Francis Murray Patrick McMahon, the 66-year-old Vancouver industrialist with the rugged look of the Western outdoors spread over his broad features, did not graduate from the status of a $4-a-day oilfield drilling job to that of a millionaire builder of pipelines by letting himself be pushed around. So last week, when the notion finally occurred to him that some muscle was being put on him by two of his colleagues in the management of his undefeated colt Majestic Prince, he reacted the way he might have 45 years ago if a drilling-rig boss had shortchanged him on a Saturday-night paycheck.
What he did—a little more than 48 hours after reluctantly agreeing with his trainer, Johnny Longden, and his longtime friend and adviser, Leslie Combs, that their Derby and Preakness winner should skip the Belmont Stakes—was to make a quick decision to go to Belmont after all. This was a highly controversial issue within the triumvirate that has guided the Prince since his purchase by McMahon from Combs at the Keeneland sales on July 24, 1967. And the sudden change of course drew a wide reaction from horsemen and the press throughout the sport. For while Frank McMahon seemed to be striking a blow for racing's long-suffering, bill-paying owners, he was simultaneously veering sharply away from one of racing's unwritten laws—the one that says an owner picks the best man he can to train his horses and then allows the trainer to make all decisions as to when and where to run. If McMahon was not following the rule, he was doing something his own instincts told him was right: giving Majestic Prince the opportunity to prove he is good enough to become racing's only unbeaten Triple Crown champion.
Last week, finally escaping from the pressures that pursued them every step of the way at Churchill Downs and Pimlico, McMahon and his wife, Betty, retreated to their winter home in Palm Beach, a rambling old mansion built by Addison Mizner. McMahon looked fondly at his newly arrived Kentucky Derby gold cup. He paced the patio by the pool, stopped for a moment to inspect some pictures just in from the Preakness and then sat down with a sigh. Betty poured him a beer, and he leaned back. "I hate to see this thing built up out of proportion," he said, "especially because Johnny Longden and Leslie Combs have been very good friends of mine for a long, long time. But in order to avoid any further misunderstanding I feel I must set the record straight.
"In the first place, nobody made this decision but myself, and it was not because of newspaper criticism, most of which hadn't even appeared in print when I made up my mind. Roughly the sequence of events is this. On the Sunday after the Preakness, when Johnny told me he felt the colt needed a rest, I went along with his decision. I felt that if he was all that tired Majestic Prince should remain at Pimlico a while and then come on to Belmont anyway to see how he progressed. What disappointed me, to say the least, was that without my knowledge Longden ordered a plane for California. I came home to Palm Beach Sunday afternoon and stewed about this whole thing for two days and two nights. Why in hell am I doing this? I asked myself. Why are we ordering a plane and leaving the show? This colt should be with the others at Belmont, and if he's O.K. he'll run. If he's not, he won't. If he runs and gets beaten, at least he will have tried. Sure, he might lose; he might not want to go a mile and a half. But I'm thinking to myself, there's one chance in 50 million that I would ever get in this position again. Win or lose, if the horse is all right it's something I've got to go for. And I knew perfectly well that once Majestic Prince got to California there would be no chance of getting him back to Belmont Park for a race on June 7.
"So Tuesday evening I called Longden and said, 'I want to stop this whole thing and ship the horse to Belmont. I own this horse 100%, this is the way I want it and this is the way it's going to be.' Longden listened to me and then replied, 'If you want the press to train the horse that's O.K. with me.' I answered him quickly, 'The press is not training this horse. You are. Do you think he can win the Belmont?' 'Yes,' said Longden, 'he can win.' 'O.K., that's what I want you to do; do your best to win the Belmont.' "
When he had decided to take matters into his own hands, McMahon also took a few added precautions. For one, not being entirely aware of how much progress had been made in getting Majestic Prince to Baltimore's Friendship Airport and aboard his westbound plane, McMahon telephoned the Baltimore office of United Air Lines. "To make sure I wasn't doublecrossed, I told them that under no circumstances was the horse to get on any plane. Longden and I also called Pimlico and told them Majestic Prince was not to leave the grounds that night. And, in explaining my actions to Leslie Combs, I reminded him, as one friend to another, that even though he was the breeder, I owned the horse 100% and that he hadn't anything to say about this decision."
The question now in the minds of all horsemen is whether Majestic Prince, a son of Raise A Native, can run a winning race at a mile and a half against colts like Arts and Letters and Dike, both of whom appear to have more valid staying bloodlines.
"Whether he can or cannot," said McMahon, "won't be decided until the afternoon of June 7. But the point here is that if we're looking for motives as to why Longden and Combs would not want Majestic Prince even to try the Belmont, there are motives to be found. In Leslie's case he's a commercial breeder, which means he has to be a pretty shifty politician. I don't blame him for that because that's his business. He's got other Raise A Native offspring to sell, and eventually he'll stand Majestic Prince at his Spendthrift Farm in Lexington. Wouldn't he—or any other breeder—feel better to be standing a richer and undefeated stallion than one who had been beaten in the Belmont? As for Longden, he must have a lot of money buried away somewhere, but he knows that he could probably make more, on his percentage of purses, by skipping the Belmont, resting up and winning a lot of other races on the West Coast and in Chicago later on against inferior competition. But with the kind of money I'm already paying Longden, I think he should make it his business to want to win the kind of races I want to win, too. Before he won his last race on George Royal in the 1966 San Juan Capistrano—and a brilliant ride it was—I said to him, 'When you quit racing you'll train for me. I know you're a good horseman.' I promised him $25,000 a year and 15% of all purses across the board and told him, 'I want you to run a first-class operation. Try to save me a little money, but don't neglect the horses.' This year, in addition to the percentages coming to them, I gave both Longden and Hartack $5,000 each after the Santa Anita Derby, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness." (Longden has made $73,380 on Majestic Prince so far in six months of racing—$58,380 as his 15% commission on the colt's winnings of $389,200, plus $15,000 in bonuses.)
Leslie Combs' answer to all this is: "Somebody must be putting pressure on Frank to run in the Belmont, and I don't know who is doing it or why. It's a tough race, and if the colt isn't at his peak it would be terrible to have him beat. That's what I'm thinking of. 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. Being a good sport is all right if the horse is O.K., but what's the point in being a good sport if you think the horse may be beat? Majestic Prince didn't look as good at Pimlico as he did at Churchill Downs. If he's lost weight, that's all right, too, because you expect a good horse to lose weight in tough races. You also expect him to gain it back before considering going a mile and a half in early June."
After first estimating that Majestic Prince had lost 100 pounds following the Preakness, Longden put him on the scales at Belmont last week and discovered the actual loss to be 45 pounds—he was down to 1,080 from the 1,125 he weighed before the March 29 Santa Anita Derby. "He gets over his races quickly," said Longden, "and he'll get around to this one just fine. Sure I was surprised to see Frank change his mind, but he's the owner, and it's his prerogative to do what he wants. I'll do my best to train the horse the right way. I think he'll run good. In fact I think he'll win. but it's what he'll be like later that bothers me."