If anyone was still in doubt about the identity of 1969's Horse of the Year all he had to do was join the crowd of 42,348 at Belmont Park last Saturday or turn on his TV. In the mile-and-a-quarter Woodward Stakes, a weight-forage event that has become a genuine American fall classic, the country's best 3-year-old, Arts and Letters, trounced the country's best older horse, Nodouble, by two lengths to wrap up the title beyond all dispute. Since late May, Paul Mellon's chestnut son of Ribot has won five stakes in a row to bring his record for the year to seven wins in 13 starts, including a convincing victory over Majestic Prince in the Belmont. If the Prince's name still appears on the ballot it will be put there by those who forget that a racing animal's durability throughout the racing year should overshadow brilliance displayed through only half the long season. (Majestic Prince's 1969 career began on Jan. 7, but despite victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, it ended after his eighth race, the Belmont, on June 7.)
Arts and Letters' presence in the Woodward frightened off all but three rivals. All of them had to give him six pounds, which is a little like Joe Frazier putting one arm in a sling before tackling Muhammad Ali. Nodouble, a dependable campaigner who has now been out of the money only twice in 10 starts this year (he has finished first in four $100,000 races), had tested Arts and Letters once before. On that occasion, the Metropolitan Handicap, Nodouble carried 129 pounds and was beaten by Mellon's colt by 2½ lengths, as Arts and Letters carried 111. This time the weight spread was narrower (126 to 120), but the results were almost exactly the same. One difference was that in the Metropolitan (run on May 30) Nodouble may have been at his best while Arts and Letters was still improving.
There was no question last week that Arts was at his best; he was so good, in fact, that he must now be regarded as the equal of such former Woodward winners as Buckpasser and Damascus. "He's certainly better than Sword Dancer," said his trainer, Elliott Burch. "In fact, a really good 3-year-old—like Sword Dancer, Buckpasser or Damascus—should be able to beat a top older horse at this time of year at weight for age. That is, if the older horse's name doesn't happen to be Kelso!"
There was nothing devious about the running of this Woodward. Nodouble, a son of the highly successful Australian stallion Noholme II, went right to the lead, with Verbatim not far behind him. Arts and Letters and Chompion, whose only chance for a victory would have required switching the event to a splash-off in the infield lake, brought up the rear. Braulio Baeza made his move with Arts and Letters around the far turn and quickly mastered Verbatim. As he drew closer to Nodouble and the quarter pole at the head of the stretch, the latter's jockey, Eddie Belmonte, took his mount wide deliberately. Verbatim, if he had had anything left, could have whipped through a hole on the inside big enough to accommodate a Greyhound bus. Baeza, too, at that moment, could still have elected to change course to the inside, in which case he undoubtedly would have won by at least another length or two. But he knew he had the winning horse under him and he took Belmonte's maneuver in stride before going about his own business. Just short of the eighth pole he tapped Arts and Letters once on the shoulder and opened up a half length. This gradually was increased to two lengths through the final furlong. Nodouble had a length and a half over Verbatim at the finish, while Chompion was another eight lengths to the rear. Arts and Letters was clocked in 2:01, one second off Kelso's Woodward record, made in 1961.
Losing Owner Gene Goff had said before the race of Nodouble, "We let him get a little short on us during the last few months. We played with him too much at Saratoga." Well, on Saturday, Arts and Letters played with him, too, and so effortlessly that Elliott Burch's longtime friend and oft-time rival, Trainer Mack Miller, said, "Right now I don't think any living thing can beat him. He may be one of the best horses we've seen around here in a long, long time."
Burch will continue to put good stiff works into his 3-year-old champion before his next start—the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 25—but insists he does this only because "Arts and Letters is a born worker. If you tried to hold him back in the mornings he might hurt himself." Burch is approaching $900,000 in earnings for Mellon, apparently on the way to the first $1 million year for both of them. He sported a wide grin as he went to the winner's circle to greet the champion, who has earned $505,472. As Baeza wheeled the colt into the enclosure Burch said proudly, "Look! He came back in with his ears pricked. Isn't he just great!"
Yes, Arts and Letters may well deserve that description.