When Jimmy Jones recently took over the duties of senior trainer of Calumet Farm from his father, Ben, it seems he inherited not only the renowned Jones ability in the specialized art of training but the equally familiar fondness for gloomy pessimism on the eve of battle. Jimmy never upheld the theory of heredity with more éclat than he did last week at Pimlico.
All week long the center of attraction was the Kentucky Derby winner Needles who, true to form, did pretty much as he pleased and nothing more—which added up to two works and a blowout in 14 days. "All of 'em," said unperturbed Trainer Hugh Fontaine, "were on the slow side, but we're used to that by now." But the usual quiet confidence in the Needles camp was tinged during the last day or two before the Preakness with growing respect for Fabius, the Derby runner-up, who carries the same famous devil's-red and blue silks that his sire, Citation, bore as the last Triple Crown winner back in 1948. Sitting in the stable area snack shop while waiting for the drawing of post positions, Owner Bonnie Heath bravely tossed out an honest opinion. "This is going to be our toughest race. We're going to need all the luck. No use kiddin' ourselves, Fabius is the fellow we've got to beat. If he opens up a big lead he's going to be tough to catch."
Jimmy Jones, of course, was glad to learn of the high regard in which the enemy held Fabius, but when he finally set down at Pimlico after a hectic week of scurrying between Maryland, New Jersey and New York he was somber as ever. "Oh, sure," he said, "my horse has been training well, he's a willing worker and he shouldn't disgrace us." Then Jimmy threw in the tearjerker. "The only question in my mind is whether he's good enough to do the job. Now, that Needles is a good colt; he's a lot better than people give him credit for being. Why, shucks, any horse with one run like his can beat you to death. I'm real scared of him, I don't mind telling you."
This question of a horse with one run, so to speak, became a lively issue on Preakness Day. The Fabius supporters (none of the other seven Preakness starters ever really drew more than a passing glance from the crowd of 29,774) held to the view that a race a sixteenth of a mile shorter than the Derby would favor their choice almost as much as Pimlico's tight turns and shorter stretch would work against Needles. A one-run horse like Needles who comes from so far back in the pack, they argued, would need a long race to be most effective. Not so, said the Needles camp, and Jimmy Jones himself backed the dissenting theory when he said, "I always figured Whirl-away a late runner with one big burst of speed. Well, he could do all right going only seven-eighths if he had to. He didn't have to have longer distances."
May 27, 1956
Attention in the paddock was focused almost entirely on the two big contenders. Trainer Fontaine huddled briefly with Dave Erb, his regular jockey. "I never tell Dave what to do," says Fontaine. "He's cool and has a world of confidence. He knows." A few stalls away, Jones, the sole Calumet representative on the grounds (Owner Mrs. Gene Markey and her husband were traveling, and Ben Jones stayed home in Kentucky), had a few words with his jockey, young Willie Hartack. "You don't have to set the pace. Take back off it a bit, but just be careful and don't let the speed horses kill you off."
As everybody by now well knows, Fabius won the Preakness. He won it by running his race perfectly—although his time of 1:58 2/5 was well off Nashua's track record of 1:54 3/5—while Needles lost not through running badly but simply, as Erb sadly explained it later, "by finishing without all of that old punch."
Needles—punch or no punch—did all right. He came once again from dead last to finish only a length and three-quarters behind the winner and a length to the good of No Regrets.
Erb, as graceful a loser as he was a winner, explained: "I really can't give any excuse of bad luck. Maybe, though, this Derby took more out of him than any of us realized. I just don't believe the Preakness was his true race. He had a nice move but a weak run." Erb gave a sort of nod of approval when it was suggested that a horse of leisure like Needles—usually accustomed to a full month between paydays—simply wasn't about to pitch in with his best effort until he felt like it, and that after only two weeks he was just getting that restful holiday feeling instead of an urge to make more money.
'Don't you worry," said Dave. "I expect they may be hearing from us about Belmont time [the Belmont Stakes on June 16]."
Jones's immediate plans for Fabius are uncertain. "We'll take 'em one week at a time from now on," he said. "He did all right today, and I'm higher on him now than ever before."
Jimmy Jones left Pimlico with other news to cheer him: on Preakness Day two of Calumet's best 3-year-old fillies, Beyond and Princess Turia, had dead-heated for first place in Belmont's traditional Acorn Stakes. And over at Garden State another runner, the 4-year-old Trentonian, had won his third race of the season. The realization that he may have one of the strongest stables in the country added to Jimmy's jubilation that night and possibly, too, it was a consolation to everyone at Calumet that on the day when their greatest champion of all, Citation, was finally dethroned as the richest horse in the world (see page 23), Citation's son Fabius went out and licked a colt Jimmy Jones had pessimistically predicted could "beat us to death."