Needles: The Racehorse Who Overcame Pneumonia to Put Florida-Breds on the Map

Needles in the 1956 Kentucky Derby winner's circle.
Two-time champion Needles in the 1956 Kentucky Derby winner's circle. (BloodHorse photo)

It’s not every day that a horse can be said to have single-handedly inspired an entire breeding industry and turned the horse racing world upside down, but such accolades are only fitting for Needles, a fairly plain bay colt with two white feet who rose from an inauspicious beginning to become a two-time champion.

Needles was born at Dickey Leach Stables (now Ocala Stud) in Florida in 1953, a time when the term “Florida-bred” was considered synonymous with “inferior” in the eyes of Kentucky-based breeders. To that point, the fledgling Thoroughbred industry in Florida had yet to produce the winner of a major stakes race, and the lack of success by Florida-breds at the highest level of the sport contributed to the belief held by some that Florida wasn’t a place for raising good horses.

Of course, while Needles was born and raised in Florida, his pedigree was thoroughly Kentuckian. His sire was 1949 Kentucky Derby winner Ponder, who hailed from the elite Calumet Farm in Kentucky, and his dam was Noodle Soup, a daughter of the capable racehorse Jack High, who counted the prestigious Hopeful Stakes and Metropolitan Handicap among his major victories on the track.

Needles in the Kentucky Derby winner's circle at Churchill Downs.
Needles in the Kentucky Derby winner's circle at Churchill Downs. (BloodHorse photo)

Remarkably, the horse that would jumpstart the Florida breeding industry almost didn’t live to be a yearling. When Needles was barely more than a month old, he developed pneumonia and had to receive a long string of injections to help him recover, and it was at this time that he was given the name Needles. Fortunately, the colt survived his illness, and after being sold to the Florida-based D&H Stables of Jack Dudley and Bonnie Heath, Needles began his ascension to legendary status, proving along the way that the negative connotation of being a Florida-bred had no bearing on performance.

He started off fast, making his debut on March 29, 1955, in a 4 ½-furlong maiden special weight at Gulfstream Park, which he won by five lengths in gate-to-wire fashion. A week later, he got off to a bad start in the Gulfstream Park Juvenile Stakes, which cost him any reasonable chance at victory, but he still put in a significant late rally to finish fourth of 11 horses.

He followed that up with a pair of easy victories in allowance races at Gulfstream and Monmouth Park, triggering a try in Monmouth’s 5 ½-furlong Tyro Stakes. A troubled trip contributed to Needles finishing fourth behind Decathlon, a future two-time champion sprinter, but a month later, a clean trip and an extra half-furlong in distance enabled Needles to turn the tables on his rival in the prestigious Sapling Stakes. Reserved eight lengths off the early lead, Needles rallied powerfully in the homestretch to defeat Decathlon by two lengths and secure his first stakes win.

With that victory under his belt, Needles shipped to Saratoga, where the best summer racing was and still is held, and took on a talented field of young horses in the 6 ½-furlong Hopeful Stakes. Once again, Needles was at the back of the pack early on, but then he unleashed a breathtaking and powerful burst of acceleration to sweep past his rivals and win by 3 ½ lengths with complete ease. Suddenly, the racing world took notice — Florida-bred or not, Needles was a horse that had to be taken seriously.

Needles brought the season to a close with an allowance win and a pair of third-place finishes in the World’s Playground Stakes and Garden State Stakes. Having compiled the strongest record of any 2-year-old colt that season, he was awarded the championship title for his division, becoming the first Florida-bred to earn such recognition.

Remarkably, the best was yet to come.

Needles gets a bath after his Kentucky Derby win.
Needles gets a bath after his Kentucky Derby win. (Courier-Journal and Louisville Times)

On Feb. 6, 1956, Needles made his much-anticipated debut as a 3-year-old and finished second in a seven-furlong allowance race at Hialeah Park. This was a perfect prep for the 1 1/8-mile Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah on Feb. 25, then one of the most prestigious Kentucky Derby prep races in the country. Taking advantage of the longer distance, Needles settled near the back of the pack before swallowing up the field with an eye-catching rally to win by 2 ¾ lengths. A month later, he unleashed another strong finish to win the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park in track-record time, setting him up for a run in the Kentucky Derby six weeks later.

At that time, a rest of six weeks before the Derby was almost unheard of, and some felt that the long rest would hurt Needles’ chances of winning the run for the roses. It didn’t help matters that Needles was reluctant to train in the days before the race, requiring a great deal of urging before he would exert himself in morning exercise. Despite these obstacles, the Kentucky Derby was a virtual repeat of the Florida Derby, with Needles rallying from nearly 24 lengths behind to defeat Calumet Farm’s talented colt Fabius by three-quarters of a length. Thus, the Florida-bred sensation had beaten the best Kentucky-bred colt in Kentucky’s biggest race, and he would quickly prove that it wasn’t a fluke. After finishing second to Fabius in the Preakness Stakes, he rebounded with a tremendous effort in the Belmont Stakes, closing from 17 lengths behind to defeat the talented Career Boy by a neck, with Fabius finishing third.

Thereafter, Needles’ career took a downhill spiral. He gave turf a try in his next two starts, finishing eighth in a six-furlong handicap race and fifth in the 1 3/16-mile American Derby. It was apparent that Needles wasn’t as good on grass, but before he could return to his preferred surface, he was sidelined with an injury and did not race again in 1956. Nevertheless, his exploits in the first half of the season earned him the title of champion 3-year-old male.

Needles returned to the races as a 4-year-old and, after finishing second in a handicap race and third in the Gulfstream Park Handicap, he finally reproduced his best form in the Fort Lauderdale Handicap at Gulfstream, lagging 20 lengths behind the leaders before blowing past them all to win easily by two lengths. The final time of 1:42 flat for 1 1/16 miles was a track record.

Sadly, the Fort Lauderdale would be Needles’ last hurrah on the racetrack, as an injury derailed him once again and brought his career to a close. But Needles would not be the last hurrah for the Florida breeding industry. Building on the success paved by Needles, Florida-bred stakes winners and champions would soon start coming in bunches: My Dear Girl, Carry Back, Roman Brother, Top Knight, Dr. Fager, Ta Wee, Office Queen, Forward Gal, Desert Vixen, Shecky Greene, Susan’s Girl, Foolish Pleasure, Honest Pleasure, Mac Diarmida, Dr. Patches, Affirmed, Waya, and It’s In the Air would all follow in Needles’ footsteps during the next 25 years as Florida-bred champions. Now, that’s not to say that the Florida Thoroughbred industry wouldn’t have succeeded without Needles, but by proving to the world that Florida could produce good horses, and by attracting new Thoroughbred breeders and owners to his home state, Needles definitely played his part.

Fun Facts

  • Needles retired from racing with a record of 11 wins, three seconds, and three thirds from 21 starts, with earnings of $600,355.
  • Throughout his career, Needles was trained by Hugh Fountaine, and ridden by just three jockeys: Johnny Choquette, who rode Needles in nine of his 10 starts as a 2-year-old; Eddie Arcaro, who rode him in the World’s Playground Stakes; and Dave Erb, who rode Needles in all of his races in 1956 and 1957.
  • Needles was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2000.
  • Showing remarkable versatility, Needles won races at nine different distances from 4 ½ furlongs to 1 1/2 miles, while setting or equaling track records at 4 ½ furlongs, 5 ½ furlongs, one mile, 1 1/16 miles, and 1 1/8 miles.

Note: This story originally was published in 2019 and has been updated.

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