Even for the sophisticated New York racing audience, the week before the 101st Belmont Stakes was so special that often it appeared the clock had been turned back a month to Derby Week in Louisville. Along Belmont's quietly efficient backstretch, where the daily happenings of name horses have never upset any local seismograph machines, the atmosphere was extraordinary. Raquel Welch tripping lightly down the geranium-lined Victory Lane on her way to a skinny-dipping exercise in one of the infield lakes would not have raised more eyebrows or brought on more work stoppage than did the presence of Frank McMahon's undefeated two-third Triple Crown winner, Majestic Prince. The moment he arrived from Pimlico he became the most famous and admired transient ever to park his feed tub at America's finest horse park. Other trainers gaped in awe when the Prince, usually with Johnny Longden aboard, left Barn 9 for the daily slow walk to the track. One lady fan arose at 3:30 and stood by the barn from 5 until 9 awaiting one fleeting glimpse of the Derby and Preakness winner. More than 200 out-of-town reporters came to New York to cover the race, and last Saturday, as a record Belmont Park crowd of 66,115 squeezed into the stands, sentiment for the Prince was a heavy presence in the air. Everyone had come to Belmont to see for himself if the heralded colt could become the ninth in history and the first since Citation in 1948 to win the Triple Crown.
He didn't, of course. Majestic Prince failed his final exam, the mile-and-a-half test that so often marks a classic champion and sets him apart from the sprinters and middle-distance specialists. Arts and Letters, Paul Mellon's lean and trim son of Ribot, who possesses his sire's graceful look of a true English stayer, trounced the Prince by a widening 5½ lengths in a bizarre and weirdly run race. Many in the audience were left wondering if the Prince's rider was some new boy in town trying out for an apprentice license or an impostor made up to look like the Bill Hartack who had ridden Majestic Prince throughout his nine-race winning streak.
It was obvious to those associated with all six starters that pace—or lack of it—would be the key to the running of this 101-year-old classic. The riders themselves, including Hartack, are surely familiar with the tactics of pace, but Hartack, who is not a New York regular like Braulio Baeza, Eddie Belmonte, John Rotz, Larry Adams and Jorge Velasquez—the others in the race—also is not a regular mile-and-a-half rider. That certainly became obvious very quickly.
Hartack simply gave his horse an astonishingly bad ride. Which is not to deny that Arts and Letters would have won no matter what Hartack did. The son of Ribot looked virtually unbeatable on breeding and timing. The timing became a factor when Arts and Letters was given the chance to sharpen his speed by Trainer Elliott Burch, who decided to put him in the one-mile Metropolitan Handicap only eight days before the Belmont. Burch signaled what was to come a week later when he said, "He came out of the Metropolitan better than when he went into it. Furthermore, he's better than either Sword Dancer or Quadrangle [the other two Belmont winners Burch trained]. He can do amazing things. At least, he could before we ran into Majestic Prince in the Derby and the Preakness."
June 15, 1969
On Belmont morning there were no excuses being heard from other barns, either. Bull Hancock's Dike, third in the Derby, was well over a minor injury, and rested besides. Said Trainer Lucien Laurin, "If Arts and Letters goes to the front early—or if Dike does because of lack of early pace—neither will give up easily. That'll make Majestic Prince do some running earlier than he's been used to." That was the crux of the matter, and if Hartack had been as pace-conscious as he should have been Majestic Prince would indeed have done some running early instead of when it was too late.
There was almost as much excitement before the race as during its running. No paddock anywhere has seen as many people, ranging from small fry like the McMahon daughters, Francine and Bettina, to Jockey Club regulars and former movie stars Jane Russell and Joan Fontaine. Hundreds of fans elbowed their way into the amphitheater paddock stands and burst into spontaneous applause when Majestic Prince appeared. When the small field paraded under the stands on its way to the track hundreds more whooped and hollered and beat their fists on the windows. The Prince was visibly nervous. So was Frank McMahon, who nonetheless said, "If he can't win it now, he could never win it. He's never been better. There will be no alibis."
When the field was sent on its way directly in front of the stands all six jocks made overpowering moves to restrain their colts. Clearly, this was going to be one of those "after you, Alphonse" affairs. Arts and Letters was on the inside, Majestic Prince in the third stall and Dike in No. 5. The 38-to-1 shot Prime Fool, in between Arts and Letters and Majestic Prince, jumped a shadow after a sixteenth of a mile, but luckily this did not disturb anyone. As the closely bunched field came out of the clubhouse turn—the first quarter was run in a lazy 25[2/5] seconds—surprise, surprise, on the lead were the bright orange silks of Dike, a come-from-behinder who never seems to get in the hunt until the turn for home. "I didn't want to go to the front," said Rider Eddie Belmonte later, "but when Hartack didn't go for it I suddenly found myself there. And I thought I might as well stay there if I could keep setting a slow pace." Although he, too, didn't want to see his horse in front at that point, Laurin looked at it realistically: "Dike wasn't really doing anything unusual. He was running at his regular pace, only the others were taking back so much that he was in front. It may have looked like a change of tactics on our part, but it was actually just Dike running at his own pace."
