VICTORY FAIR AND SQUARE ON A BLUE-SKY DAY
It is extremely difficult to relegate Bill Hartack to obscurity. Just when you think that he has gone away somewhere, maybe to stay, he pops up in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs, smelling like a blanket of roses.
That is what happened last Saturday in Louisville, and what it meant for Hartack—in addition to a gratifying new opportunity to insult the press—was a fifth Derby victory in nine attempts. This ties him with Eddie Arcaro, who required 21 Derbies to accomplish the same feat and now shakes his head in wonderment at the meaning of it all. "Wherever you go in the world," Arcaro says, "all anybody wants to know is how many times you won the Derby. It seems nobody ever heard of any of our other races."
People will be hearing about Hartack's fifth for a long time. He and Trainer Johnny Longden brought their chestnut colt, Majestic Prince, to Louisville unbeaten after six California races, an accomplishment that inspired the normal reaction from Eastern horsemen: mocking references to California racing and the quality of the opposition that the Prince had humbled. So Hartack and his chestnut went out on a blue-sky day, right in front of the President of the United States and 100,000 others, and turned the three other top colts of the Prince's class—Arts and Letters, Top Knight and Dike—into runners-up over the classic mile and a quarter.
May 11, 1969
What made last week's Derby all the more remarkable was that for once—it does not always turn out this way at Churchill Downs—the best horse clearly won; none of the victims had any excuse in the world. In the stretch run all of his rivals took their shot at Majestic Prince and none could match him. This was not only a contest among choice Thoroughbreds, but a war of nerves and tactics among jockeys to whom a Derby victory would forever mean far more than the conventional 10% of the winning purse of $113,200, a war won by Hartack over Braulio Baeza, Jorge Velasquez and Manuel Ycaza.
Race or war, it was a joy to watch. Just as Longden had predicted, the early leader after the gate was sprung was the long shot Ocean Roar, who came to Louisville via Beulah Park near Columbus, Ohio, a locale hardly renowned for producing classic horses. Ocean Roar pumped his way into the clubhouse turn with a four-length lead and behind him was a cluster of five, with Majestic Prince on the outside. Top Knight, Arts and Letters, Rae Jet and Fleet Allied were all between the Prince and the rail. "That must have cost him two or three lengths around the turn," said Longden later. Hartack agreed but added, "I was concerned about position. My horse was running in hand and rating kindly and I got the position I wanted when we straightened out on the backstretch."
On that long run across from the rambling old stands Ocean Roar clung to his lead, but Ycaza had Top Knight just two lengths away, with Majestic Prince and Arts and Letters next, all ready to pounce. The three jockeys undoubtedly were aware that the pace-setter was not burning up the track. The first-quarter time was :23[3/5] and the half mile was run in a lethargic :48. Dike, meanwhile, had started slowly as usual, and had only one horse beat around the first turn. But now he was moving up into contention more quickly than his custom.
The refugee from Beulah Park was bound to weaken, even from his own slow pace, and when he did Top Knight immediately took over. Hartack was not going to sit still for this maneuver for long, and neither was Baeza on Arts and Letters. They went after Top Knight on the far turn after he had opened a length on Ocean Roar. As Majestic Prince came up on the outside of Top Knight, Ycaza brought his mount out slightly from the rail. That was the opening Baeza had been waiting for, and he drove Arts and Letters quickly for the hole. It may possibly have been a premature move, but in situations of this kind a rider must be quick to take advantage of every promising opportunity. Baeza had to take what was offered to him. So Arts and Letters rolled out of the turn to the head of the stretch with a half-length margin over Majestic Prince. Dike was charging up on the outside into third position, but Top Knight, to the astonishment of everyone who had appreciated his gallant efforts all winter and spring in Florida, gave up the fight entirely and dropped in a few hundred yards from first to distant fourth.
Now the tense stretch battle began, and it was one of the best in 95 runnings of the famous old race. With Top Knight out of the way, the remaining Big Three held the stage. They faced the challenge of the Derby's last quarter of a mile, on this Saturday a beguilingly sunny straightaway, but one that tests to the utmost the heart of a horse and the will of the man riding him. Arts and Letters was on the rail, half a length ahead of Majestic Prince. Dike, who may have gone unnecessarily wide turning for home, was three lengths behind but in perfect position for the kind of final burst he has shown himself capable of unleashing.
Majestic Prince had never before been attacked like this. In California, Hartack usually had his races won by midstretch and was easing his colt up as he coasted to the wire. This time he had challengers on both sides of him. Hartack laced into his colt with his whip and gradually cut the margin between the Prince and Arts and Letters. For an eighth of a mile the breathtaking duel continued, and then the Prince pushed his royal head in front.
Arts and Letters might have been excused for retiring with honor at this point, but he and Baeza fought on. Dike had cut the margin on the pair to two lengths, and to some it began to look as if he would be the eventual winner. But he hung just a little when it counted most, and for that last fateful furlong the two leaders kept at each other's throats. With 30 yards to go, Arts and Letters seemed to be coming on again, after trailing for a 16th of a mile by a full half length. Baeza strained with every muscle to urge his charge to a final desperate victorious effort, but Hartack and Majestic Prince carried the day by a neck. Arts and Letters was half a length in front of Dike, and from there it was 10 lengths back to Traffic Mark, a 45-to-1 shot who had come from dead last to beat out Top Knight by nearly two lengths. Then came Ocean Roar, Fleet Allied and the longest of long shots (71 to 1), Rae Jet.
