two hours later and galloped out his five furlongs in :59. Burch had no misgivings about the tough schedule, insisting Arts and Letters had an uncanny ability to “train himself” and relax when his work was done. “He was a remarkable horse from day one; the best I ever trained,” Burch said.
 
So now it was the Rokeby Stable colt who began to command the headlines. Support for Arts and Letters had grown since the Met Mile, and predictions of The Prince’s downfall were rampant. With Longden still not having declared the colt a definite starter, a headline in the New York Post read: “Majestic Prince Scared Off by Arts and Letters?”
 
Security tightened around Majestic Prince’s barn and tension began to build. It was an odd sight seeing assistant trainer Mike Bao, wearing his customary love beads, threaten physical ejection to a DRF columnist, to whom Longden had taken exception. Then there was Bill Hartack, who treated reporters as if they had leprosy. The night before the Belmont, Hartack appeared on the “Dick Cavett Show” and aired his gripes and dislike of the media, much to the delight of Cavett and his audience.
 
Meanwhile, Arts and Letters was his usual placid self, showing no ill effects of his grueling 3-year-old campaign, which saw him run nine times already, eight of them in major stakes. When a news wire photographer walked in the barn and sheepishly asked Burch if he could take a couple of head shots of the colt in his stall, Burch replied, “Sure, go ahead, but you may have to wake him up to do it.”
 
A record Belmont Stakes crowd of 66,115 turned out to see if this time history would be made. But the Belmont turned out to be an oddly run race. The early pace was so slow the late-running Dike went for the lead going into the clubhouse turn, much to the shock of the crowd. Baeza and Arts and Letters were right on his heels, but Hartack elected to keep Majestic Prince three to four lengths back through an agonizingly slow three-quarters in 1:16 1/5. When Baeza gunned Arts and Letters to the front nearing the final turn, the race was all but over. The colt drew off to win by 5 1/2 lengths, closing his final quarter in :24 2/5, with Majestic Prince finishing second, never to race again.
 
“He had a check ligament going into the Belmont that was just not right,” Longden said years later. “It wasn’t real bad, but the horse wasn’t 100%. I was looking forward to racing him as a 4-year-old and I thought it was tough asking him to go a mile and a half when he was not 100%.”
 
Majestic Prince, after spending the rest of the year at Longden’s ranch in Arcadia, was retired to stud the following winter as a result of the check ligament. After siring numerous top-class stakes winners, including Belmont Stakes winner Coastal and grade I winners Majestic Light, Sensitive Prince, and Eternal Prince, he died of a heart attack at Spendthrift Farm in 1981at the young age of 15. In 1988, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. The vision of him, with his Adonis-like frame, glistening red chestnut coat, and bounding stride will never be forgotten. One of the great racing photos ever taken appeared in Sports Illustrated following the Santa Anita Derby. It was a close-up head-on shot of Majestic Prince crossing the finish line, with the late afternoon sun illuminating his mane and chin whiskers into a fiery glow. That is the everlasting image of Majestic Prince.
 
Dike ran his share of big races, but the gap between him and Arts and Letters continued to widen and he became no match for the Rokeby colt. He lived to the age of 19, residing at Big “C” Farm near Reddick, Fla.
 
Reviewer went on to set a track record for 1 1/8 miles at Belmont in the Nassau County Handicap and was beaten a head by Nodouble in the 1970 Met Mile. He, of course, is best known as the sire of the legendary Ruffian. Sadly, he fractured a leg in a paddock accident and had to be euthanized at the age of 11. He is buried at Claiborne Farm.
 
Al Hattab won numerous stakes, including the Monmouth Invitational Handicap. His daughter, Sharon Brown, produced Horse of the Year and Hall of Famer Holy Bull. Another of his daughters, Hat Tab Girl, produced Horse of the Year and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Black Tie Affair.
 
Ack Ack was sold by the Estate of Harry Guggenheim to E.E. ‘Buddy’ Fogelson and his wife, actress Greer Garson, and earned his way into the Hall of Fame with an astounding 5-year-old campaign in California under the care of Charlie Whittingham, winning the Hollywood Gold Cup under 134 pounds. In 1971, he became the first Eclipse Award-winning Horse of the Year and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986. Among his best offspring was the multi-millionaire and champion sire Broad Brush and French Derby winner Youth. He also was buried at Claiborne Farm following his death in 1990 at age 24.
 
