The only possible way that the Preakness could have topped the Kentucky Derby was to have a closer finish than the ever-narrowing neck margin by which Majestic Prince defeated Arts and Letters at Churchill Downs. Well, wouldn't you know—that's exactly what happened at Pimlico last Saturday. But then Trainer Johnny Longden topped that news by announcing he was taking his horse back to California for a rest and would skip the Belmont Stakes. So Majestic Prince will not try for the Triple Crown—and that is a great pity, however the reasons may be evaluated.
Longden says the Prince has had enough racing for a while, but will be back on the track in the fall and, hopefully, next season. If his decision holds—and Owner Frank McMahon says he is mulling over the portents—Majestic Prince certainly left his audience cheering. On another of those beautiful blue-sky afternoons that had the elbow-to-elbow throng forgetting its own discomfort in the quickening anticipation of a keen horse race, only those who refused to believe that the 3-to-5 odds on Majestic Prince were realistic went home disappointed. This time the handsome chestnut Prince came home barely a head in front of Arts and Letters after a breathtaking stretch battle and one of the finest exhibitions in recent years of Thoroughbred courage and gameness.
These two sleek runners—one already a public hero, the other a battling, gutsy contender—gave the tumultuous crowd a duel that few will ever forget. And at the wire, just as in Kentucky, there was Bill Hartack on Majestic Prince bouncing along in that unorthodox, uneven riding style, outlasting the smooth, rhythmic Braulio Baeza on Arts and Letters. They had covered the last testing 3/16ths of a mile in a tick or two over 18 seconds. Although the winner's time of 1:55 3/5 was a second off Nashua's track mark, even Nashua could not shade 19 seconds in his final run home.
The victory, of course, made Majestic Prince even more of a hero—and made believers of a lot more Easterners who could not bring themselves to accept what they read of past performances on California tracks. The Prince is the only horse in history to come up to the Derby and Preakness undefeated and then win both races.
From the moment that only eight colts drew into the Preakness, it was obvious that the race would be determined by jockeys' tactics and early pace. In the Derby there was no pace to speak of. This time, most trainers agreed, there would be some, even if it had to be provided by such "house" horses as Greengrass Greene and Glad's Flame, the latter a 96-to-1 shot who arrived at Pimlico from West Virginia only seven hours before post time. The speedsters, with no chance to win, would at least run a little for the first part of it, and this would give Hartack and Baeza—not to mention Manuel Ycaza on Top Knight and Earlie Fires on Jay Ray—an opportunity to plot their moves for the last half mile of real competition.
It was a thoroughly agreeable situation for the "big" horses. Post position did not really matter for any of them. As Hartack aptly put it to his trainer, Johnny Longden, two nights before the Preakness, "If we have to start worrying about post positions now, we're really in trouble." He did not know it then, but he was soon to get into a little trouble himself—shortly after the start of the big race. Top Knight drew the inside, Majestic Prince was in the No. 5 stall, and just to his right, in the sixth and seventh gates respectively, were Arts and Letters and Al Hattab. Trouble started immediately after the gates sprung open when Majestic Prince and Arts and Letters veered into each other. It did not bother either of them noticeably, but it set the stage for what was to come a few moments later, an encounter that ultimately led to a foul claim by Baeza against Hartack.
The field of eight came by the stands the first time, headed by Greengrass Greene and Glad's Flame, and Ycaza had Top Knight on the inside in third place. Back of them were Majestic Prince and Al Hattab, with Arts and Letters behind and between them. What happened then, visible only at a difficult angle from the stands and hardly discernible at all to the millions watching on television, was what caused the contretemps between Baeza and Hartack. According to Baeza, Hartack brought Majestic Prince out slightly and "caused me to crowd the gray [Al Hattab]. I had to take my horse back and lose stride, and by the time I could get him going again I know I lost at least four or five lengths. I cannot say whether it was deliberate. But if I had not taken back I would have run up on Al Hattab's heels and we might have gone down."
Hartack's defense to the stewards was that if he did indeed come out at all, it was because he was being forced out by Ycaza on Top Knight. For once Hartack, who is the most explicit of all jockeys in a post-race analysis, was dead wrong. Top Knight was clearly in front of all of them at the time and had nothing to do with the incident. The film patrol, with its head-on footage, plainly shows, however, that the culprit was Al Hattab, who came in on Arts and Letters—rather than Majestic Prince bearing out on Arts and Letters. Maryland State Steward Fred Colwill said, "Hartack steered as straight a course as possible, and Al Hattab had far more to do with the trouble to Arts and Letters than Majestic Prince. If Baeza had tried to drive on through between them it could have developed into real trouble, I agree, but he sensed this and took back. It wasn't Hartack's fault, but it certainly didn't help Baeza much either."
