VICTORY FAIR AND SQUARE ON A BLUE-SKY DAY
It is extremely difficult to relegate Bill Hartack to obscurity. Just when you think that he has gone away somewhere, maybe to stay, he pops up in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs, smelling like a blanket of roses.
That is what happened last Saturday in Louisville, and what it meant for Hartack—in addition to a gratifying new opportunity to insult the press—was a fifth Derby victory in nine attempts. This ties him with Eddie Arcaro, who required 21 Derbies to accomplish the same feat and now shakes his head in wonderment at the meaning of it all. "Wherever you go in the world," Arcaro says, "all anybody wants to know is how many times you won the Derby. It seems nobody ever heard of any of our other races."
People will be hearing about Hartack's fifth for a long time. He and Trainer Johnny Longden brought their chestnut colt, Majestic Prince, to Louisville unbeaten after six California races, an accomplishment that inspired the normal reaction from Eastern horsemen: mocking references to California racing and the quality of the opposition that the Prince had humbled. So Hartack and his chestnut went out on a blue-sky day, right in front of the President of the United States and 100,000 others, and turned the three other top colts of the Prince's class—Arts and Letters, Top Knight and Dike—into runners-up over the classic mile and a quarter.
What made last week's Derby all the more remarkable was that for once—it does not always turn out this way at Churchill Downs—the best horse clearly won; none of the victims had any excuse in the world. In the stretch run all of his rivals took their shot at Majestic Prince and none could match him. This was not only a contest among choice Thoroughbreds, but a war of nerves and tactics among jockeys to whom a Derby victory would forever mean far more than the conventional 10% of the winning purse of $113,200, a war won by Hartack over Braulio Baeza, Jorge Velasquez and Manuel Ycaza.
Race or war, it was a joy to watch. Just as Longden had predicted, the early leader after the gate was sprung was the long shot Ocean Roar, who came to Louisville via Beulah Park near Columbus, Ohio, a locale hardly renowned for producing classic horses. Ocean Roar pumped his way into the clubhouse turn with a four-length lead and behind him was a cluster of five, with Majestic Prince on the outside. Top Knight, Arts and Letters, Rae Jet and Fleet Allied were all between the Prince and the rail. "That must have cost him two or three lengths around the turn," said Longden later. Hartack agreed but added, "I was concerned about position. My horse was running in hand and rating kindly and I got the position I wanted when we straightened out on the backstretch."
On that long run across from the rambling old stands Ocean Roar clung to his lead, but Ycaza had Top Knight just two lengths away, with Majestic Prince and Arts and Letters next, all ready to pounce. The three jockeys undoubtedly were aware that the pace-setter was not burning up the track. The first-quarter time was :23[3/5] and the half mile was run in a lethargic :48. Dike, meanwhile, had started slowly as usual, and had only one horse beat around the first turn. But now he was moving up into contention more quickly than his custom.
The refugee from Beulah Park was bound to weaken, even from his own slow pace, and when he did Top Knight immediately took over. Hartack was not going to sit still for this maneuver for long, and neither was Baeza on Arts and Letters. They went after Top Knight on the far turn after he had opened a length on Ocean Roar. As Majestic Prince came up on the outside of Top Knight, Ycaza brought his mount out slightly from the rail. That was the opening Baeza had been waiting for, and he drove Arts and Letters quickly for the hole. It may possibly have been a premature move, but in situations of this kind a rider must be quick to take advantage of every promising opportunity. Baeza had to take what was offered to him. So Arts and Letters rolled out of the turn to the head of the stretch with a half-length margin over Majestic Prince. Dike was charging up on the outside into third position, but Top Knight, to the astonishment of everyone who had appreciated his gallant efforts all winter and spring in Florida, gave up the fight entirely and dropped in a few hundred yards from first to distant fourth.
Now the tense stretch battle began, and it was one of the best in 95 runnings of the famous old race. With Top Knight out of the way, the remaining Big Three held the stage. They faced the challenge of the Derby's last quarter of a mile, on this Saturday a beguilingly sunny straightaway, but one that tests to the utmost the heart of a horse and the will of the man riding him. Arts and Letters was on the rail, half a length ahead of Majestic Prince. Dike, who may have gone unnecessarily wide turning for home, was three lengths behind but in perfect position for the kind of final burst he has shown himself capable of unleashing.
Majestic Prince had never before been attacked like this. In California, Hartack usually had his races won by midstretch and was easing his colt up as he coasted to the wire. This time he had challengers on both sides of him. Hartack laced into his colt with his whip and gradually cut the margin between the Prince and Arts and Letters. For an eighth of a mile the breathtaking duel continued, and then the Prince pushed his royal head in front.