By Nick Costa
The year 1969 closed out a volatile decade full of upheaval and hostility, but the year was also a high-water mark for cultural change here in the U.S. that appeared to get underway five years earlier when four lads arrived from Liverpool, England.
The final 365 days of the 1960’s witnessed a myriad of important events. The occurrences, both joyous and tragic, received bold type and made front-page news.
A few that stand out to me as an 11-year old boy in 1969 are:
Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, the mighty Niagara Falls on the American side was dried up, a farm in upstate New York drew a half-million people to a music festival called ‘Woodstock’, out west in California, the horrific ‘Manson Murders’ had taken place, in the east there was the Chappaquiddick incident and those ‘Amazin Mets’ captured the World Series.
Reflecting on 50 years, another event clearly etched in my memory bank also received bold type headlines, and it was one that transpired before any of the aforementioned occurred: The 95th Kentucky Derby.
He was the most dynamic horse of his time. From the beginning, Majestic Prince had been something special. Bred in Kentucky, he achieved fame as a record-priced yearling when he was sold for $250,000 to Canadian oilman Frank McMahon at the 1967 Keeneland summer yearling sale.
The following year, the regally named colt was sent to California to begin his training and came under the tutelage of Johnny Longden, the legendary Hall of Fame rider, now turned trainer.
Longden’s illustrious riding career spanned 40 years and he accumulated numerous honors, awards and won a myriad of major races, including the 1943 Triple Crown aboard Count Fleet.
Following his retirement in 1966, Longden signed a contract with McMahon and began conditioning thoroughbreds for the major racehorse owner. When Majestic Prince, a handsome chestnut colt by Raise a Native landed in his barn, the ex-rider cast his eyes upon the celebrated horse and knew he had an exceptional one.
Longden took his time conditioning Majestic Prince, often getting aboard the horse for mornings workouts and legging him up gradually, developing enough stamina to finally test his speed.
In November of 1968, when Majestic Prince was ready to race, Longden called on four-time Kentucky Derby winner and fellow Hall of Fame rider, Bill Hartack, to guide the striking colt. The Pennsylvania-born Hartack was immensely talented and charming when he so desired, but frequently coarse as well. He was a complex figure and got along with horses better than he did with people.
Longden didn’t care that Hartack wasn’t Mr. Personality. He only cared about Hartack’s mastery to move his horse along smoothly from one point to another in the shortest amount of time.
Under Hartack’s expert guidance, Majestic Prince showed that he had both class and courage.
Majestic Prince triumphed in his career debut at Bay Meadows on Thanksgiving Day, winning easily by 2 ¾ lengths, then one month later in his second start, he flashed a tremendous late surge of power over a sloppy surface at Santa Anita to prevail by a nose.
Those were the only races Majestic Prince experienced in his juvenile season where fans were able to catch a glimpse of his brilliance.
At the start of the 1969 season, Majestic Prince turned three-years old and became fully dominant on the racetrack, displaying total panache while extending his winning streak under Hartack.
From early January through late March, Majestic Prince thundered down the Santa Anita stretch like a red fire truck, overpowering his rivals each time. He won the Los Feliz, San Vicente and San Jacinto stakes by four, five and four lengths respectively. The last two were contested over tracks labeled muddy and good.
Then came the Santa Anita Derby, the top California prep that traditionally decides which horse would challenge the East in Kentucky. Seven opponents showed up against Majestic Prince hoping to earn that right, but the copper-colored colt turned the race into a cakewalk, annihilating his foes with an eight-length romp, putting an exclamation point next to his moniker as best horse in the West.
Majestic Prince had made it six wins in a row, handling track conditions of mud, slop, drying-out surfaces, as well as fast ones.
McMahon’s expensive purchase proved to be worth every penny of his price tag – and much more.
Five weeks remained until the first Saturday in May, and in a generation where short rest between races was the standard, it was unprecedented for a horse to ‘train up’ to the Kentucky Derby, something which is commonplace in today’s world.