Top Knight’s life took a totally different turn. He disappeared into obscurity after proving infertile. Brought back to the races three years later, the one-time champion raced until he was 9, competing in cheap allowance races at tiny Narragansett Park and Lincoln Downs in Rhode Island. He did manage one victory as a 9-year-old, winning by seven lengths at Lincoln Downs, but lost his next six races. He was retired for good with a hoof infection, losing the bottom half of his foot, which took a year and a half to grow back. He lived out the rest of his years at a small farm near Rehobeth, Mass. in the company of donkeys, mules, and ponies. According to his owners at the time, Charlotte and Edward Pritchard, who would take in old run-down horses and find them a home, he was “having a picnic”. The last report on him was in 1992, and he was living a happy life at the age of 26. A young racing novice will never forget his dominating victories in the Hopeful, Futurity, Champagne, Flamingo, and Florida Derby. That was the real Top Knight, a champion long forgotten.

To show what an amazing year this was for talent. In addition to the three male Hall of Famers, there also were three 3-year-old filly Hall of Famers, Gallant Bloom, Shuvee, and Ta Wee, and an older female Hall of Famer, Gamely.
 
As for Arts and Letters, he went on to romp by 10 lengths in the Jim Dandy, then trounced Dike by 6 1/2 lengths in the Travers, equaling the track record. Before the race, the large crowd around his saddling tree had to be roped off as they gathered nine and 10 deep to get a close-up look at racing’s newest superstar.
 
As written in Sports Illustrated, “Few horses these days possess box office appeal, but Arts and Letters is clearly one of them. Not since the days of Kelso and before that Native Dancer has the Saratoga paddock been as jammed as it was on Travers day. With the wonderfully smooth, rhythmic strides that often distinguish the great horses from the good ones, Arts and Letters began eating up his field. The enthusiastic crowd leaped up, and its cheers rolled in one loud wave across the lush infield.”
 
Arts and Letters then took on the nation’s top older horses, Nodouble and Verbatim, in the Woodward Stakes, and won under a hand ride by two lengths. Nodouble tried him again in the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, but Arts and Letters turned the marathon into a procession. He won with ridiculous ease by 14 lengths, concluding his campaign with six consecutive major stakes victories. He had run from January to October, racing at least once in every month with the exception of July.
 
The following year, after a shocking defeat under 130 pounds in the Westchester Handicap (a lot of weight that early in the year, especially for such a small horse), he unleashed an explosive and desperate stretch run to win the Grey Lag Handicap under 128 pounds. Burch and Mellon then stunned everyone by announcing that the champ was being pointed for the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud in France. But a bowed tendon suffered in the Californian Stakes ended his career.
 
Arts and Letters was retired to Greentree Stud, where he sired Preakness winner Codex. He became buddies with 1968 Belmont winner Stage Door Johnny and the two stallions would remain close friends for the next 26 years until Stage Door Johnny’s death in 1996 at age 31. In their younger days, they would race each other along the fence every day, putting on the brakes just before reaching the gate, kicking up a cloud of dirt. They would quickly look over at each other as if to see who won, then walk back up the hill and come charging back down. Each one would become visibly upset when the other was led to the breeding shed.
 
When they became too old to race they would stand under the same shade tree that separated their paddocks and just keep each other company.
 
They had become so close that when Gainesway Farm took over the Greentree property in 1989, part of the agreement was that both stallions remain together in adjoining paddocks. When Stage Door Johnny died in 1996, he turned over his title as the oldest living Belmont winner to Arts and Letters, who held it until his death two years later at age 32. Arts and Letters was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1994.
 
The class of ’69 has now faded into memory, recalling one of the most passionate and volatile eras in American history. Somewhere in its time capsule are two special Thoroughbreds and a magnificent supporting cast who helped elevate their sport to another level and one person to a life he once could only dream of from afar.

59 Comments

Leave a Comment:

ellpol

I just got goose bumps reading this.  Thanks Steve, you should write a book about 1969 racing etc... it was the year I graduated High School and quite a life experience as well as a racing classic.

20 Sep 2011 10:04 AM
grisk

I was eleven--glued to the television. Thank you for remembering.

20 Sep 2011 10:23 AM
Linda in Texas

A heart filled walk in the garden of our memories. This brought back a wave that runs deep for me.  I can hear the track announcer calling the race between Majestic Prince and Arts and Letters. I was listening to the radio as i was not near a television. And it was a good thing i was not driving. I adored Majestic Prince and he fit his name to perfection.

