A few hours and a continent apart, the two winter book favorites for the Kentucky Derby won their races last Saturday afternoon so easily that one was tempted to feel there was little point in any of the other horses bothering to make the trip to Louisville later this month. At Gulfstream Park Top Knight, the colt who is belittled by everyone before each $100,000-stakes victory, smothered Arts and Letters by five lengths to win the Florida Derby. In Arcadia, Majestic Prince, Frank McMahon's chestnut colt, made it six-for-six with a sensational eight-length victory over nine hopelessly outclassed rivals in the Santa Anita Derby. Both early spring semi-classics were at the testing mile-and-‚⅛ distance, just ‚⅛ of a mile shorter than the two favorites will be asked to run when they meet for the first time at Churchill Downs on May 3. Unless Arts and Letters improves drastically in the next four weeks, unless Reviewer, who should win this week's one-mile Gotham at Aqueduct, demonstrates that he also can go a distance, the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes of 1969 may well turn out to be a series of two-horse races.
The 32nd running of the Santa Anita Derby was won with such amazing ease that Majestic Prince's rider, Bill Hartack, eased him up for the last [1/16] of a mile and still won pulling away. "If he doesn't win by five lengths," said Trainer Johnny Longden to his son Eric on the morning of the race, "something is wrong." Hartack, who allowed himself a post-race smile as he continued his policy of not talking to the press (he believes reporters should pay for this), said to Longden, "I only let him run as fast as I had to."
Right Cross and Mr. Joe F. ran away from the gate fastest and had their own little race, four lengths ahead of everyone else, up the backstretch, while Hartack had Majestic Prince snugged in behind them in third place. The other seven horses might as well have stayed in their barns. The front-runners hit the first quarter in :22[3/5] and the half in :45[4/5]. Right Cross, who lost to the Prince by only a nose at six furlongs last December, stuck his head in front at the end of six furlongs in 1:10[3/5] and then retired from the contest, utterly exhausted. Rounding the far turn, Hartack let out a notch with Majestic Prince, and Jockey Merlin Volzke aboard Mr. Joe F. described what happened: "One second he was beside me and the next second he was three on top. And my horse was still running."
Without ever feeling the touch of the whip, Majestic Prince rolled to a six-length lead at the eighth pole and coasted home from there. He had run a mile in 1:35⅗ and his final time—meaningless under the circumstances—was 1:49[1/5].
When the team of McMahon, Longden and Hartack sets off across the Rockies in a week or so with Majestic Prince, the entourage should bring excitement to the Derby scene. The event certainly deserves something better than the sort of notoriety it has endured for the past 11 months. In McMahon, the Canadian industrialist who won the Santa Anita Derby with Four-and-Twenty in 1961 (with partner Max Bell), and the Irish Sweeps Derby with Meadow Court (with Bell and Bing Crosby), racing has an owner who loves the sport and enjoys a good party.
Longden, who won 25 $100,000 stakes as a rider, trained his first 100 grander last week and admitted that he was more nervous than he ever was in the saddle. "You hear about everyone trying to train your horse for you," he said. "You hear about him working too fast or too hard. About his bad knees and all that sort of thing, and you can't help but get a little nervous."
Both McMahon and Longden have nothing but praise for Hartack, who has turned up regularly in rain and sleet to work their colt whenever Longden chose not to. "Bill has a good head," says Longden. "He knows where he's at at all times and he knows this horse."
Majestic Prince, called the Prince or the Ham (because he seems to like to pose) around Longden's Santa Anita barn, gave his followers some anxious moments prior to his winning Derby. For one thing, he does work fast—too fast, according to some horsemen. Eight days before the Derby he went a mile in track-record time of 1:34[3/5]. Two days before the race he did a half mile in a lightning :45[2/5]. "I'm not saying this is wrong," says one trainer who has won both a Santa Anita and a Kentucky Derby, "but over the long haul it takes an iron horse to stand this kind of training." On Wednesday of Derby Week the Ham didn't eat the way he usually does and also ran a slight fever. The next morning he was fine and proved it with his :45[2/5] half mile. A sensitive sort, the Prince doesn't like his ears to be touched. In the saddling shed on Derby Day, when they put the number disk on his bridle, the disk brushed his ear and he objected. He almost shook off his bridle and got loose in the shed. Said Longden, "I shudder to think that he might have run off and hit the wall or slipped and fallen down." Even after the Prince's stunning victory, one heard some reservations voiced. "Horses are creatures of habit," said one veteran observer. "This colt has won so easily in his last few races that Hartack has eased him up approaching the wire. If a smart horse remembers this when he gets to Churchill Downs, he might be smart enough to ease himself up—and don't think that couldn't be a costly mistake."
As Top Knight moves on from Gulfstream Park, probably to Aqueduct for the April 19th running of the Wood Memorial, Majestic Prince will head for Keeneland. There he will race in either the Blue Grass on April 24 or the seven-furlong Stepping Stone at Churchill Downs on April 26. As he spoke of these plans, Frank McMahon lifted a glass in tribute to his horse. "Majestic Prince and I have a good trainer and a good jockey," he said. "The colt has speed, good conformation, good disposition and, most important, he can run." On May 3 we will discover how fast and how far.