SI Vault
John P. Marquand
May 14, 1956
That, unfortunately, was Needles, as far as Roger Horlick was concerned. In this Louisville letter to Albert Magill at Happy Knoll he tells what happened
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May 14, 1956

A Horse With No Return

That, unfortunately, was Needles, as far as Roger Horlick was concerned. In this Louisville letter to Albert Magill at Happy Knoll he tells what happened

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Letter from Mr. Roger Horlick, member of the Board of Governors of the Happy Knoll Country Club, to Mr. Albert Magill, president emeritus of the Happy Knoll Country Club.

Dear Albert:
It was a beautiful day yesterday at the Derby, and occasionally I wished that you were with me to enjoy the sunshine, the quaint intricacies of the delightful old, though overgrown, clubhouse and the betting areas on the Churchill Downs course. Frankly nothing much has seemed to have changed there since you and I were college boys attending our first race with our fathers—except that it is easier by far to get to the $2 windows than it used to be and except that the juleps appear to have grown noticeably weaker under the impact of the years. I wished several times, too, that you might have seen the beautiful tulips in the courtyard and some of the quaint characters there, including a gentleman named Diamond Jim Moran, who I believe is the proprietor of a restaurant in New Orleans. You would have especially enjoyed his diamond-studded spectacles and, though I did not see him do it, I heard that when asked by the press for a photograph he retired for a few moments in order to place diamond fillings in his teeth. There were lots of other quaint characters also, including the confidence men, and the '56 model is as agile and streamlined as this year's two-toned cars—but the plainclothes detective force, on the other hand, looked as conservative as ever. As I say, I often wished that you had been there, though on the whole I am glad you were not because we would have quarreled over our bets and we might have had very hard words indeed regarding Needles, the Derby winner who, as you may have read already in the papers, is by way of becoming a rugged individualist. I used my best judgment in placing my own money as well as the sum with which you entrusted me.

I am sorry I did not put our money on Needles, as I was told to do by wise observers, but then I seldom do put it on a winning horse either in Kentucky or Miami. Nevertheless, I had what I thought were valid reasons for not betting on Needles in the Kentucky Derby. When I was introduced to Needles and to his trainer, Mr. Fontaine, before the race, I frankly was not satisfied by Needles' attitude. I admit now that this was my fault, not Needles'! It was early in the morning when we got to the stables at Churchill Downs. Mr. Fontaine was looking dour, for which I could not blame him, since the day of the Derby is calculated to put a strain on anyone connected with a stable. He was patting the head of a golden retriever, one of my favorite dogs—which made me feel what a nice horse Needles must be to have such a discriminating trainer as Mr. Fontaine. I was not even deterred when I was told that Mr. Fontaine would never give out any information whatsoever. He only said that Needles was asleep, which was only half correct because Needles was only half asleep. He was lounging in his non-fireproof stall—Churchill Downs, like its stables, is a most venerable track—eating hay in the same careless manner that a juvenile delinquent might chew bubble gum. I had been told already that Needles was a lazy horse, that he hated to go out on the track to breeze and that he, as I do myself, dislikes exercise.

Still, it honestly did seem to me that Needles on the morning of the great race, which dawned, as they used to say in my childhood books, bright and clear, should have been a little more on the ball than he was. Needles should have been, I thought, more like his contemporaries over in the C. V. Whitney compound. Career Boy, when I saw him, had recovered from a game hoof and he was literally quivering with excitement as he waited in his stall to face the great ordeal. The same, it seemed to me, was true with Head Man, even if he lacked something of Career Boy's anxiety. Also at the Calumet Farm Stables, Fabius, I thought, showed a laudable sense of sound responsibility. He was waiting, ready to go, not loafing around or goofing off, as our young generation puts it, like Needles. I realize now that I was unduly influenced by early conditioning. It did not occur to me that Needles might have his own original and rather sound ideas. The truth was that Needles knew more about the Kentucky Derby than I did, though I cannot understand how he learned about it. I hesitated to put our money on him when the hour came and, up to the last moments of the race, was convinced that I was right in betting on the Whitney Stables all the way across the board.

