THE MAN TAKES CHARGE OF HIS HORSE

Who made the decision that Majestic Prince would skip the Belmont Stakes after winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness? Why was the decision changed? In a remarkably candid discussion of racing's cause cél√®bre, Owner Frank McMahon tells the full story for the first time
June 01, 1969

Francis Murray Patrick McMahon, the 66-year-old Vancouver industrialist with the rugged look of the Western outdoors spread over his broad features, did not graduate from the status of a $4-a-day oilfield drilling job to that of a millionaire builder of pipelines by letting himself be pushed around. So last week, when the notion finally occurred to him that some muscle was being put on him by two of his colleagues in the management of his undefeated colt Majestic Prince, he reacted the way he might have 45 years ago if a drilling-rig boss had shortchanged him on a Saturday-night paycheck.

What he did—a little more than 48 hours after reluctantly agreeing with his trainer, Johnny Longden, and his longtime friend and adviser, Leslie Combs, that their Derby and Preakness winner should skip the Belmont Stakes—was to make a quick decision to go to Belmont after all. This was a highly controversial issue within the triumvirate that has guided the Prince since his purchase by McMahon from Combs at the Keeneland sales on July 24, 1967. And the sudden change of course drew a wide reaction from horsemen and the press throughout the sport. For while Frank McMahon seemed to be striking a blow for racing's long-suffering, bill-paying owners, he was simultaneously veering sharply away from one of racing's unwritten laws—the one that says an owner picks the best man he can to train his horses and then allows the trainer to make all decisions as to when and where to run. If McMahon was not following the rule, he was doing something his own instincts told him was right: giving Majestic Prince the opportunity to prove he is good enough to become racing's only unbeaten Triple Crown champion.

Last week, finally escaping from the pressures that pursued them every step of the way at Churchill Downs and Pimlico, McMahon and his wife, Betty, retreated to their winter home in Palm Beach, a rambling old mansion built by Addison Mizner. McMahon looked fondly at his newly arrived Kentucky Derby gold cup. He paced the patio by the pool, stopped for a moment to inspect some pictures just in from the Preakness and then sat down with a sigh. Betty poured him a beer, and he leaned back. "I hate to see this thing built up out of proportion," he said, "especially because Johnny Longden and Leslie Combs have been very good friends of mine for a long, long time. But in order to avoid any further misunderstanding I feel I must set the record straight.

"In the first place, nobody made this decision but myself, and it was not because of newspaper criticism, most of which hadn't even appeared in print when I made up my mind. Roughly the sequence of events is this. On the Sunday after the Preakness, when Johnny told me he felt the colt needed a rest, I went along with his decision. I felt that if he was all that tired Majestic Prince should remain at Pimlico a while and then come on to Belmont anyway to see how he progressed. What disappointed me, to say the least, was that without my knowledge Longden ordered a plane for California. I came home to Palm Beach Sunday afternoon and stewed about this whole thing for two days and two nights. Why in hell am I doing this? I asked myself. Why are we ordering a plane and leaving the show? This colt should be with the others at Belmont, and if he's O.K. he'll run. If he's not, he won't. If he runs and gets beaten, at least he will have tried. Sure, he might lose; he might not want to go a mile and a half. But I'm thinking to myself, there's one chance in 50 million that I would ever get in this position again. Win or lose, if the horse is all right it's something I've got to go for. And I knew perfectly well that once Majestic Prince got to California there would be no chance of getting him back to Belmont Park for a race on June 7.

"So Tuesday evening I called Longden and said, 'I want to stop this whole thing and ship the horse to Belmont. I own this horse 100%, this is the way I want it and this is the way it's going to be.' Longden listened to me and then replied, 'If you want the press to train the horse that's O.K. with me.' I answered him quickly, 'The press is not training this horse. You are. Do you think he can win the Belmont?' 'Yes,' said Longden, 'he can win.' 'O.K., that's what I want you to do; do your best to win the Belmont.' "

When he had decided to take matters into his own hands, McMahon also took a few added precautions. For one, not being entirely aware of how much progress had been made in getting Majestic Prince to Baltimore's Friendship Airport and aboard his westbound plane, McMahon telephoned the Baltimore office of United Air Lines. "To make sure I wasn't doublecrossed, I told them that under no circumstances was the horse to get on any plane. Longden and I also called Pimlico and told them Majestic Prince was not to leave the grounds that night. And, in explaining my actions to Leslie Combs, I reminded him, as one friend to another, that even though he was the breeder, I owned the horse 100% and that he hadn't anything to say about this decision."

The question now in the minds of all horsemen is whether Majestic Prince, a son of Raise A Native, can run a winning race at a mile and a half against colts like Arts and Letters and Dike, both of whom appear to have more valid staying bloodlines.