Racing luck plays its part, as jockeys, owners and trainers know full well. In the Derby, Arts and Letters had the luck to slip through on the inside turning for home and still couldn't get the job done. In the Preakness he had the misfortune to lose valuable ground shortly after the start, and the story was the same. This time he had to go outside four horses on the turn for home. Considering these factors, he may—as Baeza and Trainer Elliott Burch contend—have been the best horse, but for the second time in two weeks he was not the best stretch runner.
After the difficulty in the clubhouse turn Greengrass Greene and Glad's Flame boiled along by themselves up the backstretch and were not doing too badly with pace, either. They had covered the first quarter in 23[2/5] and the half in 46⅘ and all the while Top Knight was tracking them closely, with Majestic Prince right there, too. Arts and Letters, slipping to the inside after the "incident" to save ground, was in sixth place, while just behind him was Jay Ray, Bull Hancock's substitute for his Derby third-place finisher Dike, who is being saved for the Belmont Stakes. Going into the far turn, about the point one would expect Ycaza to put the throttle to Top Knight, nothing really happened at all. Instead, it was Majestic Prince who started turning the race into his own show. As Glad's Flame flamed out and Greengrass Greene held on bravely, Hartack went for the lead and the crowd rose to cheer him on. Was it going to be this easy?
Hardly. Baeza had threaded his way skillfully around the far turn, but now Arts and Letters had to go outside to challenge Majestic Prince once more. This he did in beautiful, long strides, and when they straightened for home, here at last was the duel that the crowd had come to see: Majestic Prince on the inside, with Hartack sticking him persistently; Baeza on the outside with Arts and Letters and riding with that clean, graceful form. And suddenly, from way back, just the way Dike had come on in the Derby in the brilliant orange colors of Bull Hancock's Claiborne Farm, there was Jay Ray with his own version of the stretch run. It was the Derby all over again, the same three sets of silks on the same path to a payoff. But Jay Ray, a good and deserving third, was hardly the threat that Dike had been, and that left the field to Majestic Prince and Arts and Letters.
They gave it everything. At the eighth pole the Prince had it locked up, with a one-length lead. Arts and Letters could have quit, but he didn't. He dug in and fought, inching up all the way through the last few yards, until he missed by only a head right on the wire. One step past the wire Arts and Letters was in front, but, as Baeza later said, a half-grin creeping over his usually immobile features, "I know that—but I don't count it. Nobody does."
Arts and Letters had beaten Jay Ray for second place by four lengths, while behind the Claiborne 34-to-1 shot came Top Knight, Al Hattab, Greengrass Greene, Captain Action and Glad's Flame—just about the way some handicappers had picked it. The big disappointment was Top Knight, who had been such a star in Miami this winter. If he is not suffering from leg trouble, he is the perfect example of a colt brought to his 3-year-old peak at the end of March instead of in May or June.
Peaks are hard to maintain, which is surely one of the reasons Longden has decided to go back to California. The mile-and-a-half Belmont, which is 5/16ths longer than the Preakness and would follow nine races since last Nov. 28, apparently was too much to ask of Majestic Prince. True, he has done nothing but win. But horsemen know you cannot go on this way indefinitely without considerable risk. While Owner Frank McMahon admitted that the temptation of a Triple Crown was difficult to refuse, Breeder Leslie Combs made it an ill-kept secret that someday he wants Majestic Prince to come home and stand at stud at Spendthrift Farm as the only undefeated champion of modern times. "He's raced a lot and he's worked hard between his races," said Combs. "He won't run in the Belmont if I have anything to do with it."
Majestic Prince, at the moment, is an undefeated champion in the eyes of the American racing public. He may indeed be a great horse as well. Native Dancer, his grandsire, didn't always beat his opposition by much, but he nearly always got the job done nonetheless. Sixteen years ago this week, coming back after the only defeat in a 22-race career, the Dancer won his Preakness by a slim neck. He was on the threshold of greatness, a status he gained shortly by winning the Belmont.
Native Dancer was one of several great and near-great Thoroughbreds, who, in a sense, found themselves "belonging" to the American public. They deserved, the opportunity to face the best available opposition under the most demanding conditions, and if they still retained their winning form—in the way of a Kelso or a Dr. Fager—they secured their place in racing history. This opportunity lies before Majestic Prince. If he is kept out of the Belmont Stakes three weeks hence because, as some suspect, he has a minor physical problem, protecting him is obviously of prime importance. But if the Prince's brain trust of Combs, McMahon and Longden (and possibly even Hartack) is declining an invitation for the mile-and-a-half showdown against Arts and Letters and Dike for fear that he might be beaten, this can hardly be described as sportsmanship. Nor is it in any way fair to Majestic Prince to lose the chance to become the ninth Triple Crown winner. This week a lot of horsemen, along with racegoers and general sports fans, stand ready to agree with one trainer who said in Baltimore last Saturday night, "What kind of a champion can Majestic Prince be if he doesn't win at a mile and a half?"