Going up the backstretch Dike maintained his lead. Prime Fool, who had helped make a little of the early running, dropped back, and Arts and Letters, who had never been worse than second, closed to within three lengths of the leader. But the pace was miserable—51 seconds for the half mile and 1:16 1/5 for six furlongs. Belmonte knew this and so did Baeza, who was tickled to death that he was getting such a comfortable, easy ride so far with no threat whatsoever from Hartack and Majestic Prince. They were back in fifth place, six to eight lengths off the pace, and nobody could understand why. Sitting in a clubhouse box, Longden turned to McMahon and said, "Frank, he's too far back. You can't let Arts and Letters open up that way on you and hope to catch him." McMahon groaned and said, "I don't think we could win now with an express train."
Arts and Letters took over from Dike after a mile (the time: 1:40 1/5), and the race was pretty much over. Turning into the stretch Dike was still second by a length and a half and two lengths ahead of the Prince. The enormous crowd, expecting more than it was about to receive in the way of a stretch duel, rose and yelled and kept yelling. Finally, rolling on the outside, Majestic Prince passed Dike, but there was no possibility that he ever would catch the leader. (Some horsemen thought the Prince was running choppy as he tried to bear out in the stretch; if so, it is an indication that something might have been bothering him.) Arts and Letters had covered the Derby's mile-and-a-quarter distance in 2:04 2/5, and now he was in exactly the position that Burch and Baeza wanted—a quarter of a mile to go, plenty of run still left in him and the opposition struggling to catch up but nearly four lengths behind. Baeza wasn't going to blow this—and he didn't. He waited until the eighth pole, icy cool and confident, as Hartack and the Prince drew to within three lengths. Then Baeza really dropped his mount down for one final effort. Arts and Letters reacted the way a classic racer should. He drew off to win easily in 2:28 4/5, more than two seconds slower than Gallant Man's track record set in the 1957 Belmont. The Prince was two lengths in front of Dike, while behind them came Distray, Rooney's Shield and Prime Fool.
And so, once more, there is no Triple Crown winner, which, depending on how one looks at such matters, may or may not be good for racing. Winning it is not going to be any easier in the future. When Sir Barton became the first of eight to accomplish the feat in 1919, he was one of but 2,128 foals of 1916. Citation was one of 5,819 foals of 1945. Majestic Prince, Arts and Letters and Dike were just three of 20,131 foals of 1966, and the number is increasing by approximately 1,000 every year.
After the race, at Barn 9, Longden sat on a folding chair and Hartack was a couple of feet away on a black-and-yellow equipment box. There were no tears, but neither was there anything to say. In victory they would have known exactly how to act, but now they were a little bewildered, unsure of their attitudes, so they passed the time with meaningless little comments.
Longden: "I'm going fishing, Bill. I don't know what you're going to do."
Hartack: "I'm going to work. I've been on vacation, now I'm going back to work."
Someone brought out a stack of letters and telegrams, a gratuitous gesture at best, but it was something to talk about. Hartack looked at one letter, shook his head, smiled and said, "This girl will find me anywhere."
Longden's son Eric said, "That's nothing. Dad got two letters and the Prince got 30 today."
Eric asked his father if he was going to attend the McMahons' win-or-lose party that night in New York. "Sure, just act normal, act like you don't care," Longden replied. "Don't get mad and say something nasty. Just say, "I have my opinion and they have theirs,' and let it go at that."
Getting out of his chair, Longden walked through Barn 9 and around to the other end where Majestic Prince was being tested. Mike Bao, his assistant, was there. Someone asked Bao how he felt. "Beautiful—I always feel good as long as he runs his race," Bao said. "He got outrun, that's all there was to it. He just got beat. If you get beat, it might as well be in the Belmont. That's better than losing in one of those cheap ones. Now I can finally relax. It's recuperatin' time."
In his barn just across the road Elliott Burch was raising a glass of champagne. "It's always a shame to see a good horse miss winning the Triple Crown," he said. "But if someone had to stop Majestic Prince I'm sure glad we were the ones to do it."