Triple Crown Near-Misses: Needles Runs Out of Track

Needles had to overcome a lot to win the 1956 Kentucky Derby. As a weanling, he developed pneumonia and had to receive numerous injections of antibiotics (hence the name “Needles”); his dam, Noodle Soup, had won only one of 14 starts; no Florida-bred horse had ever won the Derby; and no horse since Jet Pilot in 1947 had won a Derby after a six-week layoff.

And for most of the race, it looked like those factors would block the 8-5 favorite from winning the Derby like his sire, Ponder, and his grandsire, Pensive, did. He was 24 lengths behind after a half mile, 16 lengths behind after six furlongs. But he started making up ground, and by the top of the stretch he was only 4 1/2 lengths behind Calumet Farm’s Fabius, the second choice at 7-2. But he was in sixth place.

With jockey David Erb liberally applying the whip, Needles responded, He was a head behind at the eighth pole, and slowly inched his way forward, the final margin being 3/4 of a length over Fabius. It was the biggest comeback in Derby history.

The Preakness: Too Little, Too Late

Bettors once again named Needles the favorite for the Preakness Stakes, but Fabius was ready for revenge. The race played out just as the Derby had, with Needles 13 1/2 lengths behind at one point and Fabius making his move on the far turn to take the lead, and Needles far, far back. The Preakness, however, is 1/16 of a mile shorter, and Needles did not have enough ground to make up the margin. Fabius went under the wire 1 3/4 lengths ahead of Needles.

Fans waited for the rubber match between the two rivals in the Belmont Stakes. And once again, Needles fell far behind early – 23 lengths at one point – while a longshot, Charlevoix, set stunning fractions. The race was setting up for Needles, but Fabius took over after 3/4 of a mile and built a two-length lead heading into the far turn. Needles made his move, slowly eating up ground; this time, however, the long homestretch at Belmont gave him enough room.

Fabius ran out of gas in the homestretch, and both Needles and Career Boy overtook him. The two battled it out for the last sixteenth of a mile, with Needles sticking a neck out in front at the finish.

Needles went on to win American Champion Three-Year-Old Male Horse in 1956 and retired at age 4 due to an injury. He finished his career with 11 wins in 21 starts and was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2000.

Triple Crown Near-Misses: Nashua Runs Into Swaps

Swaps leading Nashua in the 1955 Kentucky Derby.
Swaps leads Nashua in the 1955 Kentucky Derby.

Nashua was destined to be the new superhorse, a colt that would wipe away the Triple Crown failure of Native Dancer and restore order to horse racing. Trained by the legendary “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons and ridden by Eddie Arcaro, he had won 8 of 10 races as a 2-year-old, good enough for Champion 2-Year-Old Male in 1954. And he started 1955 the same way, winning his first four races – including the Flamingo Stakes, Florida Derby and Wood Memorial.

But from the West came a newcomer: Swaps. He had won only three of six starts at 2 but was riding a four-race winning streak. Fitzsimmons didn’t think much of the western colt and his cowboy trainers and owners – so little, in fact, that he instructed Arcaro before the Kentucky Derby to keep an eye on Nashua’s rival Summer Tan instead of Swaps.

West Beats East

Swaps took an early 1-1/2 length lead in the Derby, with Nashua 4 lengths behind, Arcaro taking his instructions and waiting for Summer Tan to make his move on the front-runner. When the move never materialized, Arcaro set his sights on Swaps and his jockey, Bill Shoemaker. He got to within a half a length at the head of the homestretch, but Swaps had a final kick that put Nashua away; he won by 1 1/2 lengths in a shocking upset. 

Swaps, however, was done with Triple Crown racing; his handlers shipped him back west, leaving Nashua to mop up the rest of the Crown. He didn’t disappoint, Going to Maryland as the 3-10 favorite, he lurked back in fourth place behind Saratoga, who set a blistering pace. When Nashua made his move, though, Saratoga refused to relent, and the two horses raced down the homestretch together, Nashua finally pulling away in the final eighth to win by a length in 1:54 3/5 – a track record.

In the Belmont, it was all Nashua, who was the 3-20 odds-on favorite. Little Dell tried to make a race of it, leading Nashua by 3 lengths after a half-mile, but Nashua made his move approaching the far turn, led by 2 1/2 lengths entering the homestretch, and eventually lengthened that lead to nine lengths over 37-1 long shot Blazing Count.