Thank you Steve, i love to hear their stories and never knew about Stage Door Johnny and Arts and Letters being such good buds.

That is a precious story. And thanks with appreciation to all of them, told only with true feelings that you have the supreme ability to convey to all of us. I know they would thank you also if they could. You are every horse's best friend, you see not only their beauty outside but inside too.

You are one amazing and gifted story teller and they are all true. Thank you

20 Sep 2011 10:25 AM
Bill Two

Steve, I was at Bowie one day in 1971 {if memory serves} and Top Knight unexpectedly showed up in the entries in an allowance race. There was still one good race left in that horse and he showed it that day.  After that I lost track of him and vaguely remember how he really faded into obscurity after that. I don't know what happened to his trainer, Ray Metcalf. Kind of sad to see a formerly really good horse reduced to such ignominy.  Thanks for the memories. You really bring the past alive like nobody else.

20 Sep 2011 10:35 AM
mz

Oh man, Steve!  Where do I start?  Thank you ... thank you ... thank you for the memories unburied.

I was a teenager waiting for my horse racing magazine to make it to my house in Toronto -- usually weeks late.  I especially remember reading about the Los Feliz at faraway Santa Anita and loved the black and white photo of that beautiful horse, Majestic Prince.

I remember that Derby.

I wondered what happened to Top Knight ...where the heck did he go?  He was a Champion 2YO fergawdsakes.  I didn't yet understand how sometimes even the best sometimes go under the radar.  Thanks for at least updating me about him being happy in '92.  Hope he ended happy.

Al Hattab was a beautiful horse too -- a beautiful gray like his dad, The Axe II, who I read about in the Toronto Star, winning the Canadian International Championship in his year.  I remember that Al Hattab's dam was the covergirl for one of the magazines on Memorial Day (that year? the next?) because of him.

I remember hoping that Reviewer, although a very nice horse, wouldn't become 2YO champ -- just because I thought it was unfair that if he did, it meant Claiborne/Bold Ruler would keep winning that championship until the end of time.

I loved Arts and Letters -- and Ribot (who started to take over from Bold Ruler, yay!).  And just think: he won the Metropolitan and then he won the Belmont just a few days later.  I became spoiled ever after -- I thought EVERY horse could do that!

Finally, the beauties:  Gallant Bloom, Shuvee, Gamely and Ta Wee.  

(Sigh)

Thanks, Steve.  Keep up with the history lessons for others (and memory lane for us).

20 Sep 2011 11:06 AM
mz

p.s.  I was a YOUNG teenager.

(just felt the need to clarify)

20 Sep 2011 11:18 AM
Alydarman

Nice story Steve. I was a high school student in the spring of 1969 and the Majestic Prince/Arts and Letters rivalry was what ignited my love of the "sport of kings." This game has a great and glorious history that in my opinion has no equal. During this summers Saratoga meet I purchased a photo of Native Dancer winning the 1953 Travers Stakes. This is still the most compelling game on earth.

20 Sep 2011 11:39 AM
tonka

Steve,

I remember that year, and even living in AL. MP was my pick. He was absolutely beautiful. For a young and up coming lover of horse racing it was a year that was worth remembering. I can still close my eyes and see the post parade. That is how much of an impression the Majestic Prince had on me. For those that remember that year it will always be one for the ages. Thank you so much for writing an article on these great horses. As always it is wonderful.

20 Sep 2011 12:09 PM
Bill Two

Johnny Longden may be the only person ever to win the Kentucky Derby as a jockey and then later as a trainer.  I wonder how he rated Majestic Prince against the great Count Fleet - the horse he won the Triple Crown on in 1943?

20 Sep 2011 12:29 PM
oso7

Mr. Haskin,

Your writing is astounding, I consider you the finest racing writer alive.  Now you have written about the 1st thoroughbred to truly capture my love.  I adored this magnificent chestnut and was so dismayed at what happened at the Belmont.  I thought it was very unfortunate that Mr. Longden caved into the pressure of running this great colt who was not 100% fit.  As you have written, he never raced again in his career.

Sports Illustrated actually had an article which accused MP's connections of attempting to "duck" the Belmont.  Shameful journalism.

Thank you again, Steve, for bringing back some beautiful memories of this magnificent colt along with others from that class.  I loved Ack Ack too and his classy owners, the Fogelsons.  I wish those type of owners were the norm today, sadly that is largely a bygone era.  

