From The Brink Of Death, Needles Became Florida’s Racing Hero, Inspiration For Breeding Industry

by | 03.22.2019 | 12:45pm
Needles, with Dave Erb up, at the 1956 Belmont Stakes

Stallion farms around the world have graveyards to honor the horses that built and sustained their operations. The heart and hooves of Needles rest on the property of Ocala Breeders' Sales Co., instead of his home farm, because he belonged to the entire state of Florida.

Needles set plenty of the milestones that future Florida-breds chase to this day. He was the first horse born in the Sunshine State to win a national yearend championship when he was named co-champion 2-year-old of 1955. A year later, he won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes to bag the first two classic races by a Florida-bred.

Less heralded, but just as important, is the effect Needles' success had on shaping central Florida into a hub for Thoroughbred breeding and sales. If not for Needles and his on-track success, the graveyard where he resides might have never existed.

There were only four Thoroughbred farms in Marion County in 1952 when Florida-based Bill and Madeline Dickey Leach and Kentucky-based Paul Little entered a partnership on a trio of inexpensive broodmares. One of them, the $1,975-earning Jack High mare Noodle Soup, was hastily added to the inaugural book of 1949 Kentucky Derby winner Ponder, who retired to Calumet Farm so late into the breeding season that his first crop consisted of just four North American foals.

The Leaches insisted the ensuing foals be born at their Dickey Stables in Ocala, Fla., and they bought out Little's share in the mares to make that happen.

Foalhood was not easy for Noodle Soup's colt. He came down with equine pneumonia at just five weeks old, and spent weeks struggling with a fever. The likely-dying horse was tirelessly administered injections and oxygen by Madeline Dickey Leach, who was a registered nurse, farm manager Roy Yates, and veterinarian W. Reuben Brawner. In the book “Central Florida Thoroughbreds,” author Charlene Johnson wrote that Leach felt such pity toward the young horse for the constant pricks that she christened him “Needles.”

“The nice thing about Needles was that he was tough,” Brawner said in a 2000 interview with Florida Horse. “He never stopped eating, never lost weight, and he was always bright. Even then, he would try to kick you even though he was sick…He knew he could whip anything.”

From the brink of death, Needles grew into a high-upside racing prospect, and he was eventually purchased by Bonnie Heath and Jackson Dudley for $20,000 (about $188,000 adjusted for inflation), and put in training with Hugh Fontaine, who came out of retirement to work for the Oklahoma oilmen.

Success came quickly for the colt, who shared champion 2-year-old male honors with Nail after posting wins in the Sapling Stakes and Hopeful Stakes and setting two track records. Known for his from-the-clouds closing style, Needles racked up a win in the Flamingo Stakes, then set a track record in the Florida Derby on the road to the Kentucky Derby.

Needles was an overwhelming favorite heading into the 1956 Kentucky Derby, but one wouldn't know it to see him in the mornings. He steadfastly refused to breeze in the lead-up to the race – a habit he'd established long before arriving at Churchill Downs. A baffled media watched as a planned final public tuneup turned into a comically leisurely lope after the rider and trainer begged the horse to move from a standstill on the track.

“He was a cantankerous sort of horse,” jockey Dave Erb told the Daily Racing Form in 1996. “When he wanted to work, he'd work; when he didn't, he wouldn't. His last big work for the Derby, a week before the race, he went a mile [and] a quarter in 2:11. That's trottin' horse time, and it was embarrassing.”

As he had proven before, though, Needles knew when the running mattered. He made his usual dawdling start, settling as far back as 27 lengths off the pace before opening up in the last quarter-mile and out-kicking runner-up Fabius by three-quarters of a length.

Having just collected $123,450 for the winner's share of the Derby purse, the connections were instantly flush with cash. Knowing this, a U.S. Marshall approached trainer Fontaine as he was receiving his trophy and served him with papers for $2,000 he owed in late income taxes. According to an account by the BloodHorse, Fontaine was unfettered by the ambush.

“That don't bother me boy,” he told the agent. “Not today!”

Needles once again tried run down Fabius in the Preakness Stakes, but the order of finish was reversed. However, the Florida-bred finished on top again in the rubber match, taking the Belmont after spotting the pacesetter more than 20 lengths. A Triple Crown near-miss campaign, paired with a dominant prep season, was plenty to give Needles the champion 3-year-old male title for the 1956 racing season. He raced three times at age four, all in stakes races at Gulfstream Park, setting another track record in his career finale, when he won the 11/16-mile Fort Lauderdale Handicap.

Needles retired to Bonnie Heath Farm in Reddick, Fla., with 11 wins in 21 starts for earnings of $600,355. He'd spent plenty of time in his native state on the racetrack, but the place where he grew up looked very different from when he was a sickly foal.