Majestic Prince was shipped to Louisville off his big win at Santa Anita and on opening day of the Churchill Downs meet, exactly one week before the ‘Run for the Roses’, he tuned up with a six-length romp against two outclassed opponents in the Stepping Stone Purse, just missing the track record for seven furlongs.
Longden’s win machine from the West was certainly the marquee name on Derby Day and was poised to become the first undefeated horse to take the classic in 47 years, however, the East had three top serious contenders, all with merits of accomplishment that necessitated the highest respect.
Top Knight, the previous year’s champion two-year old, was the leading horse in Florida over the winter months, winning the Flamingo Stakes and Florida Derby. The runner-up in both of those races, Arts and Letters, headed to Churchill Downs off his 15-length romp in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Dike was the winner of both the Gotham and Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.
The 1969 Kentucky Derby had everything – a field rich in quality, beautiful weather, President Nixon, the first chief executive to witness America’s most famous race while in office…and an unbeaten colt in Majestic Prince, the main attraction. With so much going for it, the ‘69 Derby drew the first 100,000 crowd in the race’s history.
Under an azure sky, the field of eight broke from the stalls, and 28-1 outsider Ocean Roar pumped his way into the clubhouse turn with a four-length lead. Behind him was a cluster of five, with 7-5 favorite Majestic Prince, who swerved to the right when his gate opened, but regained his stride, on the outside and wide into the first turn.
The pace setter was not burning up the track as the quarter was timed in :23 3/5, with a half-mile time run in a lethargic :48 seconds. Despite the slow pace, Ocean Roar began to tire and when he did, Top Knight took temporary control and led to the six-furlong marker with Majestic Prince moving into third and Arts and Letters saving ground in fourth. Dike, known for his late run, was far back in early going, but was now beginning to get untracked.
With three furlongs left to run, Hartack communicated to Majestic Prince it was time to get serious, and so too did Braulio Baeza on Arts and Letters. Both horses did just that. They went after Top Knight on the far turn. Majestic Prince swooped up on the outside, while Arts and Letters found a seam to get through along the rail and gained a narrow half-length advantage. Dike was continuing to charge very quickly and had moved into third, while Top Knight had given up the fight entirely and had retreated to fourth place
A thrilling and tense stretch battle began, and it was one of the best in the history of the famous race. It was a race, yet at the same time it was also a war.
Through the long, daunting final quarter-mile of the Churchill straightaway which tests the heart and will of both horse and rider, the Big Three held the spotlight.
Majestic Prince moved to the front for the first time about an eighth of a mile from the finish and now held a half-length lead over Arts and Letters with Dike two-lengths back in perfect position to unleash his late burst of speed.
The mighty Majestic Prince found himself in an unfamiliar situation. He usually had his races won by mid-stretch while coasting to the finish, but on this occasion, he had challengers on both sides of him. Hartack implored his colt for everything he had for the imminent confrontation and Majestic Prince eagerly responded to the command.
In the decisive final furlong, amid the rising roar of the crowd, Baeza urged his mount for more along the inside, while Dike was getting closer with every stride on the outside. Arts and Letters continued to apply relentless pressure on Majestic Prince and kept fighting until the finish as the trio crossed under the wire almost as one.
In a final time of 2:01 4/5, Majestic Prince was victorious by a neck and had given Hartack his record-tying fifth Derby win, and Johnny Longden had become the only person to both ride and train a Derby winner.
Arts and Letters was second, a half-length in front of Dike. Top Knight ended up fifth.
In one of the most dramatic Derbies in history, Majestic Prince, the red horse with the name that exuded class and whose high expectations preceded him long before he ever ran his first race, had fully capped off those early presumptions.
“In the special horse-shoe shaped enclosure on the infield, reserved strictly for Kentucky Derby winners, the jubilant connections who gathered around their ‘Prince’, standing quietly and calmly with a blanket of roses draped across his withers, proclaiming him the best three-year old in the nation, knew the celebration was befitting for a King.”