Kate Harper

20 Sep 2011 12:36 PM
slee

Ah, 1969.  A golden year, indeed.  I remember that picture of Majestic Prince, molten red gold crossing the line.  And also the one Sports Illustrated published during the Triple Crown of him under Hardtack, also taken in the late afternoon sun, was on my bulletin board as well.

If memory serves, SI did more than "suggest" that The Prince was ducking.  As I remember it, Whitney Tower's headline was "The Prince Ducks the Big One".  Then, when the owner overruled the trainer and The Prince was assigned to the Belmont, Tower's headline was "A Man Takes Charge of His Horse".  And then after the Belmont, "Revenge Was Sweet".  Somewhere in the Belmont article Tower, who made no apologies for his support of Arts & Letters, also said something like "some thought The Prince's stride was off late in the race - maybe something hurt him."  Maybe?  But, I was biased too.

20 Sep 2011 1:38 PM
slee

"Hartack", not "Hardtack" - geez, these fingers of mine!

Thanks Steve!

20 Sep 2011 3:32 PM
steve from st louis

Steve, what I remember was that Hartack left the Prince with too much to do in the Belmont to catch Arts and Letters. That and the chummy relationship between Cousin Leslie Combs and Frank McMahon always made me think Combs was shady as far as his world record "sales". Didn't his son Brownell later get into some kind of trouble in that regard? My memory is a bit cloudy from that era, or should I say "smokey". It was the era of Woodstock after all.

20 Sep 2011 5:59 PM
txhorsefan

Beautiful, Steve.  This is why I read this web-site - to have this wonderful learning opportunity handed to me on my computer - to learn about these talented horses that I know so little about.  You create such magic with your words, you are bringing them to life for me and I am so grateful for that.  Thank you.

20 Sep 2011 6:45 PM
Rita

I love your stories of our horses of old Steve. This one was amazing as usual. I had heard of some of them but did not know much about them. Thank you so much for these master pieces as you are the master  of writing about horses that's for sure. People like me would never know these wonderful creatures if not for you. Please keep up the good works as long as you can I'm going to be there reading for sure even if I don't comment. Thanks again.

20 Sep 2011 7:10 PM
Stellar Jayne

Hi Steve,

Well, you have done it again - a positively great article.  I was raising my son in '69, so I didn't see any of the those magnificent horses race on TV, or in the flesh, but your writing brought it to life for me.  Thank you! It also filled me with sadness that I missed those great years.  

I don't remember who made the following statement that I'm about to paraphrase, but he stated ... Majestic Prince is the most physically beautiful thoroughbred of all - more beautiful than Secretariat even.'  I have yet to see a picture of MP any where other than a black and white one in a book I have.  It would be nice if someone produced a color print of the head shot you mentioned above, as well as a full body shot.  But not seen any in color.

1969 was truly a year of great talent.  With all the track records they set and the quick fractions while racing and training, one wonders what today's breeders, owners, trainers think they have improved on????  That generation had SPEED GALORE and STAMINA - something that every breeder, owner and trainer should revisit, then we might not have so many 'talented' horses who are not sound and ill approaching the TC races or graded races.

I do wish you would seriously entertain taking all of these many wonderful historical articles that you have written over the years and incorporate them into a book, each one a separate story just like this one.  I have printed this one out to keep for as long as I live.  I just wish I had thought of printing them sooner to have my own book.  Think about it!  I'm sure I'm not speaking just for myself, but for the many who love what you write.

I was very happy to see with Lenny on ATO last Wednesday.  You look well, keep up the good fight!

Best Always

20 Sep 2011 7:51 PM
Arts and Letters

I never saw him run, but I've always been a fan of Arts and Letters.  He always seems a little bit forgotten when people talk about the great ones.  But can you imagine a horse doing today what he did?  

20 Sep 2011 8:05 PM
Sue MacGray

Majestic Prince was the horse that drew me into racing and following the Triple Crown races. I started a scrap book with pictures of his wins and I still have it somehwere :) I was crushed when he lost to Arts and Letters but relieved in a way when I discovered he had raced with an injury. I knew if he'd been healthy he would have won the Crown. I was a 12-yr-old horse crazy girl in 1969. Not much has changed since then, except that I'm nearly 54. But I'm still horse crazy :) Thank you for writing about that magical year.

