Belmont Buddies – Part 2

The 1968 Triple Crown is history. Racing weathered the storm of the Dancer’s Image disqualification in the Kentucky Derby and the additional controversy that would have followed had Forward Pass won the Belmont Stakes and joined the ranks of the immortals. Fortunately, 4-year-old superstars Dr. Fager and Damascus stepped up in the summer to bring the sport back to a sense of normalcy. Now it is 1969 and all the major players from the previous year are gone, including our hero Stage Door Johnny. It is time for new faces to emerge on the scene and for new superstars to step forth. Enter Arts and Letters and Majestic Prince and a new unforgettable chapter in the annals of the Triple Crown, which brings us to Part 2 of our story.

Belmont Buddies and the Crowns They Denied – Part 2

By Steve Haskin

Dethroning the Prince

The new year brought a flood of events that would again dominate the headlines, including man walking on the moon, Woodstock, the Manson murders, Chappaquiddick, the continued escalation of the Vietnam war, the New York Mets winning the World Series, and Broadway Joe guaranteeing a Super Bowl victory.

Racing continued to grab its own headlines. For the first time in history the sport had an undefeated horse, the handsome golden chestnut Majestic Prince, attempting to sweep the Triple Crown, something that hadn’t been accomplished in 21 years. Here was a true glamour horse who epitomized the beauty, nobility, and courage of the Thoroughbred. The New York newspapers couldn’t get enough of The Prince. All the while, the foreboding presence of Arts and Letters, the smallish liver chestnut son of Ribot who was a close second in the Derby and Preakness, was lurking in the background.

Racing fans, like those today, wondered if any horse would ever sweep the Triple Crown following the failures of Derby and Preakness winners Carry Back (’61), Northern Dancer (’64), Kauai King (’66), and Forward Pass(’68). In 1963, Chateaugay won the Derby and Belmont, but a one-mile work gone awry likely cost him the Triple Crown. In 1967, Damascus won the Preakness and Belmont, but was uncharacteristically rank in the Derby, which caused his trainer Frank Whiteley to have his own suspicions, especially sensing the colt was not acting like his usual professional self walking to the track.

But despite their repeated disappointments optimists held on to the belief that this time it was going to be different. Majestic Prince looked to be a horse for the ages. But his trainer Johnny Longden felt the colt wasn’t 100% and was beginning to feel the effects of the rigors of the Triple Crown following two hard-fought battles with Arts and Letters. Shortly after the Preakness, Longden shocked everyone by announcing that Majestic Prince might not run in the Belmont. The news filled the entire back page of the New York tabloids. Owner Frank McMahon McMahon backed his trainer, but the pressure to run became too intense and several days before the race he announced The Prince would run, especially after a Sports Illustrated article suggested he was ducking Arts and Letters. Longden was incensed that McMahon had overruled him and the two could be heard in a shouting match at the barn. But the universal thinking was, no Derby and Preakness winner skips the Belmont unless he has a serious injury. That’s like making it to gates of the pantheon and deciding you’ve gone far enough.

When Majestic Prince had shipped to Belmont Park, photographers followed him everywhere. The media couldn’t get enough of this undefeated Hollywood star. A full page photo of the colt walking off the van appeared on the back page of the New York Daily News. Articles on him appeared every day in the New York papers.

A week before the Belmont, the mood began to change after Arts and Letters defeated older horses, including champion Nodouble, in the Metropolitan Handicap, drawing away to a 2 1/2-length victory in a blazing 1:34 for the mile over a dead track under Jean Cruguet, substituting for Braulio Baeza, who had the call on Ogden Phipps’ Vitriolic. Arts and Letters had come from 10th in an 11-horse field, closing his final quarter in a spectacular :23 1/5. You don’t see horses explode like that in the Met Mile against top older horses having just run two grueling races in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Many began to suspect that it was Arts and Letters who would be the one who relished the 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont.

Arts and Letters’ trainer, Elliott Burch, had used the Met Mile as a steppingstone to a Belmont victory twice before, with Sword Dancer and Quadrangle, both of whom also had been beaten in the Derby and Preakness.

Burch was amazed at the 15.1 hands Arts and Letters’ resiliency and his ability to bounce back off tough races, especially having run in four major stakes in 36 days. Now he was coming back in a week going a mile and a half.

Only five days after his Met Mile victory and two days before the Belmont, Arts and Letters worked a blistering half-mile in an unheard of :57 3/5, galloping out six furlongs in 1:11. I repeat, two days before the mile and a half Belmont. Burch had no misgivings about the tough schedule, insisting Arts and Letters had an uncanny ability to “train himself” and relax when his work was done. “He was a remarkable horse from day one; the best I ever trained,” Burch said.

So Arts and Letters had romped by 15 lengths in near track-record time in the Blue Grass Stakes nine days before the Kentucky Derby and crushed older horses in the Met Mile after the Preakness. No one would deny that Majestic Prince had to be a very special horse to have beaten the Rokeby Stable colt in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, even if it was only by a neck and a half-length after stretch-long battles.

