LONGFORM: The Story of Majestic Prince

March 12th, 2019

a discussion concerning the greatest generation of American Thoroughbreds could be, among racing aficionados, just as thought provoking and equally unanswerable

Part I - Spring of 1966

(30 min. read) If Tom Brokaw's 1998 tome “The Greatest Generation” failed to create a popular consensus about which group of Americans history will record as being in a class of its own or, dare say, indispensable to the republic's survival, at the very least the ensuing debate was lively and passionate if not definitive. In a similar vein, though in a matter far less world-changing in scope, a discussion concerning the greatest generation of American Thoroughbreds could be, among racing aficionados, just as thought provoking and equally unanswerable. One thing that can be said with certainty is that the colts and fillies who drew their first breaths in the spring of 1966, and whose three-year-old year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this season, were a great generation.

With the Kentucky Derby and the other Triple Crown events as familiar reference points, recalling the exploits of a particular generation is not as formidable as it sounds, even decades after the fact. Like any year, 1969 saw its share of prominent defections from the Derby trail en route to Churchill Downs, and there were the usual band of unlikely longshots that bought rather than earned their way into the starting gate. But neither of these factors eventually proved to be a detriment to the race. Half of the eight starters, still the smallest Derby field since 1948, were legitimate contenders, and when the dust settled after a mile and a quarter, three of them were separated by less than a length. It was also the first leg in one of the great rivalries in Triple Crown history, an East vs. West battle the presaged a similar skirmish 20 years later between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, which also ended in rather anti-climactic fashion in the Belmont Stakes.

The leading lights of this generation of colts were also to a large extent an aristocratic one -- conceived of the best blood, bred and owned by some of the turf's most notable patrons and, in the case of several of the crop's signature faces, bestowed with names denoting their upper crust status. Moreover, in a race contested by the bluest bloods, both equine and human, it was befitting that the assemblage on hand to witness the Kentucky Derby on May 3, 1969, included the closest the United States has to royalty -- the President, First Lady, and a guest list comprised of the leading American statesmen of the era.

COURIER-JOURNAL: The Kentucky Derby in the 1960s

Part II - A 1968 Debut

The prep season in California was dominated from start to finish by Majestic Prince, a chestnut son of the brilliant but fragile Raise a Native, who would impart both traits to his son. Majestic Prince was the product of Spendthrift Farm, whose master Leslie Combs II was described by racing historian Edward L. Bowen as "a garrulous showman with a faux Southern gentleman surface charm, a foul-mouthed bully when that suited the situation better, a gambler/investor with his own money, and high roller with others."

Calling himself "just a country boy from Coaltown, Kentucky," Combs was indeed more than that. Possessing an acute eye for horseflesh, Combs, whom Charles Hatton of Daily Racing Form affectionately referred to as "Cuzin Leslie from Chitlin' Switch," transformed Spendthrift into a factory of mass production with quality to boot, flexed his financial muscle with record stallion syndications and acquisitions, and had his showmanship frequently pay off with record consignments and bids on individual yearlings.

Though he was one of the last major Derby candidates to begin his racing career, Majestic Prince had earned notoriety long before either he or any of his peers set foot on a racetrack.

Though he was one of the last major Derby candidates to begin his racing career, Majestic Prince had earned notoriety long before either he or any of his peers set foot on a racetrack. Consigned to the 1967 Keeneland July Selected Yearling Sale, 'The Prince' garnered national headlines by going for a then-world record price of $250,000. The last man standing in the bidding war was Canadian oilman Frank McMahon, a client of Combs' for many years who had recently hired the newly retired Hall of Fame jockey Johnny Longden as trainer. What was not revealed until nearly two years, and only then in an interview with Sports Illustrated, was that at the time of the sale McMahon owned half of Majestic Prince's dam Gay Hostess, thus was technically the co-breeder of the colt. When Majestic Prince toured the sales ring at Keeneland, McMahon was bidding with fifty-cent dollars and paid only $125,000 out of pocket in buying out Combs' share of the yearling.

