Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 63 Days to Go!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 63 Days to Go!
Needles was bred by William E. Leach, who bought the winning Jack
High mare, Noodle Soup, while in foal to the Kentucky Derby winner Ponder. The bay
colt was foaled and raised in Ocala, Florida. The young foal received his name due to
the fact that he suffered from pneumonia at 5 weeks of age, having to be given frequent
shots of penicillin.

Trainer Hugh Fontaine saw the newly turned two year-old in January and liked the colt
so much that he tried to convince owners Jack Dudley and Bonnie Heath of D&H
Stable to pay $20,000 to buy the bay colt. He informed them that if they didn’t, he was
going to take out a loan to buy the colt himself. Receiving the youngster in his barn, Fontaine
quickly found out that Needles was a colt of many quirks. The most frustrating of which
was that he hated to work. When he would go to the track in the morning, he would
often just stand until he decided that he wanted to work. Often times Fontaine would
have to smack him on the rear to get him going, or his groom would have to run behind
him to keep him from stopping.

When the lazy colt finally made it to the races, Needles would win 6 of his 10 starts at 2.
His debut was a 4 ½ furlong maiden race at Gulfstream that he would win prior to
coming in 4th in the Gulfstream Park Dinner Stakes. Taking on a 4½ furlong allowance,
the bay would set a new track record of 52 2/5 seconds. Shipping to Monmouth Park, he would
win another allowance before contesting the Tyro Stakes, in which he would come in
fourth behind the undefeated Decathlon. His next start would come in the Sapling Stakes
where he would again face Decathlon, this time turning the tables for the victory. From
there he would win the Hopeful by 3½ lengths and finish 3rd in the World’s Playground
Stakes. In a prep race for the Garden State Stakes, Needles would again set a new
track record, this time for a mile. The Garden State Stakes would see Needles finish
third in a blanket finish. The Florida-bred colt would earn the title of 2YO Champion
Male at the end of the year, becoming the first Florida Champion.

Needles 3YO campaign would start in February, with a second place finish in a 7-
furlong allowance. His next two prep races for the Kentucky Derby would come in the
Flamingo Stakes and Florida Derby, with him winning both while taking the Florida
Derby in track record time. The next stop for the unusual colt and his connections was
Churchill Downs for a shot at history in the Kentucky Derby.

In the lead-up to the race during all of the media questions, Fontaine was asked if he
had heard that the Kentucky hardboots were going to plow up their Bluegrass and burn
their barns if a Florida-bred won the Derby. He responded by saying, “Tell them to crank
up their tractors and break out their matches. The winner is in my barn”. Needles would
put on a show for the press, as he would do his normal routine, sometimes waiting up to
45 minutes on the track before he would work.

Derby day would be hot, adding to Needles erratic personality. He seemed to be bored
in the paddock, taking his time under jockey Dave Erb to get to where he was going.
Once he made it past the gates, the colt decided to just stop like he did in the mornings.
The lead pony had to come over towards Needles, making him reluctantly go on. He
went easily into the #1 stall, where he was happy to just stand while everyone else
loaded. As the gates flew open, all of the horses had a perfect start, as the crowd of
100,000 roared “They’re Off!” The first time by the grandstand, Needles was in 16th,
running next to last, 24 lengths behind the leaders. As they passed the first turn and
headed into the backstretch, Erb released Needles and clucked to his mount, with no
response. Needles lagged for a moment, and then started running. When a hole
opened, he burst through, passing three competitors like they were standing still. As
they entered the far turn, Needles passed two more, then three, in just a matter of a few
strides. In the last quarter of a mile, he was still in 7th though he was passing the tiring
horses quickly, only 3 lengths behind the leader. The tandem continued to pass horses
until they reached the stretch, when there was only one horse left between Needles and
the wire. That colt was Fabius, a son of the great Citation. Quickly gaining, the bay colt
shot past Fabius to win by a length and a half, going away, in a time of 2:03 2/5,
becoming the first Florida-bred to win the Kentucky Derby.

On the winner’s stand, a Marshall would come onto the stand and approach trainer
Hugh Fontaine, who owed $2000 in taxes, just as Needles was receiving his roses. One
account said that he paid the money, while others claimed that he would be the only
man ever arrested in the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle. Bonnie Heath managed to get
Fontaine released, then the pair returned to go to the Kentucky Derby winner’s party.
They were both denied access.

Going on to contest the Preakness, the track didn’t help Needles running style, resulting
in his finishing behind the Derby runner-up Fabius. However, he would go on to conquer
the Belmont, winning by a neck with Fabius finishing third. From New York, Needles
shipped to Chicago where he would attempt to take on two races on the grass, finishing
unplaced in both. Though he didn’t have the best of luck in Chicago, the rest of his
campaign earned the Florida-bred 3YO Champion Male honors.

Racing at 4, his best finish would be a win in the Fort Lauderdale Handicap. Needles
retired as the first Florida-bred Champion racehorse and classic winner, having 11 wins
and 6 placings from 21 starts, earning $600,355. Because he was a Florida hero, the
owners decided to stand Needles at their Florida farm, which resulted in essentially the
beginning of the horse farm boom in Ocala. When the stallion was first retired there
were only a half-dozen farms in the area. Taking a chance on standing the well-known
champion there, the area soon started to significantly grow. Needles was such a folk-
hero, that he was paraded around the field at half-time for a University of Florida football

At stud, Needles sired 233 winners from 20 crops, with 21 of those being stakes
winners. The best known of his winners were Irish Rebellion, Nushka, Slystitch, and
Vitamin Shot. Needles passed away at Bonnie Heath Farm at the old age of 31. His
heart and hooves were buried at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company’s Garden of
Champions, with the remainder buried at Bonnie Heath Farm.

(Print courtesy of the Kentucky Derby Museum archives)
Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum