The widely accepted theory about running strategy in distance races is that your come-from-behind horses have their only chance of winning if the early pace is fast. "That's really very basic," said Eddie Arcaro as he sat in the sweltering heat of the jockeys' room before last Saturday's Belmont Stakes. "Look, figure it this way, and we'll use the Belmont as an example. We know the come-from-behind horses are Needles and Career Boy. If none of the others in the race want to move along for the first part of it, what's going to happen when Needles and Career Boy get to running in the last half mile? I'll tell you what'll happen. Them horses on the front end will have a punch of their own and the late runners will knock themselves out just getting to the lead. Then—wham, them slow ones on the lead who've been doing nothing but coasting along for a mile or so will have a run of their own and one of them could win in a breeze. No, shucks, this Belmont's going to have early speed. I know that much because if none of the other boys want the front end—and if I see we're walking through the first half in around 49 seconds, I'll go on the lead myself, not because I think I can win but because it will help the other half of my entry."
This bit of theorizing by a man who probably knows as much about time and pace as any jockey in history had all of the usual Arcaroan logical soundness. He didn't think his mount, Jazz Age, could win, but he did think the other half of the C. V. Whitney entry, Career Boy, might outlast Needles at a mile and a half if the race followed an old and familiar Belmont Stakes script: early speed by the sprinters followed by a long late and dramatic run on the part of the stayers.
Eddie Arcaro's prognostication was, as it turned out, only half correct. Yes, there was early speed in Saturday's Belmont, and Eddie and Jazz Age didn't have to supply it themselves. But, no, Career Boy, even with the benefit of a masterful ride by Eric Guerin, was not—and is not—as fine a race horse as Needles. The Floridabred Kentucky Derby champion outdid himself on this muggy afternoon, and what New Yorkers up to then had heard of his stretch run on their radios—or seen on television screens—was unfolded for them on the Belmont stage with such devastatingly dramatic excitement that for a moment or two after Needles went under the wire, a long neck in front of Career Boy, it was a little difficult to appreciate just how brilliant his victory had been. But there was no escaping the fact that the Belmont winner now officially carries the title of champion 3-year-old of 1956, a title earned in competition against the very best colts of his generation.
There is something first to be said about Belmont Day as a national spectacle. It is not at all, you know, like Derby Day in Louisville, and there is absolutely nothing about this great old race track which might confuse even the most absent-minded patron into thinking he was at Pimlico on Preakness Day. Belmont has retained its atmosphere of grand austerity, and on this traditional afternoon you can sense everywhere an alert and keen awareness of the importance of this championship test. The roots of Thoroughbred racing sportsmanship are deeply implanted there, and examples of this sportsmanship pop up all over the place on Belmont Day. For instance in the saddling shed awaiting the signal to move out to the crowded paddock before the big race, Owner Whitney, after inspecting his entry, walked over to look at Needles. There, leaning against the wall of the shed, was an old friend, Hugh Fontaine, who trains Needles for Bonnie Heath and Jackson Dudley. "Hugh," said Whitney as he thrust out his hand, "I want to tell you that the way you have handled yourself and the way you have trained this horse have been magnificent."
Fontaine, kicking up some loose dirt with his solid walking stick, looked down for a moment, then reached up and gave Needles a gentle pat. "Thank you, Sonny," he replied. "All I know is that if this horse handles himself as I know he can during the next couple of minutes, it'll make us all pretty happy." The saddling chores were finished now, and as the field, glistening and smartly groomed, fell into the orderly procession to the paddock, Whitney had a parting word for Fontaine. "Hugh, you've done your bit now. Nothing more you can do. Now it's up to the horses. Good luck to you."
"I thank you kindly, Sonny," said Fontaine. "And good luck to you too."
During the parade to the post the audience was treated to the Seventh Regiment Band's eastern version of My Old Kentucky Home, which, for this occasion, turned out to be The Sidewalks of New York. Possibly Needles didn't care for the way Major Francis W. Sutherland was directing the number—or possibly he was thinking that it was too hot an afternoon for violent exercise—but at any rate he was pretty reluctant in general to move near the gate. Finally a man appeared from behind a bush and after he tossed some dirt at the champion, Needles moved off with the others.
The Belmont, for more than a mile, was actually run in two divisions: three horses in the first group, and the remaining five trailing them in the second bunch. At the start it was Charlevoix, followed by Ricci Tavi and then Calumet's Preakness winner Fabius, who shot off to lead the pack. After half a mile (Charlevoix clicked it off in 47 2/5 seconds) these three still held their front positions, and it was 15 lengths back from Fabius to Jazz Age, the Arcaro-ridden leader of the second group. Behind Jazz Age came Career Boy, followed by Frosty Mr., Beau Diable and finally Needles, who, as the whole field turned up the long backstretch, was between 22 and 25 lengths (some 60 yards) out of first place.
There was concern and many a loud murmur in the stands. Double concern, you might say, because here was Fabius in perfect position and now going up on the outside to take the lead from the two tiring front runners, and still Needles, with only half a mile remaining, was so far behind that he had managed to pass only one horse. Then suddenly Dave Erb gave Needles the signal to go. Guerin had already given the word to Career Boy and the pair of them took off in frenzied pursuit of Fabius who had opened up a seven-length lead as he passed the quarter pole. Around the last turn they sped. Fabius, you sensed by then, couldn't hold his speed to the wire, and as he started backing up, Needles ranged along his outside as Career Boy cut to the rail for his last bid. Needles put Fabius away at the eighth pole, but there was Career Boy still coming at him. The two colts fought on, and then, with only a sixteenth of a mile to go, Needles almost chucked it. "He scared me to death," said Erb later. "Suddenly he pricked his ears and started to pull up. He must have figured the race was over. Man, I started tearin' into him and when he saw that other horse [Career Boy] on the inside of him he took off again. And as we crossed the line I think he was just starting to go all over again."
Needles' victory, some will choose to say, cannot be ranked among the great Belmont feats because his time 2:29[4/5] (Fabius was timed at 1:36[3/5] for the first mile, 2:02[4/5] for the mile and a quarter) was not particularly outstanding over a track which many oldtimers rate nearly two seconds faster than it was in 1943 when Count Fleet established the Belmont Stakes record of 2:28[1/5] (later tied by Citation). Others may care to say that Needles' position among good—or even near-great—racers has yet to be established because, as they will tell you, "He beat nothing." As far as I am concerned Needles has beaten everything he's had to, and as for his place in turf history, he's now already moved to 11th spot on the money-winning list (total: $570,655) and has many opportunities ahead of him to keep right on adding to his bank account.