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At Needles’ old Ocala home, with Spanish Moss hanging from Live Oak trees

By Bill Doolittle

I was down in Miami one winter looking for Derby stories for the new Kentucky Derby Museum. A writer named Dave Goldman suggested I visit a fellow named Bonnie Heath, who owned Needles, the 1956 Kentucky Derby winner, and stood him at stud at his Bonnie Heath Farm, near Ocala, Florida.

Ocala is in the center of the state, north of Orlando, in farm country devoted to fresh oranges and fast racehorses. The farms are there because of the excellent water (Silver Springs, the famous tourist trap with the glass bottom boats is nearby) and the land is slightly elevated from the rest of the state. I think Heath told me his farm is 12 feet above sea level. So it drains, and has the advantage of getting light frosts each winter that hold down the insect pests. Goldman had told me Needles was the first Florida-bred to win the Kentucky Derby, and Heath’s decision to stand Needles at stud in Ocala had made the Florida horse breeding industry. But it was Needles’ days as a champion race horse that Goldman said I needed to hear about. Needles was the two-year-old champion in 1955 and rolled through a three-year-old season of victories that included the Flamingo, Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes – all accomplished in electrifying come-from-behind style. Needles wasn’t just the first Florida-bred to win the Kentucky Derby, he was also the first ever to run in it.

Ocala, Florida, in 1983, was a small country town, the county seat of Marion County, farm country. Out at Bonnie Heath Farm, I found a pretty main house and handsome barns, set in a grove of live oaks, with Spanish Moss hanging from the branches – just like from the song “Suwanee River,” by Stephen Foster, who also penned a tune called, “My Old Kentucky Home.”

The first thing, Heath took me out to the paddock to see Needles, who was then long retired. The horse had a few touches of gray, and was slightly sway-backed in his thirties. But trotted he right over to eye-ball a visitor. Nice old horse. He died the next year at the age of 31, making him one of the longest-lived Derby winners.

We went back to the house and Mr. Heath offered a cool glass of iced tea. We sat in on a screened-in porch, looking out toward the barn and Needles paddock as Heath told me about Needles – beginning with how he and partner Jack Abbot got involved with a trainer named Hugh Fontaine, who found Needles.

“Hugh Fontaine was one of those fellows who’d been everywhere and done everything,” recalled Heath. “He’d been a big-time trainer at Saratoga and up East at one time, but kind of lost out on that, and I think he was looking to get back. Before that, Fontaine had been a World War I flying ace. He was the kind of guy things happened around – and I guess Dudley and I must have looked pretty good to him. We’d raced some horses with him, but we hadn’t had much luck and we’d pretty much decided to get out of the game. But then Fontaine called and begged us to come down to Miami and look at this horse that was in a two-year-old in training sale. He said we had to see him.”

A two-year-old in training sale is just what it sounds like. Instead of buying horses at a yearling sale, such as at Saratoga or Lexington, where all the horses are unraced one-year-old prospects, at a 2-year-old in training sale, buyers match bids on horses that have turned two, and put in training. The big feature is you get to see them run. Or “breeze,” as it is called. Each of the horses in the sale get a time on the track to speed along for maybe two furlongs, and buyers get to see what’s up. The sale in Miami, held then at the old Tropical Park, is kind of the granddaddy of the genre, with many such sales today. Bonnie Heath and Jack Dudley were about to “meet” the horse that would put that sale, and them, on the map.

But the horse shoppers were cautious.

“We were new to the business, but we weren’t dumb,” Heath continued. “We knew there weren’t really any rules on those breezes. They could do just about anything they wanted to make those 2-year-olds go. For this horse, Needles, they put up a journeyman jock named Nick Jemas, who had a reputation of being a real good gate jock, who could get a horse going right now. We knew things were stacked against us, but Fontaine kept saying we had to buy this horse, this was the one. Still, we weren’t just going to throw money away.

“The morning of the breeze, Needles looked fabulous,” Heath continued. “He was a real deep bay, and that jock got him flying. He was easily the fastest horse in the sale, so we knew he was going to be expensive – and you’d think we would have had more sense … but he was so fast. And so beautiful”.

And expensive.

“He breezed a quarter mile in 23 seconds, which was awful fast. Still, we must have looked at him about 40 times before we finally decided to go ahead and bid on him all the way. He went for $40,000.”

It didn’t take long for the buyers’ bet to pay off. Fontaine took the horse up east and won the Hopeful and other races, with Needles being named 2-year-old champion. Coming to the Kentucky Derby at age three, Needles won the Flamingo and Florida Derby in Miami.

Then came the wait. In those days, Derby candidates would race one and usually two times after the Florida Derby, run in March, leading up to the Kentucky Derby, on the first Saturday in May. But Fontaine decided to train Needles up to the Derby, with no races over the seven week stretch. Of course, they all said he was crazy.” recalled Bonnie. “They said it was just the kind of thing that had cost Fontaine his spot at the top before. They said there was no way Needles could win the Kentucky Derby without one or two April prep races. It wasn’t done.”

But Fontaine stood firm.

“I don’t mind saying it did make us nervous,” said Heath. “Everybody was saying the horse would lose the Derby with so little preparation, including the horse people in Lexington. But Fontaine stuck to his gins.”

In the Derby, jockey Dave Erb allowed Needles to drop back early, as was his custom. He was 16th of 17 in the field, then came running. He caught Calumet Farm’s Fabius a furlong from the finish and was pulling away at the wire. Needles was the third in a Derby breeding sire trio — which is one of those great things about the Kentucky Derby, that its spreads over time. Pensive won the 1944 Kentucky Derby. His son Ponder won it in 1949, and then Ponder’s son Needles made it three in a generational line to win the Kentucky Derby in 1956.

Plus, Pensive’s sire Hyperion had won the Derby at Epsom, in England, as had his sire Gainsborough. So you could say it was five Derbys’ in a line.

Two weeks later in Baltimore, Needles couldn’t catch Fabius, and the Derby finish was reversed in the Preakness. But then came the Belmont, the longest of the three Triple Crown races.

“At the Belmont, there was a lone tree by the track on the far turn that made just a smidgen of shade on the track,” said Heath. “In the midst of all that pre-race excitement, Needles stopped when he got to that shade and stood there for a moment. It was his way of asserting himself.”

Needles did win the Belmont, and despite offers from Kentucky breeders, Heath built the farm for him to stand in Florida. When Needles started at stud there in 1957, were five horse farms in Marion County. When he died in 1984 at the age of 31, there were more than 300.