20 Sep 2011 8:33 PM
Steve Haskin

Thanks, everyone, esepcially for making it through the whole story. You never know if or how a historical piece is going to be embraced.

20 Sep 2011 10:11 PM
John from Seattle

Steve,

I was at Holly Park in 1970 when Baffle, trained by Johnny Longden and owned by Frank McMahon, beat the reigning Horse of the Year Arts and Letters in the Californian Stakes.  People went absolutely nuts, high-fiving everyone in site, as Baffle stormed across the finish line ahead of Arts and Letters.

Whereas Majestic Prince never raced again after his loss to Arts and Letters in the 1969 Belmont - Arts and Letters never raced again after his loss to Baffle.

20 Sep 2011 10:14 PM
Steve Haskin

Stellar Jayne, you can read and print out all my blogs from the archives on the upper right hand column on this page. Good luck finding a book publisher and distributor.

20 Sep 2011 10:16 PM
Lawrin

I moved to Louisville in 1968 and went to the track for the first time the week after the Derby.  However, I had always been intrigued by racing while watching the Triple Crown races in Kansas.

The '69 Derby was the first one I attended, and I saw MP's Stepping Stone and Ack Ack's Derby Trial as well.  I too was struck by MP's physical appearance, although I didn't have the experience to realize just how exceptional he looked at the time; and one always treats with suspicion superlative memories with the passage of time.

Even though I have been an avid fan of racing since that time--I've been to most of the Derbies and 15 Breeders' Cups--I've only worked tangentially in the industry, as a typesetter for Blood-Horse for a year and as a guest services rep for Churchill Downs for 3 meets while "underemployed".  I wish I had recognized the same muse Mr. Haskins did that year and devoted my career to the industry  in some capacity, but nevertheless, racing has provided many great memories of many great horses and races over the years.  It was wonderful to return to 1969 again.

21 Sep 2011 1:31 AM
Lawrin

One other thing I wanted to point out concerning SI's implication that MP would be ducking A and L if he didn't run: two years later, Canonero II was a spent horse after the Preakness and after he lost the Belmont and Triple Crown, SI ran a cover story titled "Canonero should NOT have run".

21 Sep 2011 1:39 AM
The Deacon

I'm speechless Steve, all of your posts are extraordinary but this one tops them all, at least for me. I speak of Majestic Prince all the time on these posts. He is in my opinion the most beautiful thoroughbred I ever laid eyes on. He is in my top 5 that are closet to my heart. Saw him win the Santa Anita Derby, I stood right in front of the finish line. Saw several of his races before that.

Johnny Longden was a true horseman, Frank McMahon was an idiot. Saw many interviews with hing he said. Take nothing away from Arts and Letters he was a brilliant colt who was as tenacious as they come. It took a Herculean effort by "The Prince" just to beat him in the Derby and Preakness. If Majestic Prince was sound who knows if he would have won the Triple Crown. I promise you this though, the race would have been a whole lot closer.

Steve: you are my hero, thanks for this story, you have excited a racing fan who has witnessed a very dull year watching the runners of today.  

21 Sep 2011 2:55 AM
Zen4Zen

Another great post; thanks, Steve!  So interesting in particular to read about Majestic Prince, who should never have run in the Belmont, and Ruffian's sire Reviewer; nice, too, for Arts and Letters to get his due.

21 Sep 2011 6:00 AM
Smoking Baby

 I got to see Majestic Prince in the summer of 1980 at Spendthrift.  He was sure a grand looking son of a gun.

21 Sep 2011 8:58 AM
barryaksarben

I was a teeneager than and loved Arts & Letters - watched every him on TV and rooted for him everytime- my dad liked MP but I always rooted for the small guy and he was one of the first horses to fire my imagination and love of racing

21 Sep 2011 9:12 AM
johnaugustwest

Not actually a comment on your splendid article, Mr. Haskin, but when you mentioned Dr. Fager, I was reminded of this:  He is believed to be the only horse to run a sub-21 interior fraction in an actual race.

Came across that fact in  a terrific Blood-Horse publication about the 100 greatest racehorses of all-time (which I highly recommend to all, especially those interested in this article).  Anyway, The Doctor gets my vote as #1.

21 Sep 2011 9:13 AM
ofelia

Beautiful! Racing's golden age!

