02/19/2003 1:00AM

Hartack remembers Longden


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - One tough guy admired another.

"Johnny Longden never changed," Bill Hartack said the other day, reminiscing. "I went out to California to ride about the time Longden was ready to retire. He hadn't changed. He was violently opposed to anyone getting through on the inside. I like to get through on the rail and we clashed several times. He was in his mid-50's but he was as mean as ever. I was as mean as John but we kept it on the track. We played cards together between races."

Longden, who died at 96 last week, had his last ride in 1966 when he drove George Royal to a thrilling victory in the San Juan Capistrano Handicap at a mile and three-quarters at Santa Anita. Two years later, now training horses, he phoned Hartack and asked him to work a colt who hadn't started but was under consideration for an important stakes engagement at Hollywood Park.

This was no ordinary horse. He had topped the yearling sales at a record $250,000 and everyone knew he was a runner. His name was Majestic Prince.

"John told me to let him go along but not to do too much," Hartack said. "The colt had wonderful action and covered a lot of ground easily. When we got to the head of the stretch, John had his pony all out and was waving me to slow down. Majestic Prince got the six furlongs in 1:10 and change. John was upset but I pointed out the colt was breathing easily and that good horses worked that way. After a while, he agreed."

Longden changed plans for Majestic Prince's summer debut and contacted Hartack that fall. He sent the colt to San Francisco for a race at Bay Meadows and asked Hartack to ride.

"I was surprised," Hartack said. "I thought he was going to ride Shoemaker. He knew him a lot longer. I was on a hunting trip to Idaho and hadn't ridden in two months, but I got to Bay Meadows and wasn't sorry. He won easily."

Longden, with years of experience behind him, mapped out a careful program to bring Majestic Prince to the Kentucky Derby at tops. He had five races at the Santa Anita meeting, climaxed by the Santa Anita Derby.

Each race was a little more demanding but The Prince showed improvement with every appearance. He won the Santa Anita Derby by eight lengths and concluded his preparation by shipping to Churchill Downs and capturing the seven-furlong Stepping Stone by six lengths.

"John produced Majestic Prince in tremendous appearance on Derby Day," Hartack said. "He knew horses. Everything he ever told me about The Prince was true. Top Knight, who won the Flamingo and Florida Derby easily, was the main Eastern threat in Louisville, and Arts and Letters, who won the Blue Grass at Keeneland by 15 lengths, was also regarded highly."

Top Knight came from off the pace. Arts and Letters seemed to do best in front. Hartack developed a plan to deal with the two threats but after studying Top Knight in the post parade, dismissed him from consideration. The undefeated Majestic Prince won the Derby by a neck from Arts and Letters to give Hartack his fifth victory in the classic, tying Eddie Arcaro.

Longden sent Majestic Prince to Baltimore for the Preakness but the colt never seemed comfortable to Hartack over the Pimlico track. His class prevailed, however, and he won by a head after withstanding a claim of foul lodged by runner-up Arts and Letters.

Majestic Prince was beginning to bow a tendon and Longden announced that he would miss the Belmont. A number of media commentators criticized owner Frank McMahon for a lack of sportsmanship and McMahon, who was in poor health at the time, decided to run his horse. Longden and Hartack, doing all that was possible under the circumstances, handled the preparation with great care, but the injured Majestic Prince was a well-beaten second, and never ran again.