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Graduating cum laude into the ranks of the Derby-bound colts, Elliott Burch's speedy chestnut scrambles the scene at Hialeah

He is engagingly named, and he has just won last week's big race, the Everglades, at Hialeah. As he stands for his victory portrait (opposite), Arts and Letters is one handsome reason why the 1969 3-year-old season should be as lively as any in recent years. And his triumph in the Everglades makes him a favorite for next week's Flamingo, six of whose winners went on to be first in the Kentucky Derby.

Another reason for rising interest in the Triple Crown colts two months before the first event in that series is the fact that last year's undisputed 2-year-old champion, Steve Wilson's Top Knight, has failed to show mastery over the fields he has faced at Hialeah. He may again be the champ, but he will not be undisputed. And a final reason is that at least two of the colts tackling the middle-distance races in California—Tell and Majestic Prince (SI, Feb. 17)—are also beginning to look like classic horses. All of this adds up to the kind of stimulating competition to be expected from a good-size crop with exceptional talent. There probably is more depth to the Florida contingent, but a more accurate estimate of the Californians can be made as they get closer to the Santa Anita Derby the end of this month.

Eddie Neloy, who trains all those champions and near-champions for the Phipps family, was well aware of the growing strength of the opposition as he walked down his Hialeah shedrow last Thursday morning. The afternoon before he had watched the strong Phipps entry of Beau Brummel, last year's Garden State winner, and King of the Castle finish eighth and seventh in the 12-horse Everglades field. He looked at his two handsome bay colts and groaned. "They certainly shouldn't be tired," he said. "They didn't do any running."

The one who deserved to be tired was Arts and Letters, who ran the best race of his life to whip favored Top Knight by three lengths. "One race doesn't make a horse." said his trainer, Elliott Burch, "but so far he's measuring up." He surely did last week. Under a fine ride by 29-year-old French Jockey Jean Cruguet, Arts and Letters withstood a drive from the three-quarter pole and easily conquered last year's juvenile champion. However, he was in the Everglades at 112 pounds, 10 pounds less than Top Knight. In the Flamingo he will have to prove his superiority with all horses carrying 122.

The early pace in the Everglades was cut out by Distinctive, Ack Ack and Curette. Top Knight was just behind them, while Arts and Letters lay back in the middle of the pack with Beau Brummel, who, many thought, was really the horse to beat. King of the Castle, who had shown so much promise in his first two starts at Hialeah, was roughed up a little going into the first turn and was last for most of the early running.

Cruguet started moving with Arts and Letters on the final turn, and by the time they reached the eighth pole they were three in front—and there to stay. Top Knight, no question about it, was dead tired at the finish. Next week, when he won't be forced to give away weight to any of his rivals, he should be much tougher to beat.

Almost blacked out by the excellent performance of Arts and Letters and the dismal showing of the Phipps entry was the run turned in by Mrs. Ethel D. Jacobs' Rule of Reason. A son of Hail to Reason and Lysistrata and thus a half-brother to 1967 Flamingo winner Reflected Glory, he came with a tremendous rush from last place to finish fifth. In another couple of strides he would have been third.

For the moment, however, the "big horse" at Hialeah is in Elliott Burch's bam. Arts and Letters is by the undefeated Italian champion Ribot and the Battlefield mare All Beautiful, who was carrying him when she was sold to Paul Mellon for $175,000 at the duPont dispersal sale on Valentine's Day of 1966.

Burch describes his chestnut as "blocky, but at 15 hands, three inches and 1,050 pounds, not too big by any means. He has clean legs, a good shoulder and a good head, which he often carries slightly turned out when he runs." Ribot himself and many of his offspring had a tendency to run with their heads carried very low. As a 2-year-old Arts and Letters won only two of six races but was bothered by some stifle trouble and had other excuses for a few of his losing races. "He has brilliant speed." says Burch, and suggests that it may come from Battlefield, who was out of the champion race mare Parlo.

E. P. Taylor's undefeated Viceregal—eight for eight in Canada last year—has had a slow recovery from cannon bone injuries but may be back in time for the Florida Derby at Gulfstream on March 29. His owner believes he could be as good as his sire, Derby and Preakness winner Northern Dancer. If so, all these early flashes had better watch out when the parade moves on to Keeneland and Churchill Downs.

The day before the Everglades, and 3,000 miles away at Santa Anita, they ran off the 31st Santa Catalina Stakes at a mile and a sixteenth, and it was won with comparative ease by Robert Hibbert's Inverness Drive. It was the first stakes victory (and 458th of his career) for Jockey Bill Shoemaker since a broken leg forced him into a 13-month layup. Since the event is designed to give late-developing horses a chance to run at equal weights, and is therefore limited to horses who have never won first money of $10,000, it usually produces some pretty even competition.

That is also the reason the field did not include Majestic Prince, so it is difficult to tell how good Inverness Drive really is. Still, now that he has won at a distance, he must be ranked among the three or four best colts racing in California. His breeding indicates that he is capable of handling the middle distances with no trouble. But when it comes to the mile-and-an-eighth Santa Anita Derby, he may have problems. His sire, Crozier, as hard-hitting and game as he was, couldn't quite hold off Carry Back over the longer events. The colt whose breeding qualifies him for this is Tell, a son of Round Table and a Nasrullah mare named Nas-Mahal. "He is a bit stronger and longer than most Round Tables," says Charlie Whittingham, who trains both Tell and Makor for Howard B. Keck. "Tell is an even 16 hands and has a lot of that Nasrullah fire in him without being mean. I really think this colt has a future. Most Round Tables—like Advocator, Knightly Manner and He's A Smoothie—improved as the year went on."

Tell won one of two starts last season, and his record is the same this year, so nobody can accuse Whittingham of overracing his big bay. "Most 3-year-olds are rushed along at this time of year," he says, "because people are trying to make a Derby horse at all costs. The rains we have had in Los Angeles this winter—the worst in 32 years—have held up the crop by two weeks or more. But for some of them who are trying to get to the Santa Anita Derby this may be a blessing in disguise. I might start Tell once more before our Derby, in the March 15th San Felipe, or I might run him in the Derby without giving him another race first."

If the Los Angeles weather ever clears up long enough to give Santa Anita a few weeks of fast tracks, the capabilities of a number of other colts can be judged. Many have had to do practically all of their winter racing in slop or mud, which can infuriate or discourage horses, no matter how stout of heart they may be.

Included in this group are Larceny Kid, Elect the Ruler, Fleet Allied, Governors Party, Might, Capacitator, Right Cross, Mr. Joe F. and Concerned. None appears ready to beat Majestic Prince or Tell, but a lot can happen in a month. And in two months this whole bunch—the best of Santa Anita, Hialeah, Gulf-stream and Aqueduct—will head for Kentucky. The interval should be mighty lively indeed.


Ears pricked on his fine head, Arts and Letters surveys the winner's circle following the Everglades as Jean Cruguet prepares to dismount.