Obviously Needles did not enter into any of the excitement until the final seconds of that two minutes which brings everyone to Kentucky, and on the whole I must continue to believe that he was against the spirit of the Derby on general principles. I don't think he enjoys crowds, even if he earns his hay and oats out of them and, until his pride becomes inflamed, despite his proud ancestry, I don't think he likes to run or that he enjoys athletic discipline. He looked slow, cross and sulky when he walked from the paddock to the track at 4:30 that afternoon. He obviously did not like the track or the demands it would put upon him. In fact, he was much more petulant than any of his fellow competitors when the band struck up My Old Kentucky Home. He was lethargic when he was maneuvered into the starting gates, and when the trap was sprung, if that is the word for it, he ran carelessly at the tail end of the procession, not briskly or conscientiously like Head Man or Fabius. Needles was negligible during most of the mile. His interest only seemed to waken when the race neared the home stretch. Mr. Erb, who rode him and therefore was in complete rapport with Needles and is tops in the riding business, confessed later that he was worried. Needles, who usually could run his own race, was further behind than Mr. Erb had ever known him to be before, and unusual urging was required to awaken him to the critical aspect of the situation.

Nevertheless, Needles still gave the appearance of being intensely bored when it was over. He fretted when he was led to the Horseshoe Lawn flanked by the ornamental flower beds whose patterns must have been a survival from the last century and by the pools with fountains gushing out of rocky bases reminiscent of Tennyson's Princess. I wish, by the way, that the Grounds Committee of Happy Knoll might travel to Louisville to examine their landscaped decorations. A little of it would add greatly to the gaiety of the putting course.

It appeared to annoy Needles—and I don't blame him—to be covered with a blanket of roses that made him look like a caisson in a military funeral, and he perceptibly winced when Mr. Erb was handed a sheaf of American Beauty roses with longer stems than any now supplied by ordinary greenhouses. In fact, I have not seen such roses since I observed the ones that reposed last year in the gold-plated cup that was presented to Benny Muldoon by our Golf Committee on the occasion when we honestly feared that he would leave us and sell his services to the Hard Hollow Country Club.


Needles, I honestly believe, was glad to be led away by his familiar attendants, pleasantly fatigued, with the roar of the crowd no longer in his ears. I do not honestly believe that he enjoyed his Derby victory. Of course, it is impossible to project oneself into the amazingly simple but peculiar mind of a horse. A horse, we know, can remember all sorts of things, such as small slights and insults, but he seldom appears capable of grasping the full implications of the present. No one will ever know what Needles thought in the greatest moment of his career, the moment which has certainly raised his cash value closer to that of Nashua, but then the Needles mind does not deal with dollars and inflation. It is concerned instead with instincts inherited from a long proud bloodline of horses that can run. Fortunately, the reaction of Needles to himself is important only to some remote echelon of academic psychology. All that counts is what Needles did to a very great number of people who came from all parts of the country to watch him run at the distinguished and venerable track at Churchill Downs. They came from everywhere, from all walks of life, and obviously they loved it. In fact, it may be horses like Needles who make a pilgrimage like the Kentucky Derby pilgrimage possible. There can be no other reason for it, because Derby sentiment cannot rest solidly on any sort of contemporary social logic.

Certainly the theory and practice of horse racing has nothing whatsoever intrinsically to do with this age that Mr. Henry Wallace and others since have christened the Age of the Common Man. There were plenty of common and uncommon men at Churchill Downs the other day. Except for a segment of the curious, they must have been drawn there by a great tide of habit. It was basically a race track crowd, the same group with the same facial expressions that you encounter at any meet from Miami to Saratoga, and they came from every level, as the Army likes to put it. In fact, as I watched these milling thousands I thought what a problem many of them might present to the Happy Knoll Country Club admissions committee, anxious though we may be to enlarge our membership and, as some of our broader-minded members say, broaden our social base.

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