21 Sep 2011 10:02 AM
Wil. E. Kayotay

Mr. Haskin,

You are like a living history book on this subject. You always remind me of why I love horses so much. I was was too young to be aware of the classic horses of '69, but I had just left the farm when the family decided to move us all to the city during that time. That's only important because I had to leave my gray mare "Pearl" behind and I never saw her again. I guess that's part of the reason I love these animals so much. I actually cared for one as a child.

I found my new love of horse as a school boy, when the mighty Secretariat came on the scene. I vividly remember staring at the magazines in the school library with pictures of "Big Red" and dreaming of the day I could have another horse. While I am still waiting for that day, I can take pleasure in the detailed and remarkable stories you tell about actually seeing the great ones run.

Thanks for the memories!  Carl (Wil. E)

21 Sep 2011 10:33 AM
Nip Nip

Thank you so much, Steve. Another incredibly rich account. As usual you've totally grasped our love for the horses, not just the racing & the betting. I can feel the Greentree dirt, sifting through the dirt on a hot summer day from the GREAT RACE setting on my sweaty skin and seeping in my mouth. I wipe it away with the back of my hand and stare in awe at the great Arts and Letters and Stage Door Johnny.

21 Sep 2011 11:39 AM
kincsem

The 1969 Derby is the first one I remember. I wanted Top Knight to win because I was into a King Arthur book at the time (I was 7 years old) & big sis was for Arts and Letters. We were shocked by Majestic Prince & as kids, thought he had the worst name. Years later, the first OTTB I took in was a son of Majestic Light. He was not as beautiful as his grandfather, but just a firey red. Thanks for the memories...

21 Sep 2011 12:28 PM
Melissa P

I remember my first impression of Arts and Letters when he was running was that he was related to Man O'War. I had read the Walter Farley book as a child, and (like most young girls) my first love was horses. I finally met Arts and Letters at Gainesway and was completely in awe of the presence this boy still had in 1990. Yes, he was smallish and age had taken something away from his body, but his eye and his heart were still those of a champion. I think he realized he had a true fan in me as he struck such a beautiful pose I'll never forget. Isn't it amazing how those golden moments spent with our equine heros still bring chills and tears to our eyes all these years later?

21 Sep 2011 12:37 PM
The Deacon

Johnaugustwest:

I agree, Dr. Fager was the greatest horse who ever stepped on a racetrack. I have said it many times. He could run at any distance, carry unbelievable weight, and had a crusing speed that made you shake your head.

Long time ago and most of today's fans never saw him run so they don't know. besides Hollywood likes to glamorize everything, just like they did in the Secretariat movie.

21 Sep 2011 12:44 PM
Steve Haskin

Thanks to all who shared their own  experiences. Deacon, thank you; I'm having fun reliving all this myself.

Nip Nip, you're getting pretty poetic yourself, beautiful.

Wil. E, thank you for sharing that.

While on the subject of 1969, I'm switching to the fillies next. Should be in a couple of days.

21 Sep 2011 1:51 PM
mz

Steve: yay! fillies and mares!

Don't forget Princessnesian!

21 Sep 2011 2:14 PM
Old Timer

Steve, what a great article on a great campaign! I was one of the 66,115 in attendance when Arts and Letters trounced Majestic Prince in the Belmont. Even with MP undefeated and going for the TC, I had my money on Arts and Letters. As you have noted, it is amazing that where today most trainers won't even run their horses in all three triple crown classics, back then Arts and Letters ran all three, and even made a stop to take the Met Mile from older horses! What a great horse he was.

It also highlights that it seems every time a horse like Dike is gaining in the Derby stretch, everyone says "wait until the Belmont" figuring the longer distance will favor the "come from behind" type. Yet it seldom seems to work that way.

21 Sep 2011 5:03 PM
Shutterbug

Mr. Haskin, what a wonderful and informative article.  The only thing I knew, prior to reading this, was that Majestic Prince was a gorgeous chestnut who keeps company on the list of horses that won two out of three TC races.  You have a gift, a way of educating in a clear and concise way while moving the reader to both tears and laughter.

The details you provide on Reviewer -- the hairline fracture, and ultimate fate of breaking a leg in his paddock -- explain what happened to his magnificent daughter when she was pressed by Foolish Pleasure.  How blessed you were to have known the sires of great racehorses, to have witnessed their racing careers.  

