September 14, 2009

Remembering ... Arts and Letters

It is funny sometimes how the judgment of history can be discordant with the conventional thinking of the time. Often this is a good thing, as with a greater knowledge comes a greater understanding of the past. The judgment of history sometimes, however; can be fickle and unfair. This is certainly true in the realm of thoroughbred horse racing. Some horses are remembered as superstars and some are not. One of the purposes of my series of ‘Remembering’ columns is to shine an ever deserving light on these somewhat forgotten horses. I mention this now because in 1969 there was a deserving three-year-old champion and Horse -of-the-Year and his name was Arts and Letters. History has chosen to glorify his rival from California Majestic Prince, another deserving star that year, but today I want you all to know the horse that Arts and Letters was and how in 1969 he proved to be a champion.

People remember the Triple Crown and in 1969 they remember the undefeated Majestic Prince winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. They remember all the stories after the Belmont that talked about legendary jockey, turned trainer, Johnny Longden not wanting to run Majestic Prince in the Belmont due to his balky ankles and his overall soundness. They may even remember that Majestic Prince was a bigger and more beautiful horse than the non-classic looking Arts and Letters. What they might not remember was that the improving son of the great Ribot, who had won that year’s Blue Grass by 15 lengths, was unlucky not to have won either the Derby or the Preakness. Owned by the great horseman Paul Mellon’s Rokeby Stable and trained by Elliott Burch, Arts and Letters ran a great series of races in that year’s Triple Crown.

In the Kentucky Derby, the favored Majestic Prince made a winning move on the outside keeping Arts and Letters pinned to the rail. At the 3/16 pole, Arts and Letters looked like a dead duck as the Californian surged to the lead, but that was where the surge ended as the brave little Rokeby owned runner kept fighting from the rail. It was head and head to the wire with Majestic Prince prevailing from his advantageous outside position. The Preakness also proved heartbreaking to the Arts and Letters supporters. Checked sharply early in the race by none other than his great rival, Arts and Letters would lose touch with Majestic Prince early and despite a terrific wide rally would fall just short. Braulio Baeza would claim foul against Majestic Prince’s rider Bill Hartack to no avail.

Before the Belmont there was speculation that Majestic Prince was not fit enough to run. Longden, the trainer, was on record saying he did not think his horse should run. The owner’s wishes won out though as he demanded that his charge attempt to become the first undefeated Triple Crown champion and the stage was thus set for Arts and Letters and Majestic Prince to get it on one more time. The Belmont proved to be little contest though, as Arts and Letters rolled to an easy win with Majestic Prince rallying for second. It was a key turning point in their rivalry, but also it was the end of their rivalry. Before the Belmont, Arts and Letters found time for a key prep race.

After his narrow defeats in the Derby and the Preakness, Burch had decided to get a victory for his little colt and chose the toughest mile in the country to do just that. In the Metropolitan Mile, Arts and Letters, in receipt of a hefty weight allowance from his older rivals, made mincemeat of the field including a horse, Nodouble, who would win the eclipse as the top older horse that year. The Met started a run of races that is somewhat hard to imagine in this day and age of spacing races out. After the retired Majestic Prince recorded his final victory in the Preakness, Arts and Letters would win in succession the Met Mile, the Belmont, the Jim Dandy, the Travers, the Woodward, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. In each of these prestigious races, Arts and Letters left know doubt as to who was best that day as he won by daylight culminating with his 14 length gallop in the Jockey Club.

It was mid-Summer at Saratoga, where Arts and Letters established himself as the new leader of the division. Returning from a short break after the Belmont, he thoroughly dominated his outclassed rivals in both the Jim Dandy and Travers and tied the track record in his Travers’ win. The Fall proved to be a coronation for Arts and Letters as he steamrolled through the top older horses including the champion Nodouble, who would run a well beaten second to Arts and Letter three times. "He's certainly better than Sword Dancer," remarked his Hall-of-Fame trainer, Elliott Burch who had guided Sword Dancer to a Horse-of-the-Year title ten years earlier. This statement was made before his tour-de-force in the two mile Jockey Club Gold Cup.

When you look back at the records of Majestic Prince and Arts and Letters you may also be quick in judgment and assume that the Californian was the better horse, but if we flashback 40 years, there was no question as to which horse deserved to be the Horse-of-the-Year. Was Majestic Prince at his best for his final race in the Belmont Stakes? Probably not, but please do not forget the smallish son of Ribot and champion horse of 1969, for Arts and Letters was a true superstar.


jpinkertoncook said...

Brian, I'm delighted to hear some history, also, about Nodouble, maybe the only horse of note ever raised in my hometown of Fayetteville, Ark. My dad talked about Nodouble a lot because he was friends with the son of the breeder, Gene Goff. In any case, I've never heard anyone else, anywhere, talk about Nodouble. Cool!

LDP said...

As you know i was not around to see this incredible horse. It was a great story and made a great case for Arts and Letters. Nice job.

Celeste said...

Wonderful story, Brian! I love the history of the sport and learning more about the horses I have missed out on. Thanks for bringing Arts and Letters to life for me.