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.