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.

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