"Whether he can or cannot," said McMahon, "won't be decided until the afternoon of June 7. But the point here is that if we're looking for motives as to why Longden and Combs would not want Majestic Prince even to try the Belmont, there are motives to be found. In Leslie's case he's a commercial breeder, which means he has to be a pretty shifty politician. I don't blame him for that because that's his business. He's got other Raise A Native offspring to sell, and eventually he'll stand Majestic Prince at his Spendthrift Farm in Lexington. Wouldn't he—or any other breeder—feel better to be standing a richer and undefeated stallion than one who had been beaten in the Belmont? As for Longden, he must have a lot of money buried away somewhere, but he knows that he could probably make more, on his percentage of purses, by skipping the Belmont, resting up and winning a lot of other races on the West Coast and in Chicago later on against inferior competition. But with the kind of money I'm already paying Longden, I think he should make it his business to want to win the kind of races I want to win, too. Before he won his last race on George Royal in the 1966 San Juan Capistrano—and a brilliant ride it was—I said to him, 'When you quit racing you'll train for me. I know you're a good horseman.' I promised him $25,000 a year and 15% of all purses across the board and told him, 'I want you to run a first-class operation. Try to save me a little money, but don't neglect the horses.' This year, in addition to the percentages coming to them, I gave both Longden and Hartack $5,000 each after the Santa Anita Derby, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness." (Longden has made $73,380 on Majestic Prince so far in six months of racing—$58,380 as his 15% commission on the colt's winnings of $389,200, plus $15,000 in bonuses.)

Leslie Combs' answer to all this is: "Somebody must be putting pressure on Frank to run in the Belmont, and I don't know who is doing it or why. It's a tough race, and if the colt isn't at his peak it would be terrible to have him beat. That's what I'm thinking of. A horse is not like a machine. You can't run 'em when you want to. You run when the horse shows you he's ready. Being a good sport is all right if the horse is O.K., but what's the point in being a good sport if you think the horse may be beat? Majestic Prince didn't look as good at Pimlico as he did at Churchill Downs. If he's lost weight, that's all right, too, because you expect a good horse to lose weight in tough races. You also expect him to gain it back before considering going a mile and a half in early June."

After first estimating that Majestic Prince had lost 100 pounds following the Preakness, Longden put him on the scales at Belmont last week and discovered the actual loss to be 45 pounds—he was down to 1,080 from the 1,125 he weighed before the March 29 Santa Anita Derby. "He gets over his races quickly," said Longden, "and he'll get around to this one just fine. Sure I was surprised to see Frank change his mind, but he's the owner, and it's his prerogative to do what he wants. I'll do my best to train the horse the right way. I think he'll run good. In fact I think he'll win. but it's what he'll be like later that bothers me."

Before going to New York, Longden claimed he was misquoted about the usefulness of most Belmont Stakes winners. It is true that Count Fleet, the colt he rode to a Triple Crown against a poor wartime field in 1943, never raced again after his 25-length Belmont victory. But if Johnny really thinks this is the general pattern after the classic known among horsemen as the breeders' race, he has failed to do his homework thoroughly. Just in recent years Nashua, Gallant Man, Sword Dancer, Jaipur, Quadrangle and Damascus lost either the Derby or Preakness or both, then won the Belmont and further fame later on. "I didn't mean it the way it came out," says Longden. "I know there are good horses who won the Belmont. What I meant is that there are some who were not as good ever again. And what I also didn't get around to saying in that one interview is that there have been a number of other horses—like Buckpasser, Swaps, Dr. Fager and Kelso—who skipped the Belmont altogether and became great horses later on despite that."

The McMahon children, Francine, 12, and Bettina, 9, came home from school for their tennis lesson with professional John Spassoff, an assistant trainer for the Baltimore Colts, whose father, Dick, also a Colt trainer, drops by every day to give Frank a message. McMahon sent them on their way with a friendly pat and got back to his favorite subject. "I may not be the most knowledgeable owner-breeder in the horse business, but I don't think I'm all that stupid, either. A lot of people who are reading about Majestic Prince figure me for a guy who just got into the game last week. I've actually been in it for 25 years and have had both fun and success."

Long before Frank was going into partnership with friends like Dana Fuller, Wilder Ripley and Max Bell he was a serious college student and an even more serious oilfield hand. At Gonzaga University in Spokane, where he was a varsity second baseman, he got to know a fellow in the class below him who "used to come to our smokers and really belt out a song." His name was Bing Crosby, and the two have been good friends ever since. Frank quit college to work in his father's mines and later went into the oil business with brothers George and John. All this eventually led to vast riches accumulated partly through a 2,200-mile trans-Canada natural-gas pipeline.

Some 20 years ago McMahon and Publisher Max Bell organized Alberta Ranches, Ltd., a 640-acre operation outside Calgary. Longden was doing a lot of riding in Canada at the time, and his eldest son, Vance, came in on the Alberta Ranches deal and soon became the stable's trainer. Getting rid of the cheap horses they had acquired along the way, Bell and McMahon sought a higher-caliber animal, and their search often took them to sales in England.

