The 1969 Derby had a very strong field that deterred entries, and as such, only eight horses went to the starting gate. Majestic Prince was the betting favorite….followed by Top Knight…who was winner of the 1968 Eclipse Award for Outstanding Two-Year-Old Male Horse…..and third was the highly regarded Claiborne Farm colt Dike….along with Paul Mellon’s Arts and Letters was the fourth choice….with the four remaining horses being all at very long odds. Majestic Prince drew the last post position….with Arts and Letters racing along the rail…who took the lead by the time they reached the mile pole and were about to head for the stretch run. Majestic Prince ran the entire race on the outside and pulled up alongside Arts and Letters into second place as they came down the homestretch….then moved ahead to win by a neck. The victory made Majestic Prince the first unbeaten Kentucky Derby champion in 47 years…..and Johnny Longden became the only person in history to ever win the Derby both as a jockey and as a trainer, a feat that as of 2018 has not been matched.
The heavy favorite going into the second leg of the U.S. Triple Crown was Majestic Prince ….who again met Arts and Letters in a duel to the finish….with “The Prince”, as the media dubbed him, winning his 9th consecutive race by a head. However, the morning after his victory, Longden advised the media that Majestic Prince came out of the race with a problem in his right front tendon. Longden stated the horse would not be able to run his best in the Belmont Stakes….so, he was being shipped back to California to be rested until the fall. When asked by a reporter, McMahon said he concurred with Longden’s view, adding, “We want a Triple Crown, not a Crippled Crown.” That the horse with the best chance in 21 years to win the Triple Crown was pulling out brought a frenzy of publicity and questions….especially because Longden had said the injury was a developing problem, but Majestic Prince could still run, although not at his best. The idea that someone in those circumstances would pass up the chance to achieve American racing immortality seemed incomprehensible.
To this day, speculation abounds as to why McMahon changed his mind and raced Majestic Prince in the Belmont….but the pressure from the press was intense….including Whitney Tower’s article in Sports Illustrated entitled “The Prince Ducks the Big One”. The decision to run never sat well with Longden, and despite his well-documented shouting match with the horse’s owner in the days leading up to the race…. Majestic Prince was still sent out to compete in the Belmont Stakes.
The first horse in history to enter the race undefeated….having won the Derby and the Preakness, finished second….having been beaten by Arts and Letters by 5½ lengths….as Majestic Prince never raced again. Jockey Bill Hartack told reporters, “The horse was hurting. We should never have run in the Belmont.” Longden later commented that Majestic Prince had what was called a check ligament in his right front [leg]. “When he bore out in the Preakness, that was a warning. We never should have run him in the Belmont.” Longden said that he tried to bring Majestic Prince back to racing later in 1969 and then again the following year…. but could not, and the horse was sold to a racing syndication for $1.8 million….after which Majestic Prince retired to Spendthrift Farm in Lexington, Kentucky….and proceeded to sire 33 stakes winners before he died of a heart attack in 1981. Among his progeny was Coastal, winner of the 1979 Belmont Stakes.
Simply put, we are absolutely overjoyed to have this vintage video clip of the Triple Crown duel between Majestic Prince and Arts and Letters…..for it is “a nugget of pure gold” in our treasure chest of memories here at ImaSportsphile.