The year 1969 was one of those special years that produced several outstanding 3-year-olds.
One was royalty.
Another was a champion.
Arts and Letters
Majestic Prince was that rare breed of horse that lived up to every letter in his regal name. Purchased for a record $250,000 as a yearling, when he gamely won the 1969 Kentucky Derby by a neck there was a widespread, fervent belief that the electrifying, undefeated colt would be the one to become Thoroughbred racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 21 years.
Another narrow, heart-stopping victory In the Preakness kept those hopes alive, but after that thrilling victory on the third Saturday in May at Pimlico, everything changed. The balance of power tipped swiftly and dramatically.
Rokeby Stables’ Arts and Letters, the horse who lost by such a slim margin in both the Preakness and Derby, registered a decisive victory over Majestic Prince in the Belmont Stakes and during the final six months of the year went on to dominate his division and the sport as only a rare few have.
At the year’s end, it was Arts and Letters, not the majestic “Prince,” who was voted Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old.
He was the one who ruled the sport.
Arts and Letters was a homebred son of the undefeated English runner Ribot, who raced under the banner of philanthropist, sportsman, and Mellon Bank heir Paul Mellon’s Rokeby Stable and was trained by future Hall of Famer Elliot Burch.
His initial starts were hardly awe-inspiring as he ran fourth in his first two efforts at 2. He needed four tries to break his maiden and it wasn’t until his eighth start – and second at 3 – that he captured his first stakes, the Everglades at Hialeah Park.
He then reeled off three straight second-place finishes, winding up behind 2-year-old champion Top Knight in the Flamingo and then Florida Derby.
But in the Blue Grass Stakes everything fell into place and Arts and Letters notched a 15-length win to emerge as a top threat for both Majestic Prince and Top Knight in the Kentucky Derby.
The run for the roses belonged to Majestic Prince, but it was Arts and Letters, not Top Knight, who tossed a shivering scare into him, bowing by a neck with future Hall of Famer Braulio Baeza in the saddle for the first time.
In the Preakness, Arts and Letters trimmed the margin between the two rivals to a head, and he was the one who posed the most formidable obstacle standing between Majestic Prince and his bid to become the first Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948.
In the weeks leading up to the 1969 Belmont Stakes, there was discord between Majestic Prince’s trainer, Johnny Longden, and his owner, Frank McMahon, about running in the Belmont. Longden believed Majestic Prince has little left in the tank after his grueling efforts in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, and wanted to skip the Belmont. McMahon disagreed and since he had the final say Majestic Prince ran in the Belmont.
So did Arts and Letters, and while Majestic Prince was beginning to wilt, the Rokeby colt was blossoming into a star.
He prepped for the Belmont with an impressive victory over older horses in the Metropolitan Handicap by 2 ½ lengths and then turned his third meeting with Majestic Prince into a mismatch.
As Majestic Prince failed to show his usual early zip in the face of a woefully slow pace, Arts and Letters took command moving into the final turn and then repulsed a stretch bid by the Derby-Preakness winner and pulled away to win by 5 ½ lengths.
“It’s always a shame to see a good horse miss winning the Triple Crown,” Burch said in Sports Illustrated. “But if someone had to stop Majestic Prince, I’m sure glad we were the ones to do it.”
Majestic Prince never raced again after the Belmont, but in the ensuing months Arts and Letters’ stature grew to eclipse his Triple Crown foe.
A 10-length win in the Jim Dandy put Arts and Letters on edge for a 6 ½-length romp in the Travers as a huge 1-5 favorite.
He then won the Woodward at Belmont Park by two lengths over Nodouble, who had also finished second to him in the Met Mile.
"Right now, I don't think any living thing can beat him,” Nodouble’s trainer, MacKenzie Miller, said in Sports Illustrated. “He may be one of the best horses we've seen around here in a long, long time."
Nodouble tested Arts and Letters one more time in the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup and finished second once more, this time by a prodigious 14-length margin in the Rokeby colt’s 3-year-old finale.
At 4, the reigning Horse of the Year failed to regain the brilliance he displayed in 1969.
He was fourth in the Westchester to open the year, snapping a six-race winning streak. After a half-length win in the Grey Lag, he was shipped west for the Californian at Hollywood Park. Fate intervened as Arts and Letters suffered an injury at the start of the race and could do no better than sixth.
That would be Arts and Letters’ final race as he, like Majestic Prince, was retired to a life at stud.
He didn’t have Majestic Prince’s regal aura, but he had an even more memorable quality that eluded his rival.
He was a champion.
- Arts and Letters was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1994.
- Among his progeny was Codex, winner of the 1980 Preakness. He also sired Rokeby’s homebred Winter’s Tale, who won the Marlboro Cup, Suburban Handicap, Brooklyn Handicap, and Nassau County Handicap in 1980.
- Arts and Letters matched the track record in the Travers with his time of 2:01 3/5 for the mile and a quarter.
- His 15-length victory in the Blue Grass Stakes remains the largest winning margin in the history of that stakes race.
- Of his seven victories in 1969, Arts and Letters won by 5 ½ lengths or more five times.