I was expecting the worst while reading your description of Top Knight (a name I had never heard before) during his stint in cheap races.  I burst out laughing as I read that he spent the rest of his long life on a small farm "in the company of donkeys, mules, and ponies."  That's the way I plan to spend my golden years eventually, if I'm lucky :-)

21 Sep 2011 5:24 PM
nickie

I found an "error" in your opening Steve..."...extremely long"?...no Steve, I for one think it wasn't long enough. If you only knew the significance of Top Knight, and your digging to find where he spent his final years is totally uplifting. I remeber him going to the Rhode Island circuit and it was a tough nut to swallow, but he was one of my favs...."The Topper" as I and my fellow "wags" affectionately called him. Thanks Steve...Funny Baeza truly one of the all time greats, and a "misuse" of the whip may ahve caused A & L to not capture the Preakness. Looking forward to your muse on Ta Wee, Susans' Girl et al!

22 Sep 2011 8:59 AM
oso7

Loved your post, I like Candy.  I hope I spend the rest of my life in the same company but add some dogs, cats, chickens and ducks too.

22 Sep 2011 9:21 AM
Nip Nip

And somewhere a future Racing Hall of Fame journalist was watching a Gallant filly bloom, becoming his "heart horse" as she won 12 races in a row from ages 2-4 on her way to Championship honors two years in a row -- and her own Hall of Fame career. Her great grandma had foaled the sire of Kelso and founded a line of Blue Hen mares. The daughter of Gallant Man-Multiflora was appropriately named Gallant Bloom.  

22 Sep 2011 11:25 AM
WWSTP

Steve...I hope you keep writing!!  The power of "the story" and "the horse" combine in your writing, and it elevates and expands us....reminding us of what it is that brings out the best in us.  What a gift!  Thank you!

22 Sep 2011 11:49 AM
Kyri

1969 was the year I was born. Thank you for the article!

22 Sep 2011 11:57 AM
Linda in Texas

Steve, yesterday i wrote a few words about the wonderful people who post on your blog, and wanted them to know how much they bring here. And how much they are appreciated. I submitted it but i think it vanished in space. And today i read Wil.E.Kayotay's words and the mention of his mare "Pearl" and i think how many of us learned the sweet sorrow of parting lesson with an animal. I hope Pearl was loved and cared for long after her special friend moved to the city.

So thanks to the kind folks who share their private thoughts and memories with the rest of us.

And Thank You as always Steve, for drawing so many faithful fans to your vast library of knowledge about all things horse.

22 Sep 2011 1:01 PM
deb

Arts and Letters and Majestic Prince were my first faves in horse racing as a kid. Prince was the "snob" and Arts and Letters was the little work horse in my memory.  I think Johnny L. rode M.Prince in workouts? What a pair of characters those two were.

Everytime I read your articles I remember how much I love racing for the horses and the people.

Thank you.

22 Sep 2011 2:42 PM
Steve Haskin

Thank you, WWSTP, I appreciate that.

Nip Nip, Hall of what?

Linda in Texas, I dont see that comment. Can you send it again?

Nickie, The topper, I like that. Glad he had a happy ending.

22 Sep 2011 3:35 PM
Linda in Texas

Just watched Rahystrada win on turf at The Kentucky Downs going a mile and a half for the first time on September 10, and that day looked up his sire, of course it would be Rahy, and i thought then good for you Rahy old man, and now i read he died today.

Job well done little champion, your greatness lives on in the blood of those of those you sired and may you rest in peace. This is the hardest part of all horse racing for me, but i always feel compelled to mention them rather than not as Rahystrada won by 3 3/4 lengths and that is to be commended for both Rahy and his son.

22 Sep 2011 4:37 PM
Linda in Texas

Steve, i don't ever write my posts down, i think it took me a while to write it so to speak and after some chores i came back finished it and clicked submit. And the error notice came up so i surmised it did not get to you. Sometimes i will write something in the morning after reading your articles or admire what someone wrote in response to your writings and then not send it because i don't want to be spouting off all the time because i get tired of looking at my name and later in the day i delete them. But i did send that one but it showed error and brought up the sign in box.

I do remember mentioning to Alex'sBigFan that i had failed earlier to mention 2 other grays and Unbridled Humor whose winning races i also watched over the week end. And that Winter Memories reminds me of Skippy when she runs.

And Bless "Pearl" wherever she is.

Thanks Steve. You are the best.

22 Sep 2011 5:02 PM
sanmanmick

being a huge met and jet fan and also a great racing fan i remember 1969 vividly(i attended woodstock as well)i remember seeing top knight run at saratoga the year before (my first of many trips to the spa)i think 1969 may have been one of the most memorable years of my lifetime.i been a fan of the sport for 46 years and hope for many more.