Despite advancing age, former jockey Johnny Longden's small frame was conducive in taking an active role in Majestic Prince's development

Having ended his long career in 1966 with a then world record of 6,032 career victories, it was no surprise that Longden would take a hands-on approach to training. Despite advancing age, Longden's small frame was conducive in taking an active role in Majestic Prince's development, thus he would routinely pilot the colt in his morning works to get a better gauge on his condition. As Majestic Prince's career progressed and his reputation increased, reporters would routinely ask Longden for comparisons between his burgeoning star and Count Fleet, the colt Longden rode to an emphatic sweep of the 1943 Triple Crown. Though always exuding confidence in his charge, there was always a hint of reserve when Longden compared the two, at least until Majestic Prince's exploits began to mirror those of Count Fleet.

Debuting late in 1968, Majestic Prince made the most of his juvenile campaign. Following a 2 3/4-length score in a six-furlong Bay Meadows maiden on Thanksgiving Day, Majestic Prince next raced at Santa Anita in a six-furlong allowance on December 26. Breaking a bit flat-footed, Majestic Prince soon recovered his customary position near the front, but had to dig deep in the stretch to garner the victory by a nose under Bill Hartack, the only race-day rider he would ever know. That would prove to be Majestic Prince's toughest race until the classics. This was not only due to his natural ability, but the talent pool in Southern California was not especially deep that winter.

Majestic Prince made his stakes debut in the restricted Los Feliz Stakes on January 7 over 6 1/2 furlongs and, after breaking without mishap, strode to an effortless four-length victory in what turned out to be a typical Majestic Prince performance over Santa Anita's lightning-fast strip. Showing an ability to track rivals for the first time in the February 6 San Vicente Stakes over seven muddy furlongs, Majestic Prince rallied from third along the inside in the stretch and drew off to win by five lengths. Crossing the finish in what was described as a virtual walk, Hartack saved plenty in the tank for the colt's upcoming two-turn debut in the one-mile San Jacinto Stakes on February 27. The public's overwhelming choice at 2-5, Majestic Prince raced just as he had in the San Vicente, taking back slightly during the opening stages and then overwhelming his opponents with the slightest encouragement from Hartack. The time of 1:36 3/5 over the good ground was considered excellent under the circumstances, and in light of the fact Longden reported that the chestnut was racing with a tender mouth, making him hard for Hartack to control.

Skipping Santa Anita's next prep, the San Felipe Handicap, Majestic Prince made his final California appearance in the Santa Anita Derby, a 1 1/8-mile test on March 29. Working a mind-blowing mile in 1:34 3/5 eight days before the race, Majestic Prince was more than ready for the engagement. Again showing his new-found tractability, Majestic Prince bided his time until the far turn when he exploded to the front and left the rest of the field in his wake. Looking back at the eighth-pole to find little competition, Hartack began to ease up on the heavily-favored colt and the pair crossed the wire eight lengths to the good, a record margin at the time.

Overcome with emotion, Longden was finally able to place his charge in context with his legendary mount of 26 years earlier: "This is the greatest horse in the world -- I think. It is difficult to compare him and Count Fleet, but I'll say this -- Majestic Prince can do anything any horse can do."

Part III - Top Knight and The Arts and Letters

The talk among three-year-olds during the Florida winter season usually centered on Top Knight.

The talk among three-year-olds during the Florida winter season usually centered on Top Knight. Despite a late-season defeat in the Garden State Stakes, Top Knight had generally lived up to his moniker and was the majority choice as champion two-year-old colt of 1968. Conditioned by the well-regarded and sometimes outspoken Ray Metcalf, the chestnut had rebounded from early-season defeats in the Tremont Stakes and Sapling Stakes to take the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga by 2 1/2 lengths, the Futurity Stakes at Belmont Park by six lengths in near track-record time, and cemented his credentials with a 3 1/2-length romp in the one-mile Champagne Stakes at Belmont, missing Count Fleet's 26-year-old stakes record by two-fifths of a second.

