Majestic Prince wins the 1969 Kentucky Derby. (Photos by Keeneland Library)
Much more often than not, horses fail to live up to the regal names bestowed upon them. Maiden claiming races are filled with horses that have a "King" or "Queen" in their name. But if a horse ever justified its moniker, few did it as magnificently as Majestic Prince.
Given a name that exuded class, Majestic Prince was indeed equine royalty during a short but spectacular 10-race career that saw him come heart-breakingly close to a Triple Crown sweep in 1969.
Lofty expectations were a way of life for Majestic Prince long before he broke from the starting gate for the first time. A son of Raise a Native out of the Royal Charger mare Gay Hostess bred by Leslie Combs II’s Spendthrift Farm, the handsome chestnut colt was purchased as a yearling for a record $250,000 by Canadian Frank McMahon at the 1967 Keeneland sale.
The racing industry is littered with sad tales of sales topper flops but McMahon’s expensive purchase proved to be worth every penny of his price tag – and much more.
MAJESTIC PRINCE BEFORE SELLING AT KEENELAND AS A YEARLING
Given his regal name by McMahon, Majestic Prince was turned over to trainer Johnny Longden, who was racetrack nobility himself. In 1966, Longden had retired as the sport's all-time winningest jockey.
When he made it to the racetrack in November of 1968, Majestic Prince ran like his name by winning his two starts at two. He triumphed in his career debut at Bay Meadows by 2 ¾ lengths but prevailed by only a nose at Santa Anita in his second start.
At three, he became dominant. He began his 1969 campaign by reeling off wins in the Los Feliz, San Vicente and San Jacinto stakes and then cemented his status as the West’s best 3-year-old by romping to an scintillating eight-length victory under regular rider Bill Hartack in the Santa Anita Derby over what was described in Sports Illustrated as “nine hopelessly outclassed rivals.”
In an era marked by short rest between races, he was then shipped to Kentucky and just a week before the Kentucky Derby notched a six-length win in the Stepping Stone Purse in the stakes-record time of 1:21 3/5 for seven furlongs.
At a time when the sport needed a hero to revitalize the Derby after the scandal surrounding the 1968 edition of the Run for the Roses, it found one in Majestic Prince who was poised to become the first undefeated horse to take the classic in 47 years and seemed more than capable of authoring the first Triple Crown sweep in 21 years.
Top Knight, the previous year’s 2-year-old champ, was viewed as Majestic Prince’s main rival, and their presence kept away a number of challengers and led to a field of only eight turning up for the Derby.
Born: March 19, 1966
Died: April 22, 1981
Owner: Frank McMahon
Trainer: Johnny Longden
Race Record: 10-9-1-0
Majestic Prince was sent off as a 7-5 favorite in the 95th Derby, with Top Knight the 2-1 second choice. Rokeby Stable’s Arts and Letters, who won the Blue Grass Stakes by 15 lengths after finishing second by five lengths to Top Knight in the Florida Derby, was a co-third choice with Dike at 3-1.
Top Knight led after six furlongs, but on the turn Majestic Prince and Arts and Letters surged past him. The Rokeby colt held a half-length lead at the quarter pole but in the stretch Majestic Prince showed that he had both class and courage as he forged to a short lead and then dug down and held off Arts and Letters by a neck.
The Preakness produced a similar script with Arts and Letters and Majestic Prince locked in a fierce duel in the stretch and the “The Prince” triumphing by a head.
Everything seemed in place for an epic showdown in the Belmont Stakes, but Longden stunned the racing world by announcing that a drained Majestic Prince would not contest the grueling mile and a half final leg of the Triple Crown. He would later say the colt had a minor tendon injury in his leg.
The shocking news divided the industry as many observers felt anything other than a severe injury was not reason enough to prevent the Derby and Preakness winner from chasing the sport’s most coveted prize.
In Sports Illustrated, a story on the Preakness was headlined “The Prince Ducks the Big One” and closed with Whitney Tower writing: “But if the Prince’s brain trust … is declining an invitation for the mile and a half showdown against Arts and Letters and Dike for fear that he may be beaten, this can hardly be described as sportsmanship. Nor is it in any way fair to Majestic Prince to lose the chance to become the ninth Triple Crown winner. This week a lot of horsemen, along with racegoers and general sports fans, stand ready to agree with one trainer who said in Baltimore last Saturday night, ‘What kind of a champion can Majestic Prince be if he doesn’t win at a mile and a half?’”
In its next edition, Sports Illustrated ran a far different story, this one centering on McMahon’s decision to overrule Longden and send Majestic Prince to New York for the Belmont.
LONGDEN AND MAJESTIC PRINCE
This story, entitled “The Man Takes Charge Of His Horse” detailed the arguments between McMahon and Longden and Combs, who was in line to stand Majestic Prince at stud, that were settled by the person with the final say, McMahon.
“It’s a tough race,” Combs said of the Belmont, “and if the colt isn’t at his peak it would be a terrible to have him beat … A horse is not like a machine. You can’t run ‘em when you want to. You run when the horse shows you he’s ready.”
But McMahon’s response was, “What the hell, we could have said Majestic Prince was hurt and gone home to California and none of this business would ever have come up. But he’s not hurt, and if he’s still sound on June 7 (the day of the Belmont Stakes), he will run. And if he loses, so what?’”
A small field of six turned out for the Belmont, and the uncertainty about Majestic Prince’s health was reflected in the wagering as the undefeated colt was only a narrow $1.30-to-1 favorite over Arts and Letters at $1.70-to-1.
Those fears were realized in a curiously run edition of the Belmont. Despite painfully slow fractions, Majestic Prince never flashed his customary early speed. He was fifth after a half-mile in just 51 seconds while Arts and Letters was perfectly positioned in second. The Rokeby runner took over at the mile marker and while Majestic Prince launched a mild stretch bid, Arts and Letters drew off to a 5 ½-length victory.
The Triple Crown bid was over – as was the colt’s racing career.
"I was always a believer that you put the horse first, but I was forced to run," Longden told the Los Angeles Times in 2003. "It wasn't the mile and a half that stopped my horse, it was that leg of his. He was a very willing horse, a horse you could place anywhere. He didn't have to be on the lead. He was the best horse I ever trained."
Though Majestic Prince was kept in training after the Belmont, he never returned to the races and returned to Spendthrift to begin his career stud. He arrived with nine wins in 10 starts, a pair of Triple Crown wins and a name that befit his marvelous talent on a racetrack.