04/17/2006 12:00AM

San Juan saw one terrific finish

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The date has already passed - it was March 12 - but the significance of the anniversary lingers. Forty years ago, on a smog-shrouded Saturday afternoon at Santa Anita Park, a 5-year-old horse and his 59-year-old jockey made the kind of racing history that remains as vibrant and alive as yesterday's news.

Johnny Longden's last ride aboard George Royal in the 1966 San Juan Capistrano Handicap has been hailed, year after year, as the most memorable moment in the history of Santa Anita Park. That takes in a lot, too, considering the fact that Seabiscuit, Round Table, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay, and Eddie Arcaro all did a considerable amount of business at the house that Dr. Charles H. Strub built.

With the current season drawing to an end, the San Juan Capistrano is the appropriate feature of closing day on Sunday, just as it closed the meeting 40 years ago. And while they don't make San Juan fields the way they used to, it is unreasonable to expect that a jockey, a horse, and a race will ever again come together like Johnny, George, and the '66 San Juan.

Indeed, barely two weeks before the race, Longden could hardly walk, ailing from a pinched nerve suffered in a January fall. But it wasn't until the week before, at a dinner of the Pasadena Sports Ambassadors in his honor, that Longden made the decision that the San Juan would be his final ride.

Dick Nash, Santa Anita's publicity director and Longden's ride to the shindig, observed at one point in the evening that his biggest thrill of the meet was Lucky Debonair's victory in the Santa Anita Handicap.

"I'll give you a better thrill than Lucky Debonair," Longden said, when it was finally his turn to speak. "I'm going to ride George Royal and that will be the last ride of my life. Believe me."

Such a bomb, if exploded today, would need to be dropped by someone of the stature of Michael Jordan or Roger Clemens for it to make a similar impression.

"Every reporter who was at the dinner table jumped for a telephone," recalled Nash in B.K. Beckwith's biography, "The Longden Legend."

And rightfully so. Longden was an American sports institution, the man who had won more races than any jockey in history - including the 1943 Triple Crown on Count Fleet - and stood tall as an international ambassador for both his industry and his country.

But the cold, hard fact of his age had hit Longden hard that winter, especially on the celebration of his 59th birthday in the Santa Anita jockeys' room. Not even a surprise appearance by Bing Crosby to croon "Happy Birthday" could hide the truth.

"I looked around me and saw all these kids," Longden told Beckwith. "I began to wonder if maybe I wasn't carrying it a bit too far - sort of riding a good horse to death."

Eric Longden, John's son and a 22-year-old trainer at the time, breathed a sigh of relief along with the rest of the family.

"He was the toughest individual you'd ever want to be around," Eric Longden said from his north San Diego country home. "But we just didn't want him to get hurt anymore."

The 1966 San Juan field included Hill Rise, winner of the 1965 Santa Anita Handicap and second in the 1964 Kentucky Derby, champion mare Straight Deal, and several major stakes winners. The one they all had to catch, though, was Plaque, ridden by future Hall of Famer Robert Ussery.

"Going that far, horses aren't going to be making a big stretch run, even going a slow pace," said Ussery, who spends each spring in Lexington. "I always felt a horse up on the lead wouldn't have to do as much to stave off the late bids."

He was right. As the furlongs of the San Juan unfurled, horses would make their runs, and Plaque just kept going. Only George Royal sustained a serious attack, after Longden had put Manny Ycaza and Hill Rise in a perfect switch on the far turn.

"That's when the crowd really roared," Eric Longden recalled. "When Joe Hernandez called George Royal moving on the outside, coming into the stretch."

The finish went down the the final stride, George Royal on the outside and Plaque on the rail.

"I'm telling you, it felt like they took 30 minutes to look at that picture," Ussery said. "I wanted to win bad, but as the years passed I was glad for Longden that he went out that way."

John's pal, Chase McCoy, was in the crowd of more than 60,000 that day.

"We all headed over to John's house that night - everybody seemed to be there," McCoy said. "John was never one for parties, but when he came in later, he acted like he owned the place."

He did, in more ways than one.

Longden died on his 96th birthday in February of 2003, hailed as the only man to win the Kentucky Derby as a jockey (Count Fleet) and a trainer (Majestic Prince). Even so, none of those exploits could hold a candle to the magic of the 1966 San Juan, Longden's 6,032nd and final victory.

"If it is true that age is the undefeated champion over all athletes," Beckwith wrote, "all I can say is that Longden gave it a hell of a mauling this day."