Put it in the books: 50 Years Ago, Arts and Letters helped make it a banner year for New York sports
by Jim Reisler
As a 2-year-old, Arts and Letters was good but not outstanding, winning two of his six starts. It was as a 3-year-old in 1969-50 years ago this summer-that the chestnut colt bred and raced by Hall of Famer Paul Mellon, trained by Hall of Famer Elliott Burch and ridden by another Hall of Famer in Braulio Baeza, Sr., became as a star.
From Belmont Park to Saratoga, the Ribot colt put together a summer to remember, becoming the only horse in history to sweep the Belmont Stakes, Jim Dandy and Travers. In doing so, he helped turn 1969 into a memorable year for NYRA and for New York racing. And his success served as another highlight to an improbable, triumphant year for New York sports, one that still draws a tear of nostalgia to Jets or Mets fans of a certain age.
On January 12, 1969, the Jets behind their brash quarterback Joe Namath upset the heavily-favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. That spring, Tom Seaver and the Mets began an unlikely but magical run to their first Word Series title, which they won in five games that October against the Baltimore Orioles. Even the Knicks-yes, the Knicks-would become the toast of the NBA, winning 23 of their first 24 games in the fall of 1969; and with MVP Willis Reed leading the way, coasted to the team's first title in the spring of 1970.
Doing the Unconventional
Headed into the 1969 racing season, Arts and Letters wintered in Florida and showed promise in tuning up for the Triple Crown by winning the Everglades. He then took second in three stakes races and romped by 15 lengths in the Blue Grass. In the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, he finished a close second to the California colt Majestic Prince. Looking to sharpen his horse's speed, Burch resorted to the unconventional, for which he was noted: running Arts and Letters, all of eight days prior to the Belmont Stakes in the Metropolitan Handicap in which he beat champion older horse Nodouble.
"He came out of the Metropolitan better than when he went into it," marveled Burch. "He can do amazing things."
There was a question whether Majestic Prince, who picked up a leg injury in the Preakness, would run at all in the Belmont Stakes. At the insistence of owner Frank McMahon and against the wishes of his trainer Johnny Longden, he did. But Arts and Letters dominated, winning by 5 ½ lengths and denying Majestic Prince the Triple Crown. The win earned Baeza his third title in the Belmont Stakes and an unusual distinction as the only rider to win the "Test of the Champion" on three different surfaces.
"It's always a shame to see a good horse miss winning the Triple Crown," said Burch to 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-and in the ensuing months, Arts and Letters' esteem grew to rival that of his Triple Crown rival.
Carrying the well-known colors of dark grey and yellow, Arts and Letters emerged as a popular star. Next to Majestic Prince, who had been purchased for a record $250,000 as a yearling and clearly lived up to his name, Arts and Letters was a spoiler. Teamed with the Belmont Park-based Burch, and Baeza, a mainstay on the NYRA circuit, Arts and Letters became a New York favorite. Like the Jets and the Miracle Mets, he was the underdog who had become a big dog.
At Saratoga, the talented chestnut's decisive victories mounted. Arts and Letters crushed the field by 10 lengths in the Jim Dandy, a tune-up for the Travers. Then, a week after another 1969 New York happening called Woodstock, he dominated the 100th running of the Travers by 6 ½ lengths.
"May Be One of the Best"
But Arts and Letters wasn't finished. That fall at Belmont Park, he won the Woodward 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 at the time. "He may be one of the best horses we've seen around here in a long, long time."
Miller was right. Several weeks later, in the 2-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, Arts and Letters won in his finale as a 3-year-old-with Nodouble second again-and this time by 14 lengths. He was a lock as Horse of the Year.
Big things were expected of Arts and Letters as a 4-year-old, but the champion never regained the brilliance he displayed in 1969. He was fourth in the Westchester to open the year, ending a six-race winning streak. After a half-length win in the Grey Lag, he was shipped west for the Californian at Hollywood Park. Suffering an injury at the start of the race, he finished sixth. That was Arts and Letters' final race. Like his rival, Majestic Prince, he was retired. Looking back, Baeza calls him one of his favorites, "a horse who could do anything you asked him." And like Baeza, those skills got him a plaque in the Hall of Fame.