Triple Crown Near-Misses: Majestic Prince Fails to Get Crowned


Majestic Prince winning the Kentucky Derby

Majestic Prince narrowly defeats Arts and Letters in the 1969 Kentucky Derby. (Keeneland Library)

By 1969, the clamor for a Triple Crown had grown to almost a panic; 21 years had passed since Citation had pulled off the trifecta, and since 1966, there were three near-misses in a row: Kauai King, Damascus and Forward Pass.

Would there be a savior in the distance to bring horse racing fans out of the wilderness in 1969?

It certainly seemed so. The field seemed as ripe as it had two years earlier, when Damascus and Dr. Fager headed the field. (Dr. Fager did not run in the Triple Crown races, however.)

Leading the charge this time was Majestic Prince, the lightly-raced grandson of Native Dancer. The unbeaten colt had won two races at age 2 and dominated the West Coast racing scene with five wins in a row, including an eight-length romp in the Santa Anita Derby.

He would be facing only seven other horses in the Kentucky Derby, including Champion 2-Year-Old Colt Top Knight and Florida Derby winner Arts and Letters.

Majestic Prince squeaks by

It was 28-1 longshot Ocean Roar who dominated the first part of the race, taking a rare four-length lead over Arts and Letters, Top Knight, Majestic Prince and Rae Jet. But Ocean Roar quietly succumbed to Top Knight at the beginning of the far turn, with Majestic Prince and Arts and Letters a length behind.

Arts and Letters then went for the lead, followed by Majestic Prince, and the undefeated son of Raise a Native took a one-half length lead heading into the stretch. Dike was another two lengths back. Those three fought for the win, with Majestic Prince hanging on to win by a close neck over Arts and Letters. Dike was another half length behind.

Majestic Prince became the first undefeated winner of the Derby in 47 years. But Arts and Letters sought vengeance in the Preakness Stakes two weeks later.

As with the Derby, only eight horses started, with Arts and Letters going into the gate beside Majestic Prince. When the gates opened, the two shot out together, and Majestic Prince bumped Arts and Letters slightly.

Foul?

As the field rounded the first turn, Majestic Prince went wide, moving in front of Arts and Letters, who looked as if he was going to go between the Derby winner and Al Hattab on the outside. Jockey Braulio Baeza checked Arts and Letters and dropped back to sixth place as Majestic Prince settled into fourth.

After a half-mile, Majestic Prince had moved up to third along the rail, stalking the leader, Greengrass Greene. Arts and Letters still lay back in sixth place, biding his time. Majestic Prince made his move on the far turn and by the head of the stretch had overtaken Greengrass Greene.

But Arts and Letters had also begun driving and was only two lengths back on the far outside. He made a furious run at Majestic Prince in the homestretch, and the length shortened to 1 1/2, then 1 length. Arts and Letters was running out of room as the finish line loomed ahead. He found a higher gear, and the margin shrank to 1/2 a length, then a neck, and then a head.

It was too late. Majestic Prince had held off Arts and Letters again.

Baeza lodged a complaint with the Pimlico stewards, alleging that Majestic Prince had interfered with Arts and Letters on the first turn, costing him five or six lengths. Stewards watched replays, taking 22 minutes to make their decision.

In the end, the stewards ruled there was no foul, and Majestic Prince remained the winner.

No Belmont?

At first, trainer Johnny Longden refused to take Majestic Prince to the Belmont Stakes and a possible run at a Triple Crown, asserting that he needed to rest. It would have been the first time in history that a horse with a chance to win a Triple Crown was voluntarily withheld from the Belmont Stakes. Longden noted that many Triple Crown winners and contenders never came back from the race; the Belmont was the last race for such champions as Count Fleet and Tim Tam.

What people did not know was that the colt had inflamed ankles, had lost a great deal of weight during the first two races and would not be ready for the Belmont.

At first, owner Frank McMahon reluctantly agreed with Longden, but, perhaps pressured by the horse racing world and the media, overruled his trainer two days later and announced that Majestic Prince would be going to New York. The horse gained some of his weight back, and his pre-Belmont workouts seemed good.

However, when the bell rang and the gates opened on the 1969 Belmont, all was not right.

The colt languished in next-to-last place for most of the race while Dike set agonizingly slow fractions. Perhaps jockey Braulio Baeza recognized the slow pace; he sent Arts and Letters to the lead while still keeping the snail-like pace. It would be to Arts and Letters’ advantage; he had enough stamina in the stretch to lengthen his lead over Dike to 1 1/2 lengths.

Jockey Bill Hartack tried vainly to get Majestic Prince moving, and he rallied for a second-place finish as Arts and Letters ran away with the Belmont in front of thousands of disappointed fans; his length of victory was 5 1/2 lengths.

Like Easy Goer did to Sunday Silence 20 years later, Arts and Letters got his revenge after losing two close races.
For the 21st year in a row, there would be no Triple Crown.

Bill Hartack, Majestic Prince’s jockey, was criticized for not realizing the slow pace and not taking his horse to the lead. Hartack replied stoically, “I did the best I could. The horse did the best he could. So why worry about it?” There was no mention of an injury.

Longden’s words were prophetic; the Belmont would be the colt’s last race. Longden tried to rehabilitate Majestic Prince, but after a series of injuries and setbacks, Longden announced in February 1970 that the horse would be retired to stud. He finished with nine wins in 10 races and was the first undefeated horse to win both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes.

Legacies

For Arts and Letters, the Belmont was the beginning of a six-race winning streak that would earn him 3-Year-Old Male Horse of the Year as well as Horse of the Year honors. He raced only three times as a 4-year-old, finishing his career with 11 wins in 23 starts.

At stud, Majestic Prince sired 33 stakes winners before his premature death at 15 of a heart attack. Those winners included Coastal, who exacted revenge for his father’s failure to win the Triple Crown 10 years later by defeating an also-injured Spectacular Bid in the 1979 Belmont Stakes, denying Bid his own Triple Crown.

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