Swaps won 8 of 9 races that year, his only loss coming in a match race with Nashua on August 31, 1955. Swaps had a foot ailment that day, and although he made several runs at Nashua, Nashua never relented and pulled away at the end, winning by 6 1/2 lengths. The victory cemented Nashua’s chances at being named Horse of the Year, as well as Champion 3-Year-Old Male Horse.

Hall of Famers

Nashua finished the year with 10 wins in 12 starts. For his career, he won 22 of 30 starts and finished out of the money only three times. He stood at Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky, siring 77 stakes winners, and was the damsire of 122 stakes winners, including the acclaimed stallion Mr. Prospector.

Swaps won 19 of 25 races, finishing out of the money only twice. He was also a success at stud, siring 35 stakes winners, including 1963 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Chateaugay.

The two horses met only twice; both are in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

40 Years Ago: Spectacular Bid Destroys Preakness Field

Forty years ago today, Ron Franklin, Bud Delp and the Meyerhoffs made their homecoming successful as Spectacular Bid romped to a 5 1/2-length victory in the Preakness Stakes – their second jewel in the Triple Crown after a successful Kentucky Derby.

The only drama was and escalation in the heated feud between Franklin and fellow jockey Angel Cordero – a feud that would boil over weeks before the Belmont Stakes.

As usual, it didn’t start well. Off to a sluggish start, Bid was bumped by Flying Paster. He then faced an attempt to cut him off as Cordero moved in toward him with Screen King, trying to force him to the rail.

Franklin first accepted the assignment to the rail to get away from Cordero, then looked for his chance to go outside. However, Cordero knew he would do this and moved Screen King in front of Bid, almost inviting him to check his speed and go around him.

General Assembly and Flying Paster were setting a quick pace, running the first quarter mile in :23 2/5, with Screen King comfortably in third and Bid in fourth, 5 lengths behind. Golden Act trailed the pack.

The Paster and General Assembly reached the backstretch neck and neck, with a 3-length lead on the rest of the horses. Cordero swung Screen King to the outside, knowing Franklin’s hesitancy to go to the inside—Cordero had created that fear in the Florida Derby—and was almost daring Bid to go to the inside.

But Franklin was a different rider than he was at the Florida Derby several months ago. He resisted staying on the inside and swung Bid all the way to the middle of the track, a place where few horses travel, moving to the outside of Screen King as the two began to catch General Assembly, who had a small lead. And the crowd of 72,000 roared.

Heading into the far turn, Franklin let Bid go, and Bid responded. He blew past Screen King, moved directly in front of him, and forced him to slow down. Cordero stood up in his stirrups in an act that seemed to plead to the stewards, “Foul!” Cordero cost Screen King valuable seconds; the horse was soon out of contention.

By this time, Flying Paster had passed General Assembly, and fans and the media saw what they were looking for: a duel between East and West, Bid vs. The Paster on a decent track, no excuses. Bid stayed wide.

And if you blinked, you missed the rivalry. Within a few seconds, Bid blew past The Paster, leading by one length, then two. The margin doubled to four as the horses entered the homestretch.

Golden Act made his late move, but Bid was too far ahead. The Paster faded as Bid increased his lead to six lengths. Franklin finally reined him in to save the horse’s stamina, he was five and a half lengths ahead of Golden Act. Screen King somehow managed third place; Flying Paster was fourth, and General Assembly, fading badly, finished last.

The time was 1:54 1/5, the second-fastest Preakness in history and just 1/5 of a second slower than the record set by Cañonero II in 1971 (Secretariat’s record had not been verified yet). It remains the fastest Preakness ever run on a wet track. If Franklin had not pulled Bid up toward the end, or if he had more competition to push him, the record would have been his.

For the win, Bid earned $165,300, which brought his career earnings to over $1.1 million. He had now won 12 races in a row, 14 of 16 for his career. The Meyerhoffs exchanged congratulations and kisses and exploded in screams as they began their frantic rush down to the winner’s circle.

“Fantastic!” Someone yelled to Tom Meyerhoff as he approached the winner’s circle. “It wasn’t fantastic,” he replied, throwing the fan a Spectacular Bid T-shirt. “It was spectacular.”