Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Time travel

My first trip to the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico was hardly as amusing as my first trip to the Kentucky Derby.

In the fall of 1968 I moved to Baltimore to attend graduate school at Johns Hopkins University. I made my first trip to Pimlico that November to witness the Pimlico Futurity. In that era, the Pimlico Futurity ranked behind only the Champagne and perhaps the Belmont Futurity in prestige among juvenile races, and the 1968 edition attracted a field for the ages. With the exception of eventual champion two-year-old Top Knight and the then unraced Majestic Prince, it included what turned out to be the best members of the 1966 generation, but I was primarily interested in one horse: Paul Mellon's Arts and Letters. A beautiful, perfectly conformed liver chestnut, he was from the fifth American crop of my all-time hero *Ribot and had shown enormous promise in his first five races. Arts and Letters was a bit unlucky in the Futurity, getting caught inside in the stretch with no room, but finished a close fourth to King Emperor, by Bold Ruler (2nd only to Top Knight that year and winner of 6 of 8 2yo starts), the leggy, lightly made Dike, by *Herbager, and the dour Mr. Leader, by Hail to Reason.

By the time the Preakness rolled around the next spring, Top Knight had disappointed in the Kentucky Derby, King Emperor was running in shorter races, Mr. Leader was getting ready to run on grass, and Arts and Letters and Dike had just run a close second and third to Majestic Prince in a thrilling Kentucky Derby. Naturally, the unbeaten Majestic Prince was favored to win the Preakness, but, needless to say, my $2 was squarely on the nose of Arts and Letters.

I should have collected too. Arts and Letters' jockey Braulio Baeza had let Bill Hartack on Majestic Prince get the jump on him at Churchill Downs, and he was determined to take position to the Prince's outside and at his saddle girth at Pimlico. That plan went awry at the break, when Al Hattab, drawn to his outside, bumped Arts and Letters solidly. Al Hattab was a good horse, but something must have been bothering him that day, because he laid on Arts and Letters all the way down the stretch the first time by the stands, making it impossible for Baeza to place his *Ribot colt where he wanted to be. That allowed Majestic Prince to take perfect position once again, just off the pacesetter's flanks with no pressure on him from the outside.

Arts and Letters finally shook free coming off the final bend, but by that time, Majestic Prince had accelerated to a comfortable lead. Arts and Letters closed steadily all the way to the wire. One jump past the finish he was in front and going away, but at the wire, Hartack, riding at his powerful best, still had Majestic Prince's head in front.

That was the end of Majestic Prince. He had given everything he had to give and trainer Johnny Longden knew it. He announced that Majestic Prince would return to California and not run in the Belmont, but, with a Triple Crown on the line, owner Frank McMahon overruled him, as indeed he had to do. Arts and Letters ran right past Majestic Prince at the top of the stretch in the Belmont, and never lost again until his final start, when he pulled a suspensory ligament. Majestic Prince never ran again.

Pimlico, regrettably, hasn't changed much since 1969. It's still the same old ugly, ramshackle building, and still the same working-class neighborhood, the same shabby backstretch. That's why attending the Preakness is a little like time travel.

Look closely this Saturday.....Perhaps you'll see the shades of Majestic Prince and Arts and Letters illustrating for their literal and metaphorical descendants what it means to be a Thoroughbred.


  1. Thanks for sharing. My road to the racetrack began in the spring of 1969, cheering for Majestic Prince on the black and white TV. I clearing remember Arts and Letters, of course.

  2. I love going back in time with you. You make it all real again.

  3. Sorry to bust your balloon, but if you witnessed in person Arts and Letters finishing fourth in the Pimlico-Laurel Futurity, you were at Laurel on November 2, 1968. Pimlico ceased running fall meets after 1965 and the race was transferred in 1966.

    Also want to make note that the Garden State Stakes was one of the premier juvenile events of that era too, perhaps the biggest given it was often the richest race in the world.

  4. You're absolutely right of course....Memory plays tricks on you after 40 years....My first trip to Laurel had been the previous fall for Sir Ivor's International....but that's another story!

  5. Majestic Prince was a splendid beast, but his opponents really gave luster to his brief career. Arts and Letters was such a distinct individual and such a talented classic colt that he really deserved to test the fields abroad. Any idea why Mellon didn't take him overseas?

    I once amazed one of our common acquaintances by picking up a dead-file photo and saying, "Oh, that's Arts and Letters." The horse was that distinctive, at least to you and me.


  6. Frank, from conversations with George Comer, Rokeby's manager at the time, I think it was partly a matter of timing. Peter Hastings-Bass, Mellon's trainer in England at the time, was dying, and the situation there was uncertain. Plus, Elliot Burch, no fool, wanted the horse badly, so Arts and Letters stayed on this side of the pond. By the time Mill Reef came along a couple of years later, Hastings-Bass's son-in-law Ian Balding had taken over Kingsclere and so Balding got the "too small" Mill Reef and Burch chose the bigger, more physically impressive Farewell Party as his first choice from that yearling crop.

    If I remember correctly there was at least some talk of sending Arts and Letters over for perhaps the King George and Queen Elizabeth as a 4yo, but he pulled a suspensory, which ended his racing careeer.

    By the way, in 1970 when the magnificent Key to the Mint was a yearling, I happened to arrive for a visit at Rokeby the day after Rokeby Venus was born....Somewhere I have a photo of her alongside All Beautiful, as well as a photo of Key to the Mint as a yearling, but neither is digitized yet.

    And in a further aside, although Paul Mellon bred and raced Arts and Letters, he did not plan the mating. That honor goes to William du Pont Jr., who died before the horse was born. Mellon bought All Beautiful, in foal to Ribot, for something like $375,000 at the du Pont dispersal.