The ideal objective in any stakes race—and particularly a classic such as the Kentucky Derby—is to limit the post parade to the truly worthy. This is no place for social-climbing 3-year-olds, but they often are entered by their owners for kicks, and they usually do nothing but gum up the works for the few deserving horses. Once in a while, of course, one of them wins, and when he does he strikes a blow for all the little owners and breeders of American racing.
Still, some fairly recent Derbies have actually brought together the best 3-year-olds in training at that moment, thereby succeeding in the original objective. The last time this happened was a dozen years ago. On the morning of May 4, 1957, a field of 10 was preparing for the 83rd Derby, a group powerfully endowed with proven ability and bred superbly. The best of the lot probably was Calumet Farm's Gen. Duke who, sadly, was scratched a few hours before post time. Of the remaining nine, four were admittedly along for the ride, and a fifth, Federal Hill, did not figure to do much beyond a mile. Calumet Farm was still in the race, with second-string Iron Liege, who would have been any other stable's first string.
In one of the best races of all time this substitute, with Bill Hartack in the saddle, nosed out Gallant Man after Bill Shoemaker mistook the finish line and stood up in his irons. The third and fourth horses were a couple of colts named Round Table and Bold Ruler. Iron Liege, who thus became the only horse ever to beat Gallant Man, Round Table and Bold Ruler in the same race, was ultimately sold for stud duty in France. (He has now moved further on, all the way to Japan.) And even occasional punters know that the other three went on to brilliant racing careers and that one of them, Bold Ruler, has become probably the most successful American-bred stallion we have known.
This Saturday, for the first time since 1957, the Derby will bring together another brilliant quartet: Majestic Prince, Arts and Letters, Top Knight and Dike. All four are chestnuts and all four have the background and the ability to win. Along the way to Churchill Downs they have lost a few of their contemporaries, such as Reviewer, Al Hattab, King Emperor and Drone, through injuries or other misadventures. And the quartet may be joined by perhaps three or four aspiring upstarts—from among Traffic Mark, Ack Ack, Sheik of Bagdad, Mr. Coincidence, Fleet Allied, Ocean Roar, Jim's Gold C.—whose chances range from infinitesimal to nil.
May 4, 1969
The prospect of a good race is especially fortunate after the fiasco of 1968, which impelled many Kentucky officials to consider methods of retrieving the Derby's image. (Tighter security restrictions in the stable area were a matter of course.) Governor Louie Nunn invited more than two dozen of his fellow Republican governors to Lexington during Derby Week. There they were to be jointly presented a $30,000 yearling colt by Derby winner Chateaugay and are to at feted at Louisville on Derby Day in a special rooftop lounge built at a cost of $200,000.
President Nixon had indicated he enjoyed watching last year's race, when he was still a candidate, and has been invited to become the first President-in-office to attend a Derby. The problems confronting the Secret Service at Churchill Downs are intricate and weighty. For the form player they are no less tricky:
1) Majestic Prince, Top Knight, Arts and Letters and Dike all have the breeding to be classic winners.
2) All four won their last starts in brilliant style, three in near track-record time.
3) All have won major stakes at a mile-and-an-eighth with the kind of closing speed that suggests one more furlong should not bother them.
4) All will be ridden by jockeys who know their way around a racetrack and then some. Bill Hartack is on Majestic Prince and seeking to tie Eddie Arcaro's record of five Derby victories. Manuel Ycaza rides Top Knight. Free for the moment of some distracting personal problems, Ycaza has never been in better form, and the one thing he wants is his first Derby win. Bill Shoemaker, in his 17th Derby, will be looking for his fourth victory on Arts and Letters and also for some revenge after having been twice narrowly beaten by archrival Hartack (a nose when he lost on Gallant Man, and a neck when Hartack and Northern Dancer edged Hill Rise in 1964). Dike's jockey is Jorge Velasquez, a rookie in the Derby lineup but a top New York rider with the competitive drive to overcome the jitters that often affect a new boy in Louisville.
A month ago, following the Santa Anita Derby and the Florida Derby, won respectively by Majestic Prince and Top Knight, the Kentucky race had the earmarks of a two-horse affair. Events of recent weeks, however, alter the picture. Dike, who hadn't done much of anything in Florida, came up to Aqueduct and took both the Gotham (at a mile) and then the nine-furlong Wood Memorial. In the Wood he came from next to last to nose out Al Hattab right on the wire. Five days later Arts and Letters, a loser to Top Knight in two out of three of their Florida races, won the Blue Grass at Keeneland by 15 lengths over Traffic Mark. Forty-eight hours after that, Majestic Prince brought his unbeaten (six-for-six) record to Churchill Downs for his final Derby warmup and captured the Stepping Stone (at seven furlongs) by six lengths over a colt named Fast Hilarious. In Florida Fast Hilarious had shown he could give the best of them, including Top Knight, a pretty good run for it at distances up to a mile. Also during the last month, just to add to the confusion, one of Dike's stablemates, Jay Ray, went to Golden Gate Fields and won the California Derby by 5½ lengths over many of the horses who had spent the winter chasing Majestic Prince.
It is dangerous to seize upon easy comparisons, but the remark of Bull Hancock, owner of Dike and Jay Ray, may be apt: "Dike can beat Jay Ray five lengths doing anything, so what kind of horses has Majestic Prince been beating all winter in California?"
