For an afternoon that was eventually to be dedicated to speed clear across the country, the pace around Barn 10 at Churchill Downs seemed uncommonly slow early last Saturday. There seemed to be several good reasons. For one thing, the No. 1 resident of Barn 10, the Florida-bred Kentucky favorite Needles, although he undoubtedly did not know it, had had a victory party tossed in his honor the night before in a hotel in Evansville, Ind. which, for this auspicious occasion, had been taken over lock, stock and barrel by his owners for the express purpose of entertaining their old friends from Florida and Oklahoma and their new friends from every other place you can think of. Owners Jackson Dudley and Bonnie Heath might as well have invited Needles to share in the premature rejoicing, for when Trainer Hugh Fontaine showed up at Barn 10 at 5:30 a.m. on Derby Day (after three hours of sleep) he discovered his Derby horse looking quite as mournful and generally disinterested as anybody who has ever been to a rousing party in Evansville, Ind.
From neighboring barns the Derby horses walked peacefully to the race track for a last slow gallop. Not Needles. With his eyes half shut he dozed through the morning, while Fontaine—dressed for the big day in a fancy ensemble made up of ochre and maroon-striped pants and a reddish-tan sport coat that would not have seemed out of place draped around a sideshow barker—settled peacefully into an old wooden rocker in the stable office. Was it not customary, he was asked by inquisitive visitors, to gallop his horse at least once around on the morning of a race? Mr. Hugh Fontaine is not the most communicative of men. "He galloped yesterday," was his reply. "No need to gallop again today. He's ready." That about summed it up with the least possible expenditure of effort and, having handed down the verdict on the best American 3-year-old of 1956, Hugh Fontaine allowed himself the same privilege which Needles apparently takes completely for granted: that of catnapping leisurely until it's time to go to work.
There's no use pretending that Needles' victory in the 82nd Derby later in the day will be ranked quite alongside that of Whirlaway's record-setting triumph in 1941, but it was, nonetheless, such an outstanding performance on the part of both horse and rider that it must immediately elevate Needles from the position of being not just the best 3-year-old of the spring but a colt quite worthy of winning every major 3-year-old race in which he is entered for the remainder of the season.
GALLANTRY IN THE AFTERNOON
This, of course, means he could win the Triple Crown (Preakness on May 19 and Belmont on June 16), and become the first to do so since Citation in 1948. Say what you will about Needles racing in a year where the 3-year-olds are an ordinary lot. Say, if you prefer, that Needles can only deserve to be labeled the best of a common lot. But deny, if you can, that Needles on last Saturday afternoon in Louisville achieved honorable stardom through as gallant a show of courageous running as many of us will see for a very long time to come.
It was a foregone conclusion that Needles would come away from his inside post position far back of the pace-setters, that he would hardly be in the race for the first three quarters of a mile. Needles disappointed nobody in this respect. He loped out of the gate so far behind Terrang, Fabius and Invalidate that in no time at all it appeared that in the six-week interval since his last race he had completely forgotten his mission in life. Past the stands they sped the first time—with the front pack made up of Terrang and Fabius, then Head Man and No Regrets and Ben A. Jones. When Terrang clicked off the first six furlongs in 1:11⅗ Needles had only one horse—High King—beaten in the 17-horse field. His jockey, Dave Erb, so weak from a four-day attack of flu that he would have canceled his mounts had it been any day but Derby Day, was frankly worried.
"First we got a little pinched by Career Boy, unintentionally, I know, on the first turn," said Erb afterward. "Then he turned the bit loose and he acted like he didn't want to go, and for a few seconds I didn't know what he was going to do. I thought to myself, what the hell is coming off here. Then it happened. Needles is a headstrong horse who knows his business, and suddenly, after he scared me at the five-eighths pole, he opened up."
When Needles started his move it was a brilliant spectacle to watch. Erb estimates—perhaps over-conservatively—that he made up 15 lengths. It seemed more like 20. But when he started he flew. He roared from 16th to be seventh after one mile, at which point Fabius, the Calumet speed horse, was in the lead, followed by No Regrets and a fading Terrang. "When I went into those horses they just seemed to spread for me," says Erb. "Nothing could have worked better for us—or luckier." Rounding into the stretch the Florida champion, miraculously avoiding the trouble which comes so often to a stretch runner overtaking tired horses, Needles was now second but only a head away from Fabius. A fraction of a minute later they had locked in a stretch duel, but instinctively you felt that a horse who had come up from next-to-last was now not to be denied his victory. Willie Hartack and Fabius gave it a superb try, but Erb and Needles were better at this sort of late running, and as they swept down on the money—to the accompaniment of 100,000 cheers and sighs—there could be little argument that the best horse had won a classic victory.
It may be slightly early to try to re-evaluate the 3-year-olds on the basis of just one more in the long succession of sophomore stakes, but the latest Derby may be of special significance, for it shows us, among other things, that quite a few of the well-thought-of contenders may not be quite as formidable as we had first been led to believe. Fabius, for instance, will be a tough one for distances under the Derby's mile and a quarter. Head Man (8th), No Regrets (7th) and Terrang (12th) now look as though they may be strictly milers. As for Career Boy, who came from 15th place to wind up sixth, it looks as though his only chance to get the better of Needles will be in the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes.
When it was all over, the Florida contingent pitched in to celebrate all over again at the track. The happy quartet of Dudley, Heath, Fontaine and Erb did their best to retain that air of pleasant confidence that has been so characteristic of them ever since they teamed up with Needles. "I guess," said a beaming Heath, "this is a glory beyond all description." Noncommittal Hugh Fontaine was his usual self: "I guess we did it, all right."
And as for Needles, the new champion turned in early. After all, he had justified the party in Evansville, Ind. and now wouldn't have to go back to work for another two weeks.