Top Knight's dam, the minor winner Ran-Tan, was sold to industrialist Steve Wilson for $23,000 in the fall of 1965 while pregnant with Top Knight. Claiming a family less regal than those of the rivals he would ultimately meet on the Derby trail, there was still plenty to like about the colt's pedigree. Just months before Wilson purchased Ran-Tan and her unborn foal, the colt's sire, Vertex, gained notoriety when his son Lucky Debonair captured the Run for the Roses under Bill Shoemaker. Top Knight could also claim as a close relative *Gallant Man, the Hall of Famer who was an unlucky second in the 1957 Derby when Shoemaker prematurely stood up in the irons after misjudging the finish line.

Competition for Top Knight during the winter season in Florida was not lacking. One colt who would be heard a lot from before the Hialeah meet ended in early March was Arts and Letters, the smallish chestnut son of the undefeated Italian superstar *Ribot and All Beautiful, a future Broodmare of the Year. A homebred campaigned by philanthropist Paul Mellon’s Rokeby Stable, Arts and Letters was conditioned by the patrician Elliott Burch, a third-generation Hall of Fame horseman who, like Mellon, had attended Yale. Well known for letting his stock develop at their own pace and never rushing them into doing something they weren't adequately prepared for, Burch thus wasn't a routine participant at the Kentucky Derby. But when he sent one to Churchill Downs, it was a widely-held view that Burch thought he stood a good chance.

the Bahamas Stakes, a seven-furlong contest at Hialeah Park

The Florida prep season began in earnest when Top Knight made his seasonal reappearance on February 5 in the second division of the Bahamas Stakes, a seven-furlong contest at Hialeah. Saving ground rounding the far turn, jockey Manny Ycaza moved Top Knight out into the path of an oncoming rival, causing a chain reaction that eventually impeded a total of three horses. After crossing the wire a half-length in front, Top Knight was disqualified and placed third.

The nine-furlong Everglades Stakes on February 19 was the next stop and Top Knight was the 3-2 favorite to win fair and square. Tracking in fourth for the opening six furlongs, Top Knight commenced a wide bid turning for home, but looking better was Arts and Letters, who had saved ground throughout and was moving best of all at the top of the stretch. In receipt of 10 pounds from Top Knight, Arts and Letters opened up three lengths with a furlong to go and maintained that advantage to the wire with Top Knight finishing a clear second.

"I've been awfully high on Arts and Letters since last June, but don't get carried away just yet," was Burch's conservative post-Everglades reaction. Ray Metcalf's was infused with a dash of self-prophesy: "My colt got a little tired, that's all. There is no way they can beat him in the Flamingo, no way in the world," he told Daily Racing Form.

the crowd sent Top Knight away at 7-5 with Arts and Letters the 2-1 second choice

The March 4 Flamingo Stakes at nine furlongs attracted a field of 12, but the top two from the Everglades were the strongest of favorites in the wagering. Taking Metcalf's confidence to heart, the crowd sent Top Knight away at 7-5 with Arts and Letters the 2-1 second choice. Saving ground as he had in the Everglades, Arts and Letters moved up along the rail to seize control around the far turn, but was soon tackled by Top Knight, who responded enthusiastically to Ycaza's urgings to enact revenge on Arts and Letters by two lengths in a swift 1:47 4/5. Arts and Letters held on for second by a half-length.

The racing action in Miami next moved across town to Gulfstream Park. In the March 19 Fountain of Youth Stakes, a field of five, minus Top Knight, showed up with Arts and Letters the 1-2 choice. Up close to the pace in his previous start, Burch instructed Bill Shoemaker to take Arts and Letters well off the pace so that he might learn to make one big late run, a strategy he hoped would be of use in the Florida Derby. Shoemaker followed orders to a tee, but the strategy backfired in terms of success in the Fountain of Youth. Nearly five lengths behind the leaders turning for home, Arts and Letters commenced his bid too late and wound up second beaten two lengths.

The Florida Derby 10 days later proved to be both a coronation and a bittersweet moment. Steve Wilson, the owner of Top Knight, succumbed at the age of 78 following a lengthy illness five days before his champion's appearance in Gulfstream Park's signature event. It was decided months beforehand that his widow would continue to race the stable and there was no talk of selling the star.

