Two hours before the 27th running of the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah last Saturday, Needles was dozing peacefully in his stall. While he was being saddled, he still looked half asleep. But once Jockey Dave Erb was aboard, the good-looking bay colt came alive with a seizure of kicks and bucks to demonstrate that he knew the time for action had arrived and he was ready for it.
Minutes later he had made a near-shambles of this year's first rich ($148,800) test for 3-year-olds, earning $111,600 for his owners and establishing himself as the early favorite for the 1956 Kentucky Derby. He did it in characteristic fashion, much the same way as his sire, Ponder, won his races. Next to last out of the gate and 11th after half a mile, he responded to Jockey Erb's urging with one mighty closing run that cleared the track in front of him.
Needles' impressive victory hardly comes as a surprise. For one thing he won six of his 10 races last season, and was voted 2-year-old of the year by the experts on the staff of the Morning Telegraph and Daily Racing Form (SI, Dec. 5). For another assist in the victory you can credit those Florida lawmakers who, some years ago, in a move to stimulate interest in Thoroughbred breeding in Florida, proclaimed that on occasions such as the Flamingo all home-breds would receive a five-pound weight allowance. Thus, while all 14 of his opponents were burdened down with 122 pounds last Saturday, Needles, conceived in Kentucky but foaled in Florida, skipped around the mile-and-an-eighth Flamingo distance toting only 117 pounds. From now on, unless the present Florida legislative body wants to stir up a war among honest horsemen who come to Florida each year wanting only the chance to win a few hundred thousand dollars without interference from the State House, it should forget the old law in a hurry. If stimulation for Florida breeders is that important, then why not more races limited only to Florida-bred horses, as California does?
There will be, to be sure, some skeptics around for quite a while ready to argue that Needles would not have won had he been required to carry 122 pounds. And just as ready to argue the point back with them will be his trainer, Hugh Fontaine, who, as he stood beaming in the winner's circle, said, "Sure, I was glad to have that five pounds, but, hell, the way he was running today, it would have made no difference. Actually the extra five pounds might have made him level out better and win by more than 2¾ lengths."
EARLY TRIALS IMPORTANT
Hardly debatable, however, is the significance of early 3-year-old trials like the Flamingo. Only last week, Jimmy Jones, who, along with his father, Ben, has carved out a fabulously successful career as trainer for Calumet Farms, put it this way:
"The transition period between the ages of 2 and 3 is probably the most important period in the career of a race horse. From the one season to the other a horse has the opportunity to develop as nature intended him to, and only when he turns 3 can you get a pretty fair idea of whether he'll be any good or not."
Jimmy Jones, of course, was reflecting the point of view of the professional horseman, but what he said was just the sort of sought-for encouragement that owners of new 3-year-olds were waiting to hear. For, despite the glamour of winning big stakes and bushels of money with a 2-year-old, owners of race horses know just as well as the people who come out to bet on their horses that—with very few exceptions—real racing glory comes only through ownership of a champion 3-year-old, a colt who carries his colors to victory in, say, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness or the Belmont.
Most owners too are fortunately just as aware as the Jones boys that what happened in 1955 won't necessarily happen in 1956; that there is no written law which states an ugly horse cannot outrun a handsome one or that a fashionably bred colt will always prevail over the son of an obscure and all-but-forgotten stallion. This, then, is the time of the racing year for owners to hope.
"If," as one owner said, "a man can't look at his horses in training in February and feel thrilled at the thought that at last this is going to be his greatest season, then that man hasn't acquired the basic ideals of race-horse ownership."
TOUGH SEASON AHEAD
The season for 3-year-olds is a long and grueling one, and of the roughly 7,500 colts, geldings and fillies who advanced a year in age last January first, only those animals with the utmost soundness, durability and heart will be around to take the bows next fall. Many a "name" in February will have turned into a vague memory or a complete nonentity by November. But the luring challenge in the months between is the opportunity to race for over half a dozen stakes worth $100,000 or more each, against the toughest opposition the sport can provide.
Hialeah's Flamingo will not, of course, set the turf world aflame, but it does, for the present, provide a basis from which to start appraising the 1956 crop. Two and a half months ago, when he listed 118 3-year-olds in his Experimental Free Handicap weights, New York and California Handicapper Jimmy Kilroe went on record as saying he could see nothing outstanding about the caliber of the horses he felt obligated to weight. "This doesn't mean," Kilroe hastened to add more recently, "that it won't be a good year. On the contrary, I think it's often the case where a crop of ordinary—or evenly rated horses—will provide for a more interesting and exciting season than if you come up with one, or even two, horses who dominate the scene so completely that people are inclined to forget that there are other horses even running."
There are, for that matter, many fine colts running at the moment, and a few did themselves no discredit at all in losing to Needles. His runner-up was a field horse named Golf Ace, whose name isn't even to be found on the Experimental list (Kilroe's Experimental ratings are based on his personal judgment of how the previous season's 2-year-olds would do in a theoretical race at a mile and a sixteenth in the fall of their 2-year-old year. It is recognized not only as an appraisal of form by an expert based on 2-year-old performances, but also as a forecast of what may be expected from these same horses when they turn 3.) Actually the race known as the Experimental is run in New York in the spring, and in recent years the horses top-weighted by Kilroe have usually preferred to skip trying its six-furlong distance under handicap conditions in order to concentrate their preparations for the longer distances which will be required of them in the 3-year-old classics.