This Derby has also been described as a race between the East (Top Knight) and the West (Majestic Prince). A better way to look at it would be to consider it a match among breeders. Majestic Prince is "West" only because he has been trained there by Johnny Longden, is owned by Vancouver Industrialist Frank McMahon and has made all but one of his seven starts in California. In fact, he's as Kentucky as the Burgoo they dish out on Derby weekend, having been bred at Leslie Combs' Spendthrift Farm in Lexington. Top Knight, bred by the late Steve Wilson, is about as "East" as corn bread and grits, since he was bred in Ocala, Fla. and stayed there long enough to graduate summa cum laude from Jack Price's Dorchester Equine Preparatory School. Arts and Letters is Virginia-bred and was foaled at Owner Paul Mellon's Upperville farm. Trainer Elliott Burch bought Arts and Letters' dam All Beautiful for $175,000 at the William F. duPont Jr. dispersal. His sire is Ribot, which does not hurt a bit. Dike is a son of the French stallion Herbager and the good race mare Delta, a daughter of Nasrullah, who won $269,215 before retiring to produce seven foals and four stakes winners. Hancock and Combs, despite all the marvelous runners produced at Claiborne and Spendthrift farms for various well-heeled clients, have never bred a Derby winner of their own. Paul Mellon thought he had one in Quadrangle (fifth in 1964) but had to settle for the Belmont Stakes instead. And the late Steve Wilson, whose stable is being run by his son Steve Jr., never came close. Should Top Knight win, it would be the second victory for a son of Vertex; Lucky Debonair's was the first.
Obviously, each of the four chestnuts has much to recommend him. Top Knight was a standout champion 2-year-old of 1968, despite a "thick" tendon with which he was born and which has generated a large volume of derogatory remarks about his soundness. Against Arts and Letters in the Everglades he may have been a little "short," and he had to give the winner 10 pounds. In both the Flamingo and Florida Derby, Arts and Letters had a chance to even the score at equal weights, but Top Knight beat him easily both times. Tendon trouble or not, Top Knight has won $511,921—more than any other Derby starter—and, more important, he has probably beaten more good horses. This in itself makes Top Knight the horse to beat. On the negative side is the fact that he will go in the Derby five weeks to the day after his last race. He went nearly four weeks between the Flamingo and the Florida Derby and pulled it off, but five weeks between a race at Gulf-stream and one at Churchill Downs is asking a lot of any colt, even a very good one. Needles did it in 1956, but against a comparatively inferior field.
Majestic Prince has had the benefit of being trained by a superior former jockey who is just getting underway in the training business. Longden often works his colt himself for short distances, wearing a weight belt to build up the load on Majestic Prince to 140 pounds. On longer works he calls on Hartack—there is great admiration between these two master reinsmen—and although some trainers think Longden works the Prince too hard and too fast, Johnny defends his practice. In last week's Stepping Stone, after he defeated Fast Hilarious, Majestic Prince worked out the mile in 1:35 and nine furlongs in 1:49 2/5. "I liked the way he got a little tired at the end," said Combs. "It means he needed the work and will really be ready next week. If a horse isn't a little tired it could mean he's at his peak—and you don't want a horse at his peak a week before the Derby. You want him there on Derby Day."
Arts and Letters was sensational in beating absolutely nothing in the Blue Grass. He finished 15 lengths in front of Traffic Mark, but was only two-fifths of a second off Round Table's record and one-fifth off the mark set by Ridan in the 1962 Blue Grass (1:47 3/5). It matters little that neither Round Table nor Ridan won their Derbies (they both finished third). What does count is that Shoemaker chose the Blue Grass to experiment a little with Arts and Letters' style of running. "This colt doesn't want you to take him back too much," said Shoe later. "He likes to run free. In my two races on him in Florida I tried to take him back behind a slow pace and it hurt him. Trying to rate him when the pace was slow was my mistake. This time, when I could see the pace was just as slow, I let him run on. He didn't beat a hell of a lot, but he did it like a good horse should."
Trainer Burch added cautiously, "Both horse and rider were more fit this time. It helped." What will also help Arts and Letters in the Derby is the fact that he will have had a month's training over the Churchill Downs track—more than any other horse in the race.
Dike is the dark horse of the four chestnuts. His Wood Memorial win over Al Hattab and Reviewer was spectacular, and it could be that he is one of those colts who, following a so-so winter performance, finally come into their own in the spring. He suffered a slight cut on his left hind foot during the Wood, but it didn't prevent him from running the last furlong in 11 2/5 after having only one horse beaten at the half-mile pole. Trainer Lucien Laurin, a French-Canadian former jockey, is well aware that his rider, Jorge Velasquez, can be guilty occasionally of taking matters into his own hands in a race instead of doing what he's told.
The magic attraction of an unbeaten horse and the popularity of Longden and Hartack may easily send Majestic Prince to the post as the favorite on Saturday afternoon. California-trained horses have not done badly in Louisville in recent years. Of roughly three dozen Western raced and trained starters in the last 17 Derbies, five (Hill Gail, Determine, Swaps, Tomy Lee and Lucky Debonair) have won. Hill Rise was second and both Candy Spots and The Scoundrel were third. It is not a record to be ashamed of, even if only one of the winners, Swaps, was a California-bred. And there is no doubt about it, Majestic Prince is the glamour horse on the grounds.
If all of the chestnuts stay sound and make it to the gate this Saturday, they should stage one of the fine races in Churchill Downs history. There should be no complaints about pace this time. Four jockeys with generally superb judgment will be calling the shots for four of the most evenly matched colts ever to square off at this distance.
I am reminded of an automobile commercial that goes, "Wouldn't you really rather have a Buick?" The more I think of it the more I find myself musing, "Wouldn't you really rather have a Ribot—as the distances get longer?" What that means is that I feel Arts and Letters will win.