Rumors abounded concerning Top Knight's health approaching the Florida Derby. In an era when it was unusual for horses to have long gaps between starts, Top Knight had oddly skipped the Fountain of Youth. Questions regarding Top Knight's unsoundness were not new, Charles Hatton having noted that unconfirmed reports had surfaced that the colt had a "suspicious tendon" as far back as the previous autumn. Ray Metcalf took these stories in stride, but the constant rumors swirling about became too much in the hours before the Florida Derby.

"All winter long I've been hearing my colt is broke down and now it's getting ridiculous," Metcalf vented. "Last night the TV kept saying the colt was being packed in ice all day. Why in hell doesn't somebody ask me? Top Knight's never even seen ice. I'm gonna sue that station for slander. They're making me look like a fool and they're devaluating the horse. He's perfect and he won't have any excuses. You can take it from me, he won't need any."

Metcalf was proven correct. Stalking in second behind a moderate pace, Top Knight inched to the lead after three-quarters of a mile and continued to widen his lead thereafter. Top Knight blasted the field by five lengths while completing the final furlong in a shade over 12 seconds. Arts and Letters, again taken back by Shoemaker in the early stages, easily bested the others for second.

Part IV - A Stepping Stone

The all orange colors of Claiborne

Another prominent stable with serious Derby aspirations that season was that of historic Claiborne Farm, A.B. "Bull" Hancock Jr.'s famed Paris, Kentucky, nursery. The all orange colors of Claiborne had been adorned by several champion fillies in the preceding decade and a half, but the stable had been unlucky in their pursuit of the race Hancock wanted to win above all. The colt who would eventually carry the baton for Claiborne was Dike, a son of French champion *Herbager out of Broodmare of the Year Delta. As a juvenile, Dike had won the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland and finished a close second in the Pimlico-Laurel Futurity, a race Arts in Letters finished fourth in his only stakes appearance at two.

Dike did not show his best in Florida. He was soundly beaten in a division of the Bahamas and, after finishing sixth in the Flamingo, was sent by trainer Lucien Laurin to New York for some soul searching. Laurin, who later gained eternal fame as the trainer of Triple Crown winner Secretariat and dual classic winner Riva Ridge, saddled Dike for a reaffirming allowance victory at Aqueduct then sent the chestnut postward in the one-mile Gotham Stakes on April 5. Still having to overcome the legacy of his Florida record, Dike was the third choice at 7-1. Biding his time near the back of the field under Jorge Velasquez, Dike eventually made a strong move around the far turn, pulled even with the leaders a furlong out and ultimately prevailed by a neck.

For a short time it was thought Top Knight might have his final Derby prep in the April 19 Wood Memorial Stakes over 1 1/8 miles, but his connections ultimately decided to follow the path taken in 1955 by a fellow Floridian, Needles, who overcame a five-week break from the Florida Derby to wear the Derby roses. The track was sloppy for the Wood Memorial and Dike was sent away at 5-2. Despite chasing soft splits, Dike was still able to make a solid move into contention rounding the far turn, collared the leaders with a furlong to go and finished off his strong closing kick with a nose decision.

"The difference in Dike's form has been achieved by dropping him far back off the leaders instead of attempting to keep him close to the pace," the Thoroughbred Record's Mike Casale opined regarding Dike resurgence back into the Derby picture.

With the Derby less than two weeks away all that remained in the way of preps were the Blue Grass Stakes over nine furlongs at Keeneland on April 24 and the Stepping Stone purse over seven furlongs at Churchill Downs on April 26, opening day of the spring meet. Having sent Majestic Prince to Churchill in mid-April, Longden finally decided to prep Majestic Prince over the Churchill surface in the Stepping Stone, thereby paving the way for Arts and Letters to have his final tune-up in the Blue Grass as Burch wanted to avoid a clash of the two prior to the Derby. The odds-on choice in a field of six, Arts and Letters demolished the Blue Grass field by 15 lengths in a time of 1:47 4/5. Two days later, Majestic Prince easily took the Stepping Stone by six lengths in 1:21 3/5, and galloped out 1 1/8 miles in 1:49 2/5. The Stepping Stone had attracted only two others, resulting in it being contested as a bet-less exhibition between races.