But now it was the Rokeby Stable colt who began to command the headlines. Support for Arts and Letters had grown since the Met Mile, and predictions of The Prince’s downfall were rampant. With Longden still not having declared the colt a definite starter, a headline in the New York Post read: “Majestic Prince Scared Off by Arts and Letters?”

Security tightened around Majestic Prince’s barn and tension began to build. It was an odd sight seeing assistant trainer Mike Bao, wearing his customary love beads, threaten physical ejection to a Daily Racing Form columnist, to whom Longden had taken exception. Then there was Majestic Prince’s jockey Bill Hartack, who treated reporters as if they had leprosy. The night before the Belmont, Hartack appeared on the Dick Cavett Show and aired his gripes and dislike of the media, much to the delight of Cavett and his audience.

Meanwhile, Arts and Letters was his usual placid self, showing no ill effects of his grueling 3-year-old campaign, which saw him run nine times already, eight of them in major stakes. When a news wire photographer walked in the barn and sheepishly asked Burch if he could take a couple of head shots of the colt in his stall, Burch replied, “Sure, go ahead, but you may have to wake him up to do it.”

On June 7, a record Belmont Stakes crowd of 66,115 turned out to see if this time history would be made. But the Belmont turned out to be an oddly run race. The early pace was so slow the late-running Dike, winner of the Gotham and Wood Memorial and a fast-closing third in the Derby, went for the lead going into the clubhouse turn, much to the shock of the crowd. Baeza and Arts and Letters were right on his heels, but Hartack elected to keep Majestic Prince three to four lengths back through an agonizingly slow three-quarters in 1:16 1/5. When Baeza gunned Arts and Letters to the front nearing the half-mile pole, the race was all but over. The colt drew off to win by 5 1/2 lengths, closing his final quarter in :24 2/5, with Majestic Prince finishing second, never to race again.

“He had a check ligament going into the Belmont that was just not right,” Longden said years later. “It wasn’t real bad, but the horse wasn’t 100%. I was looking forward to racing him as a 4-year-old and I thought it was tough asking him to go a mile and a half when he was not 100%.”

Arts and Letters went on to become America’s newest equine hero, romping in the Jim Dandy by 10 lengths and the Travers Stakes by 6 ½ lengths in a track record-equaling 2:01 3/5, then defeating Nodouble in the Woodward Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup, the latter by 14 lengths, to nail down Horse of the Year honors. The following year he was rounding back in form coming off a victory in the Grey Lag Handicap under 128 pounds when he, like Stage Door Johnny, suffered a bowed tendon during the running of the Californian Stakes at Hollywood Park and also was retired to Greentree Stud, where the two Belmont winners became instant buddies.

Bonding in the Bluegrass

The two stallions would remain close friends for the next 26 years until Stage Door Johnny’s death in 1996 at age 31. In their younger days, they would race each other along the fence every day, putting on the brakes just before reaching the gate, kicking up a cloud of dirt. They would quickly look over at each other as if to see who won, then walk back up the hill and come charging back down. They were so close, one would become visibly upset when the other was led to the breeding shed.

When they became too old to race each other they would stand under the same shade tree that separated their paddocks and just keep each other company.

When Gainesway Farm took over the Greentree property in 1989, part of the agreement was that both stallions remain together in adjoining paddocks. When Stage Door Johnny died, he turned over his title as the oldest living Belmont winner to Arts and Letters, who held it until his death two years later at age 32.

Arts and Letters’ two top offspring were Codex, winner of the Preakness, Santa Anita Derby, and Hollywood Derby, and Winter’s Tale, winner of the Marlboro Cup, Brooklyn Handicap, and Suburban Handicap twice.

Stage Door Johnny would go on to become one of the top stamina influences in the United States, his name appearing in the pedigrees of a number of top-class horses. His daughter Never Knock produced Kentucky Derby winner Go For Gin.

John Hay Whitney’s famed Greentree Stud is long gone, as is the memory of Stage Door Johnny and Arts and Letters and their historic victories in the Belmont Stakes. By depriving Forward Pass of the Triple Crown and preventing an eyesore asterisk next to his name, Stage Door Johnny prolonged the drought that was appropriately ended by the legendary Secretariat five years later. By defeating Majestic Prince in the Belmont, Arts and Letters denied the colt the distinction of becoming the first undefeated Triple Crown winner, a feat that would be accomplished eight years later by Seattle Slew.

Many racing fans today might not be familiar with Stage Door Johnny and Arts and Letters and the volatile times in which they raced. But back then, they, along with the other great horses of the late ‘60s, brought fans much-needed moments of comfort and elation and a sense of optimism as we headed into the ‘70s and Thoroughbred racing’s Golden Age.

This year’s Belmont Stakes looks to be an excellent betting race with most of the horses having a legitimate chance to win. Be sure to watch for our upcoming handicapping/analysis column on Thursday morning. ~ SH


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