Behind Golf Ace were a lot of fair prospects about whom more will be heard. There were, for instance, Mrs. Elizabeth Arden Graham's Gun Shot, a chestnut son of Hyperion; Mrs. J. R. H. Thouron's Happy New Year, whose sire is Hill Prince; and the Belmont Futurity winner Nail, who, if he hasn't decreased in stature by finishing ninth, certainly indicated no ability for going a distance of ground. Also in the Flamingo field were two Calumet colts, Fabius and Liberty Sun (who finished third and seventh respectively). "All I've been hearing down here at Hialeah," said cagey Jimmy Jones the day before the Flamingo, "is that Calumet is loaded. I don't know who started that one, but it just ain't so. We've got four or five colts that I'd call just nice prospects—Liberty Sun, Fabius, Eastgate may be the best—but it's too early to tell. Horses have to be brought along slowly to go a distance and you'll often discover that when you're about to give up on one, he'll surprise you by developing almost overnight. Ponder was that way. Three weeks before he won the 1949 Kentucky Derby none of us really believed he was a mile-and-a-quarter horse. But he came along right at the last minute. It was just a case of Ponder showing us he could go a distance, but he took his own sweet time in showing us. Horses won't be hurried in their training. If they've got it, they'll show it to you when they're ready. If they haven't got it, all the training in the world won't make 'em do what nature doesn't intend for them to do. This is the kind of year when there could be any number of horses develop overnight—surprise all of us. I just hope we got one of 'em."
Not to detract from Needles' victory, it's still true that the colt most of the trainers at Hialeah were thinking of last week was a sleek, black number who wasn't even on the grounds. His name: Career Boy. Career Boy had been top-weighted on the Experimental list at 126 pounds (one pound more than Needles and Nail), and although he failed to finish at the top of any of the 1955 year-end polls for 2-year-old honors, Handicapper Kilroe voted him a special award: the colt most likely to succeed in 1956. Owned by C. V. Whitney, Career Boy is at the moment training at Camden, S.C. Last week he was just galloping, this week he starts breezing, and what Trainer Syl Veitch has seen to date makes him all smiles. "He showed us last fall that he can run at the finish," says Veitch, "and from his breeding he should have no trouble going a distance. [A son of the Belmont Stakes winner Phalanx, Career Boy is out of a Mahmoud mare, Swanky, who is a full sister to the 1946 Futurity winner First Flight.] He's a slow starter and usually takes five-eighths of a mile before he'll level out. But then, whammo, away he goes." One of Career Boy's stablemates at Camden is a son of Eight Thirty named Head Man, whose dam is another Mahmoud mare, Snowfall. "He is developing better than ever," says Veitch, who is beginning to get a little suspicious of all the compliments being heaped on his two best 3-year-olds. "If they're all saying I've got the best horses, they're just trying to put me on the spot. But I don't mind it so much. I'm just watching and waiting—watching to see what the Florida and California charts tell me—and waiting to see the others beat their brains out. I hope we'll be ready for them when the time comes."
There are other names that will bear watching this spring, and still others who may make themselves heard by later in the summer. And there are some who made news last year who will find the pickings thin in this new season. Remember Prince John, winner of the Garden State? He was injured in Florida and won't be seen until at least midsummer. And Swoon's Son? They say he'll be a sprinter only—and sprinters don't win Kentucky Derbies. But for future reference here are a few names to tuck away. Some may be heard from in a big way: Busher Fantasy, Getthere Jack, Liberty Sun, Eastgate, Gun Shot, Happy New Year, Lawless, Terrang, Fabius, Call Me Lucky, Count Chic, Greek Spy and Born Mighty. To many turf fans, these may hardly be familiar names, but some of the owners they represent surely are: Mrs. Elizabeth Arden Graham, Mrs. Isabel Dodge Sloan, Rex Ellsworth, Mrs. Gene Markey, Mrs. Anson Bigelow. And this is the kind of season which will almost certainly see many new faces in winners' circles around the country.
It's a long way from the Flamingo to the Derby—only two horses, Lawrin and Citation, have made it from one winner's circle to the other. In between now and the Saturday afternoon of May 5 will be many a severe test. Just to name a few: the Florida Derby, the Chesapeake, the Wood Memorial, the Blue Grass Stakes and the Derby Trial.
Another test comes off this week in California where the Santa Anita Derby may indicate what to expect from such West Coast 3-year-olds as Terrang, Like Magic, Fathers Risk, Blen Host and Polly's Jet. Californians are almost ready to admit that they don't have a Kentucky Derby horse this season. Of course they admit this with tongue in cheek. They know perfectly well that three of the last four Kentucky Derby winners—Hill Gail, Determine and Swaps—all won the Santa Anita Derby first. It could happen again in 1956.