Among their early successes were Royal Serenade, bought in England for $20,000, and the English-bred Indian Hemp, who was good enough to be invited to represent Canada in the first Washington, D.C International at Laurel in 1952. But the star was Meadow Court, picked up for less than $10,000 in Ireland by Paddy Prendergast. He was second to Sea-Bird in the 1965 Epsom Derby. Then, on the eve of the Irish Derby, an incident occurred that led to an eventual curtailment of the partnership with Bell. It also gave McMahon a taste of what it is like to be relegated to the sidelines by your own friends.

"You see," McMahon says, "Meadow Court ran abroad in Max's name, and Max never bothered to declare the proper ownership. Everyone thought the horse was his. He liked that fine, but Betty and I didn't exactly go for it—even though we always got our share of the purses from Max later. A few days before the Irish Derby, Max got hold of Crosby and invited him to join us in Dublin. And to sweeten the invitation, Max told Crosby, in effect, 'If you'll come over I'll cut you in on Meadow Court.' Well, Crosby came, the horse won and we were practically trampled to death by the crowd at The Curragh trying to get a glimpse of Crosby. Bing did a hell of a job and sang When Irish Eyes Are Smiling at the presentation ceremony, but Betty was mad because we didn't get much mention at all. The point is, if Max had asked me what I felt about Crosby coming in for a third of the horse I would have probably said O.K., but he never even asked me."

With Longden's assistance as a rookie trainer in the summer of 1966, McMahon started buying horses in the sky-high, competitive U.S. commercial market. Since then, he estimates, he has spent close to $1 million at yearling sales alone, most of it in buying from Leslie Combs at the Keeneland Summer Sales. All told, McMahon has some 35 horses in training in the California and Canadian divisions of his stable, and another three in England and Ireland. In addition, he has a few weanlings and yearlings in partnership with Combs, four broodmares of his own and 10 others with Combs. "Even with the sort of stock I'm gradually getting," says McMahon, "my stable is running a $1 million deficit. So it's nice to win some purses. And the prestige is nice, too."

On the night of July 24, 1967 McMahon and Longden sensed they were about to experience a kind of prestige unknown to either of them. They had observed the wondrous progress of a sturdy chestnut colt by Raise A Native out of the unraced broodmare Gay Hostess (by Royal Charger) virtually since his foaling date on March 19, 1966. He was a beauty, this one, and both Longden and McMahon wanted him badly. But so did California owner Mrs. Bert Martin, who, only moments before the chestnut was led into the Keeneland sales ring, had paid $55,000 for a Nashua colt she eventually named Right Cross. As the bidding rose to the $200,000 mark, Mrs. Martin showed no sign of giving in. When she bid $240,000 there was a pause. "What wasn't known then by anyone but Leslie and myself," McMahon recalled last week, "was that although Leslie was listed as the breeder, I owned half of the dam, Gay Hostess. So I had a choice when Mrs. Martin went to $240,000: I could drop out and collect my $120,000 from the sale to Mrs. Martin or I could raise the bid to $250,000 and only be out $125,000. I wanted the colt so badly that's what I did."

Now, nearly two years later, Majestic Prince is at Belmont Park, exercising lightly and trying to regain some of his weight before the final works that will tell Longden whether he should or should not attempt to become the ninth Triple Crown winner and first since Citation 21 years ago. In his training along the way to New York the Prince has already broken two track records in his morning gallops. Although McMahon doesn't necessarily agree that fit horses have to be worked that fast, he gives Longden no static on that score. "After all," he said as he slowly gathered up his pictures and papers at the end of a warm Palm Beach afternoon, "Longden learned a lot by being around the late Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons years ago. With Sunny Jim it was often a survival-of-the-fittest approach, and if Johnny gets off Majestic Prince in the mornings and tells me, 'I can't hold him, he wants to go,' I've got to go along with him.

"I think that if he's lost a little weight and is a little tired, that's natural. But if he is absolutely sound—and thus far he has been—he will bounce back. After all, if he's tired he can't be any more tired than Arts and Letters, and we haven't heard his people complaining, have we? We've had some pretty easy races along the way. Arts and Letters has had a much tougher go than we have, and nobody talks about him taking a rest instead of running in the Belmont."

McMahon took one more look at his gold Derby cup and smiled. "What the hell, we could have said Majestic Prince was hurt and gone home to California and none of this business would ever have come up. But he's not hurt, and if he's still sound on June 7 he will run. And if he loses, so what?"

TWO PHOTOSJERRY COOKEMcMahon displays a look of command, and Longden, back at Belmont, shows his affection for the Prince. PHOTOJERRY COOKESharing his Preakness victory. McMahon brings Breeder Leslie Combs to winner's circle along with wife, Betty McMahon, and their daughters. PHOTOJERRY COOKEAtop his horse on Belmont's scales, Longden finds the Prince has lost less than he thought.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)