Part V - Nixon

Nixon, a well-known sports buff, was no stranger to the racetrack

The Kentucky Derby and the political world became intertwined less than two weeks before the race when presidential press secretary Ron Ziegler announced that President Richard Nixon, fulfilling a campaign promise made to Kentucky governor Louie B. Nunn during the previous year's election, would attend the Derby along with First Lady Pat Nixon. Among those in the presidential entourage of legislators and executives were Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen, the majority and minority leaders of the U.S. Senate; and Governor and Mrs. Ronald Reagan of California, themselves future occupants of the White House.

Nixon, a well-known sports buff, was no stranger to the racetrack. In 1957, while serving as vice president, he presented the winning trophy to the connections of Bold Ruler following the Preakness at Pimlico, and had also attended the 1968 Derby while a candidate for the nation's highest office. It was reported at the time that Nixon's attendance at the Kentucky Derby was the first by any sitting president at any horse racing event since Rutherford B. Hayes attended the races in Lexington in 1879. While past and future presidents have been present at affairs of the turf before and since the 1969 Kentucky Derby, including more recent editions of the Run for the Roses, Nixon remains the only presiding chief executive to attend America's most famous horse race.

The only major news in the final days leading up to the Kentucky Derby was the injury to Bill Shoemaker in a paddock mishap at Hollywood Park. Having just returned from a long spell due to injury earlier in the year, Shoemaker went to the sidelines again with a broken pelvis when fallen upon by his intended mount. For Arts and Letters, Burch quickly secured the services of Braulio Baeza,

Asked to size up the competition in the days leading up to the Derby, Longden maintained his confidence without stating any fear in anyone in particular. Burch and Metcalf were more definitive. "I fear Majestic Prince," Burch stated unequivocally. "To me he is an unknown and I fear the unknown. We know what Top Knight can do; Majestic Prince has yet to prove what he can do." Metcalf, on the other hand, was more bombastic following Top Knight's Derby week preparations. "Top Knight will run the mile and a quarter in about two minutes," he told Daily Racing Form. "Dike is the horse I fear most."

Part VI - The Kentucky Derby

When entries closed for the 95th Kentucky Derby, a field of eight, the smallest in more than 20 years, was set to travel the 1 1/4 miles. In addition to the big four of Majestic Prince, Top Knight, Arts and Letters and Dike, the field was rounded out by Traffic Mark, the Arkansas Derby winner who had struggled in Florida previously and was a distant second in the Blue Grass; Fleet Allied, a Californian who had run third in the Derby Trial; Rae Jet, the Derby Trial sixth-place finisher who had lost a $20,000 claiming race earlier that year; and Ocean Roar, the last horse ever to make his final pre-Derby start at the now-defunct Beulah Park in Ohio.

Kentucky Derby Saturday was hot and sunny, and an estimated 90,000 were on hand. Majestic Prince wound up the 7-5 favorite. Top Knight was 2-1, while Dike and Arts and Letters held steady at 4-1.

The field broke cleanly with Ocean Roar driving to an early four-length lead

The field broke cleanly with Ocean Roar driving to an early four-length lead passing the stands for the first time. Five raced side-by-side in behind that leader heading into the clubhouse turn with Top Knight along the rail, Arts and Letters in the two-path, and Majestic Prince widest of all. While Ocean Roar set a modest half-mile split of :48, his lack of class began to show as the field raced down the backside, and approaching the far turn the long-awaited duel between Top Knight and Majestic Prince began to develop. Arts and Letters, meanwhile, had taken back a bit in the run down the backstretch, but when he saw Top Knight and Majestic Prince begin to engage, Baeza shot Arts and Letters inside of Top Knight to make it a three-way tussle rounding the final turn.

The long-striding Dike, who tracked alone in fifth down the backside, was also called on for run by Velasquez around the far turn, and the big colt responded impressively to get within a couple of lengths of the leaders in a matter of seconds. The possibility of a four-horse showdown was reduced to three, however, as Top Knight began to wilt racing in between Arts and Letters and Majestic Prince, and his chances were effectively finished by the quarter-pole as Dike moved up into third.

