Nyquist breathing rarefied air

On Saturday, rain or shine, Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist will try to do what only one horse in history has done before. And what a horse that was.

Majestic Prince was a golden chestnut with a pair of hind stockings and a 77-inch girth. The one thing had nothing to do with the other, except for the fact that each of his many elements worked in perfect concert with the rest, resulting in a colt of singular power and presence.

"One rarely sees such an enormous colt with quite Majestic Prince's finish," praised Charles Hatton, the era's recognized authority on such things.

Majestic Prince put those attributes to good use, winning all three starts at age 2 and then his first six starts at 3, topped by the 95th Kentucky Derby on May 3, 1969, and the 94th Preakness Stakes two weeks later.

Nyquist flipped those numbers with five wins last year at age 2 and three wins so far at 3, most recently his convincing victory in the 142nd Kentucky Derby on May 7. If Nyquist is to match Majestic Prince -- going 9 for 9 through the first two legs of the Triple Crown -- he must handle Derby runner-up Exaggerator and nine others Saturday in the 141st running of the Preakness at Pimlico.

Nyquist is already breathing rare air. From here, it gets thinner still. Only Seattle Slew, who made the Belmont Stakes his ninth win without a loss, remained unbeaten through a Triple Crown.

Native Dancer, the paternal grandsire of Majestic Prince, was 11 for 11 going into the 1953 Derby and lost the only race of his life to Dark Star. Barbaro was trying to go 7 for 7 when he broke down in the Preakness. Big Brown was 5 for 5 when he flopped in the Belmont, while Smarty Jones was 8 for 8 when his Triple Crown dream died in New York.

Then again, some of the greatest never even got that far unbeaten. Man o' War sustained the only loss of his 21-race career as a 2-year-old in 1919 when he was shocked by Upset at Saratoga. He skipped the 1920 Kentucky Derby because owner Sam Riddle thought 1-1/4 miles in early May was too much too soon for a young horse and instead made his 3-year-old debut in the Preakness, which he won by 1-1/2 lengths. Upset was second.

California-bred Morvich and his knobby knees began life running in claiming races as a 2-year-old but soon was barnstorming the country, eventually winning all 11 of his races in 1921 and inviting comparisons to Man o' War. In his first start at age 3, Morvich won the Kentucky Derby to run his streak to 12, but he had no opportunity to add the Preakness, for the simple reason that the Preakness was offered on the same day as the Derby. Anyway, Morvich never won another race.

Majestic Prince won twice at Bay Meadows in late 1968 and then again on Santa Anita's opening day, Dec. 26, before commencing his 1969 campaign on Jan. 7 by winning the Los Feliz Stakes at 6-1/2 furlongs. On Feb. 6, he added the seven-furlong San Vicente (just as Nyquist did earlier this year), then stepped up to a mile to win the San Jacinto Stakes on Feb. 27.

In the Santa Anita Derby on March 29, Bill Hartack geared down Majestic Prince as best he could, but they still won by eight lengths. Once in Kentucky, trainer Johnny Longden sharpened his star in the Stepping Stone Purse seven days before the Derby with a near-record effort. The Derby itself was a gut-wrenching affair, as Majestic Prince withstood the challenges of Blue Grass winner Arts and Letters and Wood Memorial winner Dike in a blanket finish.

"Still buzzing about a Kentucky Derby that was one of the best contests in years, racing buffs happily may contemplate an even better Preakness," wrote Whitney Tower in Sports Illustrated, and he was right. Majestic Prince looked beaten at Pimlico but battled back to edge Arts and Letters once again.

Sid Fernando, the eminent bloodstock scholar, noted this week that Nyquist's fourth dam was sired by Arts and Letters, and that racing could be in for another Majestic Prince-Arts and Letters rivalry if Nyquist and Exaggerator both bring their best to the Preakness after their 1-2 finishes in both the San Vicente and the Derby. We can only hope.

The parallels are similar. Like Majestic Prince, Nyquist was driven to win from the start, rising to each occasion like a horse obsessed. Exaggerator, like Arts and Letters, took more time to gather his wits but then exploded in a breakout performance to win the Santa Anita Derby by 6 1/2 lengths. For Arts and Letters, it was the Blue Grass by 15 on the threshold of the Triple Crown.

Arts and Letters had his day in the Belmont Stakes when Majestic Prince was fighting a dicey tendon and Hartack rode to protect the colt who had already given him so much. Majestic Prince never raced again, while Arts and Letters went on to become the 3-year-old champion and Horse of the Year.

"One leaves him reluctantly with the sure knowledge a magnificent and tragically unlucky racehorse passed this way in 1969," wrote Hatton of Majestic Prince.

In its wisdom, the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame balanced the books. Majestic Prince was inducted in 1988, while Arts and Letters had to wait until 1994. The judgment sat well with Hartack, a five-time Derby winner, three-time Preakness winner, and six-time national champion who spent most of his later years dodging the question of the best horse he ever rode.

"He'd always give some smart-aleck answer like, 'You only rode one horse if it's the best one you ever rode,'" said retired trainer Gary Palmisano, the jockey's close friend. Hartack died in 2007.

"But when we were out fishing one day, I nailed him down," Palmisano said. " 'Come on,' I said. 'In the deepest part of your mind, which horse was the best?'"

Out in the middle of a lake, Hartack couldn't get away, so he decided to come clean.

"Absolutely," he said, "it was Majestic Prince."