Flashback: Arts and Letters' 14-race Horse of the Year season

By Keeler Johnson/Special to HRN
November 12, 2019 10:05am
Flashback: Arts and Letters' 14-race Horse of the Year season
Photo: Courtesy of NYRA

Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. The Beatles conducted their final live performance. And in the sport of horse racing, a chestnut colt named Arts and Letters embarked on a 1969 Horse of the Year campaign that would boggle the minds of today’s racing fans.

How can a sport as old and straightforward as racing evolve so drastically in the span of fifty years? By today’s standards, it’s as though Arts and Letters packed two seasons into one, starting 14 times between Jan. 25 and Oct. 25, dancing virtually every major dance while winning the majority of New York’s most storied prizes.

Arts and Letters’ durable breeding surely contributed to his tough-as-nails constitution. He was a son of the undefeated two-time Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Ribot and out of a mare by Battlefield, a champion juvenile who won half of his 44 starts over the course of four seasons. Fast enough to win over three furlongs as a juvenile, but stout enough to win the 1 ¼-mile Travers Stakes, Battlefield was a rock and evidently passed on his durability and versatility to Arts and Letters.

Just how tough was Arts and Letters? Well, consider the following: After racing six times with modest success as a juvenile in 1968, the tiny chestnut colt (who stood just 15.2 hands tall) managed to squeeze in another half-dozen prep races prior to the 1969 Triple Crown. He cracked the trifecta in all six, winning the Everglades Stakes and Blue Grass Stakes (the latter by 15 lengths) to emerge as a key player for the Kentucky Derby.

These days, handicappers would expect a horse like Arts and Letters to burn out during the Triple Crown; surely a half-dozen prep runs was three or four too many? But this was 1969, and the sport was different back then. Arts and Letters performed admirably under the Twin Spires, finishing second by a neck against the undefeated favorite Majestic Prince. He then narrowed the gap in the Preakness Stakes, coming up a head short against the Derby winner.

From that point on, Arts and Letters was unbeatable. Trainer Elliot Burch, feeling the colt needed a confidence-boosting sharpener before the Belmont Stakes, tossed Arts and Letters in against older rivals in the prestigious Metropolitan Handicap. The result? Arts and Letters topped Santa Anita Handicap winner Nodouble (champion handicap male of 1969, according to one poll) by 2 ½ lengths.

Eight days later in the Belmont Stakes, Arts and Letters turned the tables on Majestic Prince by 5 ½ lengths, putting the finishing touches on an excellent winter/spring campaign. “He just may be the best horse anyone ever trained,” opined Burch after the Belmont, as quoted in the December 9, 1969, edition of the Great Falls, Montana Great Falls Tribune.

If Burch’s statement came across as bold at the time, it seemed decidedly less so by the end of the year, after Arts and Letters had returned from a two-month break to obliterate everyone and everything during the second half of his season.

The Aug. 8 Jim Dandy Stakes marked Arts and Letters’ return to action, and he won by 10 lengths against three overmatched opponents. Already there was talk of his Horse of the Year credentials; Associated Press sports writer Ted Meier went so far as to state in the Aug. 15 edition of Hagerstown, Md.’s The Daily Mail  that “Arts and Letters can virtually wrap up Horse of the Year by winning the $100,000 Travers Stakes” on Aug. 16.

In theory the 1 ¼-mile test should have been slightly more competitive than the Jim Dandy, and in a technical sense it was. Facing four rivals in Saratoga’s “Midsummer Derby,” Arts and Letters tracked the pace, casually pounced to the lead, and dashed home to win by only 6 ½ lengths.

Back against older males in the Sept. 27 Woodward Stakes, Arts and Letters faced Nodouble for a second time and drubbed the consistent 4-year-old by two lengths. For his pièce de résistance, Arts and Letters stretched out to two miles for the Jockey Club Gold Cup and once again powered clear to defeat Nodouble and two other opponents with extraordinary ease.

“In a single sustained surge… [Arts and Letters] broke the contest into little pieces,” wrote Gene Ward in the New York Daily News of Oct. 27, 1969. “It was like a four-car auto race in which three of the cars have blown their engines.”

Indeed, Arts and Letters roared to a huge lead down the backstretch, leaving his rivals reeling in his wake. By the time he crossed the finish line he was clear by 14 lengths, and his lead in the race for Horse of the Year was immeasurable. To borrow an old phrase from the days of four-mile heat racing, Arts and Letters had distanced his opponents.

When the dust settled, Arts and Letters was awarded three championships for the year: Horse of the Year, champion 3-year-old male, and champion handicap horse per the Daily Racing Form.

In recent years, we’ve seen memorable Horse of the Year seasons from talented runners like California Chrome, American Pharoah, and Gun Runner. But a campaign like the one executed by Arts and Letters? In this day and age, his exploits are hard to even imagine.

J. Keeler Johnson is a writer, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. You can follow him on Twitter at @J_Keelerman.


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