Arts and Letters was up a half-length over ‘The Prince’ turning for home, but Hartack immediately called on his mount to respond and gained a slight advantage which he extended to a half-length with a furlong to go. Dike, still a couple lengths behind outside the top pair, was a little slow to regain his momentum, but under right-handed urging inched his way forward while Arts and Letters continued to fight on along the inside. Majestic Prince simply would not relinquish his lead and as the finish line approached, appeared as if he would maintain his narrow lead while Arts and Letters' rally stalled and Dike came too late. At the wire, Majestic Prince was up a long neck over Arts and Letters, with Dike a half-length behind in third. There was a long gap of 10 lengths back to Traffic Mark in fourth, with Top Knight another 1 3/4 lengths behind in fifth. The final time was 2:01 4/5.

"When Arts and Letters got through on Top Knight, I had my horse relaxed," Hartack told The Blood-Horse concerning the ride on his record-equaling fifth Kentucky Derby triumph. "When he ran by me, it took me a while to get my horse to run again. When he relaxes, you gotta ask him to run. He's gotta have something to run at.

"There was no way we could finish second or third," he continued. "I thought he might be a fighter, but I never knew until he tied into a good one like Arts and Letters. We ran by him, but then, like before, he wanted to relax and I had to keep into him all the way."

"He couldn't have run a better race and not won," Elliott Burch said of Arts and Letters. "The best horse won."

As for Dike, the moderate early pace might have negated some of the effectiveness of his closing kick, though it was noted soon after that the colt suffered a serious rundown injury during the race, thus denying him a chance at redemption in the Preakness two weeks later. Top Knight, attempting to win the Derby off of a five-week break, something no horse would do after Needles until Barbaro turned the trick in 2006, had little excuse and many observers suggested he would run better at Pimlico with that tightener under his belt. In hindsight, however, Top Knight's Derby performance could be safely categorized as the just the tip of a disastrous iceberg.

The thousands who had supported Majestic Prince, among them President Nixon, probably felt better than owner Frank McMahon, who was getting over a bout with the flu on Derby day. He bravely got out of bed to walk Majestic Prince into the infield winner's circle, but soon took leave due to heat exhaustion. McMahon eventually wound up in Lexington hospital that evening after returning to Spendthrift Farm to recuperate.

Part VII - The Preakness

As the scene shifted to Baltimore for the May 17 Preakness, Majestic Prince seemed to be well within himself. Having worked five furlongs in :58 3/5 two days before his Derby score, a four-furlong move in :45 two days before the Preakness did not cause Longden to turn a hair. "That time didn't mean anything to me," he said about the work he piloted. "He did it easily without hurting himself; that's what's important to me."

Top Knight also worked a swift half-mile on Preakness Thursday, though his move was only in :46 2/5. However, it concerned Ray Metcalf enough that he disclaimed an earlier quote that he would wager somebody $20,000 that nobody would beat his colt the next time.

As at Churchill, the Preakness conditions were perfect weather-wise. The crowd of more than 43,000 made Majestic Prince a strong 3-5 favorite, while Top Knight's price was just short of 3-1 and Arts and Letters an oddly overlooked 5-1.

Much of the story surrounding the Preakness involved the first three-sixteenths of a mile. Majestic Prince, breaking just inside Arts and Letters, brushed with that rival leaving the gate then, approaching the finish line for the first time, bore out slightly on his rival. Squeezed between horses, Baeza was forced to check on Arts and Letters and lost precious ground before he was able to regain his stride.

"I was not bumped, just crowded," Baeza said. "I thought if I did not pull up, I am going to hit one of their heels."

As the action heated up in the final quarter-mile, Majestic Prince opened up a length in the stretch, while Arts and Letters charged down the middle of the track under a vigorous right-handed drive from Baeza. Arts and Letters steadily closed the gap while moving in closer to Majestic Prince, but the early loss of ground and extremely wide rally proved detrimental as Majestic Prince held on by a head in a time of 1:55 3/5. Baeza lodged a claim of foul against the winner but, after a 22-minute review and long after the infield winner's circle ceremony, the result was allowed to stand.

"I definitely had the best horse today," Baeza said. Arts and Letters had moved ahead of Majestic Prince a few strides past the wire, but Baeza later said, "I know that -- but I don't count it. Nobody does."