22 Sep 2011 5:50 PM
Convene

Thanks for the glorious walk back down memory lane! That really was a year to remember - all the rivalries and Arts and Letters, doing his thing! Those are heroic names and where they now lie for eternity is truly hallowed ground. Thanks for bringing yet another tear to this ol' eye.

22 Sep 2011 8:36 PM
johnaugustwest

Mr. Haskin:  I noticed your comment in which you admitted wondering if this article would be embraced.

Well, please don't do that again; terrific writing will always be welcome... especially since there's not enough of it about the sport we all love.

I did have one complaint, however:  your article was over way too soon.

23 Sep 2011 8:04 AM
Morvich

Just wondering why Baeza was riding Arts and Letters for the first time in the Blue Grass. Who rode him before that and why did they switch jocks?

23 Sep 2011 9:15 AM
Dr Drunkinbum

Memories. Where would we be without them !!! Another great Haskin story brightens my day and brings back some of my own memories. I'm pretty sure I saw Janis Joplin being interviewed on the Dick Cavett Show. Reading about great horsemen like Johhny Longden brightens my day. Arts and Letters is another one that almost won the Triple Crown, and how many can win the Met Mile in 1:34 and then win  The Belmont a week later? Nowadays if a horse won a stakes mile race in 1:34 and someone asked the owner or trainer if he was going to run in The Belmont next week, he'd say, "Are you insane? Get out of my barn and don't come back !!!"

23 Sep 2011 10:28 AM
Steve Haskin

Morvich, he rode him for the first time in the Derby, not the Blue Grass. I'm glad you asked. I forgot to include it in the story. Three days before the Derby, his regular rider Bill Shoemaker had a horse fall on him in the paddock at Hollywood and suffered a fracture. He said he was just beginning to get to know the horse in the Blue Grass, which was the third time he had ridden him.

23 Sep 2011 11:56 AM
Secreteriat

Steve I used to go to Battery Park daily and have lunch there when I was at White Weld. Maybe you remember Seamen's Restaurant. They had the best chiken pot pie on Tuesday's for $2.50. I too was at Belmont that day and bet Majestic prince to win and hedged it with a place bet on Arts and letters. I was only making $90.00 a week at the time so I was a $2 bettor. Horseracing was the best entertainment for the buck. Thanks for bringing back the memories and Stay Well. Tony from White Weld.

23 Sep 2011 4:08 PM
Dan McCall

Steve

The 1969 Belmont is one of my favorite races. I have saved copies of the Bloodhorse for the Triple Crown races since 1968.

One of the best "writings"( if that is a word) that I have ever read is Kent Hollingsworth's column where he talks about the 1969 Belmont. The pace of that race was so weird and perhaps the ride that Hartack gave Majestic Prince was not one that he remembers fondly.

In any event, I imagine that you might have access to that article and you should read it(If you haven't already). Perhaps you might think it worthy of reprinting it it one of your blogs.

You certainly have rekindled my memories of that era

Thanks

24 Sep 2011 11:59 AM
Sandra

If I'm not mistaken, Al Hattab holds a quirky record.  100% of his offspring were grey. I noticed this as a teenager, reading the PPs and later read an article about it.

24 Sep 2011 12:35 PM
PioneerCountry

The best part of your blogs Steve is always the trip down memory lane. Names like Majestic Prince, Arts and Letters, Al Hatab etc.  Names that evoke memories, unlike so many horses racing today.  I was just a little girl, horse crazy, but I have never forgotten their names, pedigrees etc. Considering this was well before satellite HR & internet info & we were lucky to catch a race or two on TV, yet all these horses stuck in my mind. When I get to Ky, once I've seen certain horses, the best part of my trip is getting as close as is now possible to the greats of yesteryear by visiting the cemetaries.  I can't believe I'm in their presence sometimes when I run my hand over the stones.  Sad always that I never got to see them in 'person'.

I'm voting for you to make that HOF (see Nip Nip!!)& in the meantime, keep writing & we'll keep pushing you to publish your blogs into a book....

25 Sep 2011 12:11 AM
Susan from VA

Loved this article, too.  You're the only Bloodhorse writer - heck the ONLY writer - whose columns I always show to my friends.  Like Stellar Jayne, I've been thinking of saving the entire collection.

27 Sep 2011 1:00 PM

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