While Needles blazed a trail for Florida-breds on the racetrack by becoming the first Thoroughbred born in the state to win a national year-end championship and take a classic race, the horse's impact off the track is what can still be felt today.

This is best explained on the website of Bonnie Heath Farm in Reddick, Fla., where Needles spent his entire stallion career. On the site, it boasts, “Needles put the Florida Thoroughbred industry on the map and sold more land than all the real estate agents in Marion County.”

The horse's effect on central Florida's commerce was felt almost immediately following Needles' victory in the 1956 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. When owners Bonnie Heath and Jack Dudley bought farms to support their future stallion prospect, they were quick to tell the media those establishments were the fourth and fifth Thoroughbred farms established in Marion County.

According to the book “Central Florida Thoroughbreds” by Charlene Johnson, that number was up to seven by the end of Needles' 3-year-old campaign, and by the time he entered stud at the close of his 4-year-old season, the central Florida farm population had exploded to 21.

Among the farms established in this time was Ocala Stud, which developed into one of the cornerstones of the state's commercial market. Meanwhile, major national operations including Elmendorf Farm and Darby Dan Farm, as well as owners Jan Burke, Justin Funkhauser, and John E. Hughes began sending horses to the Ocala area to train.

If there was something in central Florida's water that allowed Needles to stand toe-to-toe with the Kentucky hardboots and win, the industry was determined to find it. Heath told the Daily Racing Form in 1984 that he received “attractive” offers from prominent Kentucky farms including Claiborne and Spendthrift to stand the dual classic winner, but the decision was made to stand the horse at Heath's own farm. After initial attempts to syndicate the new stallion at $25,000 per share fell flat, Needles' racetrack owners decided to maintain full custody of their champion at stud.

“Neither of us has ever regretted the decision,” Heath said. “Although, in retrospect, it is probable that his reputation as a sire would have been much greater had we stood him in Kentucky. We've always felt that what he accomplished for the fledgling breeding program in Florida offset other considerations.”

Needles' own output at stud was solid, especially given the fact that Florida's broodmare population was light in headcount and quality for much of his two decades in service.

Of his 320 registered foals, 93 percent hit the racetrack, and 73 percent won at least one race. His 21 stakes winners were led by Irish Rebellion and Barking Steeple, who raced an astounding 114 times and 136 times, respectively, and posted earnings in the six figures.

Needles was unsuccessful in carrying on the lineage of Kentucky Derby winners in his sire line, which extended from sire Ponder and grandsire Pensive. He had two foals run in the Derby: Ishkoodah (1964, ninth) and Mr. Pak (1965, sixth), both bred by Heath and Dudley. The closest Needles came to reproducing his classic success was Needles n Pens, who ran second to High Echelon in the 1970 Belmont Stakes before becoming a top sire in Venezuela.

Beyond the breeding shed, Needles' most important non-racing vocation was as an ambassador for Marion County, not only as a destination for breeders, but for tourists.

In “Florida Thoroughbred,” another book by Johnson, the author describes roadside billboards proclaiming Ocala to be the home of Needles and offering directions to Bonnie Heath Farm. The horse was paraded onto the field during halftime of a University of Florida football game – with jockey Dave Erb in the saddle and full silks – and Needles was later named an honorary member of the Ocala Chamber of Commerce. He was the first, and thus far only, horse named to the Florida Sports Hall of Fame, and he was elected to the National Racing Museum's Hall of Fame in 2000.

Needles' success, and the growth possibilities it presented, also drew the attention the state government. In the months following Needles' classic scores, Florida governor LeRoy Collins took it upon himself to travel to New York to actively lobby prominent stable owners to have a presence in the Sunshine State.

The horse, for his part, was perfectly suited for public relations.

“About three or four days before he died, a group of school kids went to see him,” Erb told the Daily Racing Form in 1984. “He was always a ham around crowds. There were 10 or 12 of them and they all had cameras and took pictures of him. He posed and when they left, he stuck his head out of his stall, like to ask, 'Where are you going and do you want to take any more pictures?'”

When Needles was born in 1953, he was one of just 79 Florida-breds in the national foal crop. When he was pensioned from stud duty in 1977, that number had grown to 2,220. It almost doubled by the time Needles died in 1984 at age 31. At its highest point in the 2000 foaling season, the state's 4,551-head class made up 12.1 percent of the national foal crop. Five more Florida-breds have won the Kentucky Derby since Needles broke through in 1956, including the Triple Crown winner Affirmed, giving the state the second-most winners of the classic race behind Kentucky.

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