Strategists will argue for years that the result might have been different, but none of them will be Majestic Prince fans. The latter will claim—correctly—that the Prince would have beaten this field no matter how the race was run. The pace was slow: six furlongs in 1:12[2/5] and the mile in 1:37⅗ more of a disadvantage to Dike than to any of the others. Nonetheless, Majestic Prince ran his last quarter in :24[1/5] on his way to a final time of 2:01[4/5] and quite likely would have been up to the same challenge by his pursuers no matter what early fractions had been posted. Despite the lack of early speed in the race, Longden pointed out, the Prince "had to run a lot and he must be the best because he won even after losing so much ground on the first turn."
Certainly the second and third horses to finish were far from disgraced. Arts and Letters, said his trainer, Elliott Burch, "ran a hell of a race. He couldn't have run a better race and not won. The best horse won. We have a very nice horse, too. I was proud of him. I wish we could get Majestic Prince in front of us and could move at him the next time. We will try him again in the Preakness." For Burch the loss was particularly bitter. Ten years ago his first Derby starter, Sword Dancer, lost by a nose to Tomy Lee. On that occasion Bill Shoemaker, who wanted to ride Sword Dancer, was obliged by a prior commitment to take the mount on Tomy Lee. Burch settled for Bill Boland and Boland claimed foul against Shoe after some bumping in the Derby stretch. The claim was disallowed, and for 10 years Burch has wondered what would have happened if Shoe had ridden Sword Dancer instead of Tomy Lee.
Last week he thought he had Shoe again. Bill had ridden Arts and Letters twice in Florida, finishing second both times, and then had steered him to a 15-length victory in the Blue Grass at Keene-land. Shoe and Burch agreed that the win gave horse and rider confidence, and Bill was looking forward to his 17th Derby ride. But on Wednesday afternoon of Derby Week Shoemaker, back in action only 2½ months after recovering from a broken leg, had another serious accident. A spooky filly named Poona's Day reared up in the paddock at Hollywood Park and, after pinning Shoe against a hedge, fell on him. Shoemaker suffered five pelvic fractures and internal injuries and will not be able to ride for about six months. Dr. Robert Kerlan says that, after a normal recovery, the injuries themselves shouldn't restrict Shoe's riding activities, and Bill has not even hinted that he figures it is time to hang up his tack.
It is not every Derby that a trainer can lose his rider and come up with a Baeza as a substitute. Still, there are those who point out that Baeza had never ridden the horse before and that if Shoe had been on Arts and Letters last week he would have profited from his Blue Grass experience. Once having taken the lead from Top Knight turning for home, he would have tried to open up a wider gap between himself and the oncoming Majestic Prince. Such speculation has no more chance of being validated than the question of what might have happened if Derby Trial winner Ack Ack had come back to run the first mile of the Derby, in, say 1:36. Would that have given stretch runner Dike a better shot at the winner's purse? As for Top Knight, unless he has suffered some undiscovered injury, he can be expected to run a far better race in the Preakness. His dismal showing last week could be the result of a five-week layoff after the Florida Derby.
Altogether, the 95th Derby goes into the books as a splendid success, not only because of the competition it produced, but also because of the presence of the presidential party. Racing historians tell us that Washington once served as a steward, that Jefferson owned and bred horses and that Jackson used to keep a few Thoroughbreds in the White House stables. Rutherford B. Hayes went racing at Lexington, but until last Saturday no President in office had ever attended a Kentucky Derby. Upon his arrival in Louisville at 2:30 on Derby afternoon, Mr. Nixon went right to Kentucky Governor Louie B. Nunn's third-floor clubhouse box, where he signed autographs with all the aplomb of a Derby hero like Arcaro. He noticed Frank and Betty McMahon and their two daughters, Francine, 12, and Bettina, 9, in an adjoining box and told them that he was rooting for their Majestic Prince. This makes Mr. Nixon a pretty ordinary chalk horseplayer, but it also proves he's still a politician, for only a few hours earlier he had let the racing press know that he was rooting for the only California-bred Derby starter, Fleet Allied. Ladies in the crowd may have noted, as did Mrs. Arthur Hancock of Claiborne Farm, that the First Lady was wearing Claiborne colors, which didn't really help Dike very much. What space the Secret Service and other special police did not occupy in the clubhouse, it seemed the White House press corps did. This surely was the first time that Western Union handled press files on the Vietnam situation from a Churchill Downs press box.
When the long hot day ended, honors still rested with Majestic Prince, Johnny Longden and Bill Hartack. Betty McMahon came to the press box to represent her husband, who had been ill with flu, and she gave credit to all three. Daughter Francine turned up in a yellow and white dress sporting an "I like Bill Hartack" button, and Betty said, "We believe in Hartack. Of course, we never know when he's going to speak to us or not." Who does? On television after the Derby, Hartack was explicit and direct in giving his running account of the race as it was replayed. And he got the main point across: "When Majestic Prince was hooked, he was a fighter. He is game."
But Hartack quickly reverted to his old self when surrounded by reporters a few minutes later in the jocks' room. For a while he acted as if he did not recognize their presence. After one question which he refused to answer, he turned on a reporter and said, "When you start treating jockeys like men, then you'll get treated like men." It seemed a shame he was not able to share the pleasure of his time of triumph with others.
But he was still talking to Longden, of course, and, occasionally anyway, to the McMahons. And certainly he was in touch with Majestic Prince.
THE ACCIDENT THAT KEPT SHOE OUT OF THE DERBY
On Wednesday of Derby Week, Bill Shoemaker had just gotten up on Poona's Day in the paddock at Hollywood Park when the filly reared, pinned him against a hedge and fell on him. The accident put Shoemaker in the hospital and deprived him of his mount on Arts and Letters.
Earlier on the day's card he had won the daily double and was riding well after recovering from another mischance in which he had suffered a broken leg. These exclusive photographs were made by Vietnam veteran James Deitz, with a home-movie camera he bought in the Far East.