A quarter of a century ago that ageless wizard of his trade, Johnny Longden, rode Count Fleet to a Triple Crown, and ever since those enjoyable and easy rides, Longden has stood up at thousands of press conferences and banquets and unwaveringly insisted that Count Fleet was the greatest horse he had ever ridden—or ever seen. It is worth noting that Longden's perceptive eyes have focused on the likes of Citation, Noor, Swaps, Nashua, Tom Fool, Kelso, Buckpasser and Dr. Fager.
Last week may not have marked the beginning of a new century for Longden, who is now in his third year as a trainer, but it definitely marked the beginning of a new Longden. Johnny startled his listeners as he looked over a colt out of his own Santa Anita barn and said, "I've ridden over 30,000 races in my life, and this is the best horse I have ever seen. Yes, even better than Count Fleet."
The object of this expert appraisal is a powerfully built chestnut (above) with the highly appropriate name of Majestic Prince. At the moment he is indeed majestic, he runs like a prince and, if he lives up to Johnny Longden's expectations, he may well wind up as king, at least in California, and perhaps at Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Park.
It's a long way from Santa Anita to the throne rooms of those distant empires, but if Majestic Prince reaches even one of them, it will come as no great surprise to any of the people close to him. All he has done so far in his young career is win all four of his races, the latest being last week's seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes, in which he skipped over a muddy track in 1:25 3/5. He whipped five other respectable sophomores and set himself up as the odds-on favorite to win the Santa Anita Derby (at a mile and an eighth) on March 29.
A lot of other young horses, of course, have won their first four races before fading into permanent obscurity, and a lot of other winners of the San Vicente, in its previous 28 runnings, have names that do not ring a bell. Or does everyone vividly remember James Session, Captain Fair and Mr. Thong? Still, four San Vicente winners have gone on from this comparatively minor midwinter test to victory in the Kentucky Derby in May, and there was nothing small time about any of the four—Gallahadion, Hill Gail, Swaps and Lucky Debonair.
Majestic Prince won his San Vicente the way a good horse should: by tackling an unfamiliar and tricky surface and mastering it and his rivals completely. After allowing his stablemate, Governors Party, to set the early pace with Elect The Ruler while he stayed just off them in third place, Majestic Prince took the lead in midstretch and rolled home five lengths in front of Fleet Allied. He felt the brush of the whip only once and was virtually pulled up for the last 16th of a mile. Upon dismounting, his jockey, Bill Hartack, put his arm around Longden and said, "I won with a lot of horse under me. He still doesn't like the mud, but now I know that he can do anything."
Majestic Prince was born to do anything. From the day he was foaled at Leslie Combs's Spendthrift Farm in Lexington, Ky. he was something special. "In the first place," says Combs, who came West to see the colt run for the first time in the San Vicente, "you couldn't find a better pedigree if you sat down and tried to write one." Majestic Prince is by Raise A Native, a son of Native Dancer who was undefeated in the four races he ran before bowing a tendon in 1963. He was topweighted in the Experimental Free Handicap, and Combs later syndicated him for $2,625,000. Majestic Prince's dam is Gay Hostess, a daughter of Royal Charger and granddaughter of Nearco. Such good balance in breeding impels expert Leon Rasmussen to say: "Majestic Prince could well be one of those exemplary performers who has the speed to beat the best sprinters and the stamina to beat the best stayers. While the strengthening influences in his pedigree are beyond his second generation, they are there and they are there in profusion and classic strength."
"All I know," says Combs, "is that this little chestnut stood up and nursed within 20 minutes of foaling and from then on he was the star of his crop." A year later the dashing chestnut was also the star of the Keeneland summer sales when he was knocked down—for a then-record price of $250,000—to Combs's longtime friend, Canadian Industrialist Frank McMahon, for whom Longden had often ridden.
Longden nursed his new charge along slowly as a 2-year-old. He didn't start him until late last November at Bay Meadows. With Bill Shoemaker out for a year recuperating from a broken leg, Longden picked Hartack as his regular jockey and doesn't intend to break up the winning team now. "Hartack really likes this colt," says Longden. "You don't think he'd ask to come out and work this horse in the mornings if he didn't, do you?"
In his second start, on Dec. 26, Majestic Prince had his only close call when he won in a driving finish by a nose over Right Cross, another Combs-bred colt. Right Cross went for $55,000 to Californians Mr. and Mrs. Bert W. Martin the same day at Keeneland that they were underbidders ($245,000) for Majestic Prince. The next time the pair met, on Jan. 7, Majestic Prince beat Right Cross (a son of Nashua) by four lengths. Now he has won again, by five lengths, and will likely tune up for the Santa Anita Derby by running in the San Jacinto on Feb. 27 and the San Felipe on March 15. Longden thinks he'll go on and on and says it may be because "he has speed but can be rated. He is not speed crazy. He stands 16 hands, one inch, weighs 1,125 pounds and has perfect balance, beautiful manners and the kindest disposition you ever saw."
The California opposition for Majestic Prince during the next six weeks does not include a standout colt. Fleet Allied, Mr. Joe F. and, of course, Right Cross are the strongest of the lot at the moment, but there are others who will be heard from between now and the end of March. They include Robert Hibbert's Inverness Drive, who lost all chance in the San Vicente when he broke badly, Might, Concerned, Larceny Kid, Salud y Pesetas and Port Arthur. Traditionally optimistic Trainer Charlie Whittingham believes he has a pair of runners for the Howard B. Kecks in Makor (who is by the French stallion Herbager) and Tell, a bay son of Round Table and a Nasrullah mare. "We're playing pretty much of a guessing game at this time of the year," says Whittingham. "None of us knows who can go on and who can't—and that includes Majestic Prince." Nonetheless, none of these colts seems ready to displace the handsome chestnut as the greatest horse Johnny Longden ever saw.