An hour before last Saturday's rich ($145,400) Florida Derby for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream Park, Ben Jones, the senior trainer for Calumet Farm, was sitting pensively in his box studying the past performances of the 12 horses who would shortly appear to oppose his two-horse entry of Pintor Lea and Fabius. "You know," he said, "this has been built up into being quite a race, but there's something wrong with it when you run 3-year-olds in a stake of this size at this time of year under allowance conditions. It seems to me that when you're giving away nearly $100,000 to the winner, it's nothing but a joke if you don't give the money to the best horse. Now, mind you, I don't think Calumet has the best horses—not right now anyway—but today you've got horses scaled from 122 to 107 pounds and it's just not right. The way to tell the best horse is to run 'em at equal weights." Ben Jones took another solemn look at figures and came to a serious conclusion. "Disregarding weights, the best horse is Needles. I think he should win and I think he will win."
A few boxes away Needles' owners, Bonnie Heath and Jackson Dudley, an oil engineer from Oklahoma and a former Texas rodeo hand who were talked into buying Needles for $20,000, were as chipper as a couple of wildcatters who have struck it rich with their first well. "It looks like a good day to me," said Dudley, surveying a scene in front of him which at that moment included a band concert, a sailboat race on the infield lake and an eye-catching exhibition of water skiing. "Needles is ready, and we're all in a rootin' mood."
Needles, obviously, had no knowledge of the many compliments being showered upon him last Saturday, but when he started to run he turned in a performance which certainly ranks as one of the finest of the whole winter season. He won the Florida Derby, just as Ben Jones said he would, and in doing it he set a track record of 1:48 3/5 for the mile and an eighth—nearly a second faster than he negotiated the same distance while winning last month's Flamingo at Hialeah.
Needles is a horse who, if he hasn't already done so, is going to capture the fancy of American racing fans simply because he runs his races in such a wonderfully dramatic fashion. He was dead last at the start, next to last after a quarter of a mile, and had only two horses beaten after going half a mile. Then, after Jockey Dave Erb took him the overland route on the far turn, he shot to ninth place, and he was fourth going into the stretch before he unleashed his superb run which, just as it had in the Flamingo, bowled over everything in his path. True, he was in with 117 pounds, thanks to the Florida rule of giving a five-pound allowance in stake races to homebred horses, but there were few in the crowd of 24,191 who didn't clearly feel that the best horse had won.
It isn't fair to classify a race such as the Florida Derby as a "prep" for the Kentucky Derby, but somehow it is a sort of barometer or gauge of what to expect in the next few important weeks, and as such the barometer registered a few rather important surprises. One, for example, came in the form of the second horse, an invader from California named Count Chic. Another major surprise was the disappointing performances of the Rex Ellsworth entry of Like Magic and Terrang (SI, March 12), who finished seventh and 13th respectively. Terrang had won the Santa Anita Derby (with Like Magic fourth and Count Chic fifth); and the Florida Derby, according to Trainer Mish Tenney, was to determine to a large extent whether or not the Ellsworth colors would be represented in Kentucky this May.
Of course the victory of Needles (who has now earned $338,605 while winning eight of 13 starts in two seasons) was about the best that has happened at Gulfstream in a long time. This was the track on which he ran—and won—for the first time in his career a year ago and, long before the Florida Derby, Trainer Fontaine had said he would almost rather win the Florida Derby with a Florida-bred horse than the Kentucky Derby with any horse. Now that his major wish has been fulfilled, Fontaine expects to move with extreme caution. The son of Ponder (who won the 1949 Kentucky Derby with exactly the same sort of stretch run as Needles made Saturday) will ship to Louisville in a few weeks and won't start again until the Kentucky Derby on the afternoon of May 5th. Some of his contemporaries who hope to build up their prestige between now and then will get none of this easy life. This week most of them who haven't already left Florida will head either for Kentucky, Maryland or New York to engage in the remaining preparatory stakes (see opposite page) in an effort to earn tickets to Louisville. And when they reach Churchill Downs they'll find Needles ready and waiting. With him will be 33-year-old Jockey Dave Erb, who has come to the happy conclusion that he's got himself a pretty nice 1956 assignment. "Needles," says Erb, "is the most intelligent horse I've ever been on. I hear people say he's a little sour. Well, all I know is that if you call the way he ran Saturday and in the Flamingo sour, I hope he's sour every time I see him."
There is a lot to be said for Ben Jones's criticism of the allowance conditions prevailing in the Florida Derby, and Gulfstream Director of Racing Horace Wade has decided that management may be wrong after all.
"We realize our mistake, too," said Wade, "and we're going to change the conditions of the race next year. We'll require all horses to carry 122 pounds, except I still feel that horses who have never won a stake should be allowed some concession, so those in that category will be let in at 118 pounds. And as for the five-pound Florida-bred allowance, it seems pretty certain that the state will write that regulation off its books once and for all."
THE ROAD TO THE DERBY
Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. 1 1/8 miles. $10,000.
Experimental Free Handicap. Jamaica. 6 furlongs. $20,000.
The Gotham. Jamaica. 1 1/16 miles. $25,000.
Governor's Gold Cup. Bowie. 6 furlongs. $30,000.
Wood Memorial. Jamaica. 1 1/8 miles. $50,000.
Chesapeake Stakes. Laurel. 1 1/16 miles. $20,000.
California Derby. Tanforan. 1 1/8 miles. $35,000.
Blue Grass Stakes. Keeneland. 1 1/8 miles. $25,000.
The Swift. Jamaica. 6 furlongs. $20,000.
Derby Trial. Churchill Downs. 1 mile. $10,000.
Kentucky Derby. Churchill Downs. 1¼ miles. $125,000.