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The last leg is the toughest

From any point of view—that of ordinary fans caught up in the promise of a Triple Crown or the attitude of traditionalists who will not consider a horse a champion until he wins at the classic distance of a mile and a half—this week's 101st Belmont Stakes has absolutely everything. The ingredients include Frank McMahon's undefeated Majestic Prince, winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, trying to pull off the first Triple in 21 years; Arts and Letters, narrowly beaten by the Prince in both the first two classics; Dike, third in the Derby but now rested and fresh for what is expected to be a top effort at his best distance; and not too many lesser lights to clutter the field. If one is looking for another Cavan, Celtic Ash or Sherluck in this race, the most logical upsetter is Rooney's Shield, a son of Sword Dancer who was coming on fast at the end of last week's Jersey Derby. He finished the mile and an eighth third behind Al Hattab and Ack Ack, neither of whom is going to attempt the Belmont.

After all the commotion during the last two weeks over Majestic Prince and the question of would-he-run-or-wouldn't-he, sentimentalists will be rooting for him to achieve what no other colt has been able to do since the afternoon of June 12, 1948 when Citation became the eighth horse in history to capture the Triple Crown. History, however, also shows that the odds are against the Prince being able to become the ninth this Saturday. Others since Citation have come to the Belmont with two legs on the three-sided trophy and stumbled, for some reason, in this grueling test. Some, like Carry Back, Northern Dancer and Kauai King, probably weren't 12-furlong horses to begin with. Tim Tarn probably was but he broke down in the 1958 Belmont in which he nonetheless had courage enough to hang in second to Cavan.

None of these near-miss horses came to their Belmonts with the spotless (9-for-9) record that accompanies Majestic Prince to this week's race. Inasmuch as he has never been beaten, who is to say whether he can or cannot go a mile and a half just as well, if not better than, Arts and Letters or Dike? He has proven his capabilities as a runner with great speed and yet one who can be rated. If he tends to loaf a bit on the lead, he also has the tenacity to fight back like a tiger when close to defeat. Different running surfaces don't faze him, and in the hands of Bill Hartack he has a competitor to match his own spirit. How then can Majestic Prince be beaten?

If he can be at all, it would seem that the only way is for Hartack to be prevented from dictating the way the race is run, as he did so masterfully in both the Derby and the Preakness. In other words, if rival jocks take back behind a slow pace and wait for Hartack to make his run, the track might as well dish out the silverware at the quarter pole, because Hartack is going to be sitting on a horse who can knock off a half mile in 45 seconds. Some horse in this Belmont has got to try to get away from Majestic Prince and make the Prince really run at him for a change. And I mean get away by five or six lengths, not just one. Manuel Ycaza figured this out in the Derby and tried it. The trouble was, when he attempted to run away from Majestic Prince with Top Knight he discovered he hadn't the horse to get the job done.

Claiborne Farm's Dike is a real one-run come-from-behind colt with no early speed to speak of, but Arts and Letters is a natural speed horse and one who proved it to any disbelievers last week when he beat 10 older horses in covering the Metropolitan Handicap's mile in 1:34. For all his hard campaigning, Arts and Letters—who is little by comparison with Majestic Prince—somehow manages to look better every day. They say a good big horse will beat a good little horse nearly every time. But Elliott Burch, who trains Arts and Letters for Paul Mellon, says, "If he's ever going to beat Majestic Prince, now's the time." Triple Crown sentiment aside, I agree.