50 Years Ago: A Preakness to Remember
By Peter Lee
The 1969 Preakness Stakes had it all – a thrilling stretch run, a claim of interference, and 22 long minutes of waiting before fans, jockeys, trainers and owners found out who was the winner.
Fifty years ago, the Kentucky Derby had proven to be a nail-biter, with the unbeaten favorite, Majestic Prince, inching out a victory over Arts and Letters by a neck. He 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 in the 1969 Preakness, with Arts and Letters going into the #6 gate beside Majestic Prince in the #5 hole. When the gates opened, the two leaped together, Majestic Prince bumping Arts and Letters slightly, and then Majestic Prince crept ahead by a length over his rival.
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 between him and Al Hattab on the outside. Arts and Letters slowed down and dropped back to sixth place as the Derby winner 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 lodges complaint
Immediately, Arts and Letters’ jockey, Braulio 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 – just as the Derby stewards had done with Maximum Security in 2019. This time, however, stewards ruled there was no foul, and Majestic Prince remained the winner.
J. Fred Colwill, the presiding steward, didn’t agree with Baeza’s assertion that the move cost his horse five or six lengths, “but it didn’t help him.” Colwill said. While Majestic Prince drifted wide, Al Hattab moved in on Majestic Prince as well, closing the hole that Baeza may have been gunning for and forcing him to fall back. Al Hattab, the stewards claimed, was more to blame than Majestic Prince.
Baeza replied, “If I didn’t take up, somebody goes down. I was on the best horse if he didn’t get stopped the way he did.”
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. What people did not know was that the colt had inflamed ankles and would not be ready for the Belmont.
However, owner Frank McMahon overruled Longden and sent Majestic Prince to New York anyway, where the colt languished in next-to-last place for most of the race before finishing with a half-hearted drive that was too little, too late. Like Easy Goer did to Sunday Silence 20 years later, Arts and Letters got his revenge after losing two close races, winning the Belmont Stakes by an impressive 5 1/2 lengths over Majestic Prince. 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.
It 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.
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 death at 15. 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.
In one final, bizarre footnote to the Preakness saga, police charged a 60-year-old Florida woman in 2018 with stealing Majestic Prince’s Preakness trophy from a storage unit belonging to McMahon’s daughter. She had planned to sell it and other memorabilia at an auction. The trophy was recovered.
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