Archive for Union Rags

Needles’ Jockey Criticizes Mike Smith’s Belmont Ride

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Michael Veitch of The Saratogian…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Veteran rider Dave Erb on Union Rags victory at Belmont

An outstanding rider who circled the field to win the 1956 Belmont Stakes aboard Needles, the 88-year-old youngster today does the same to fellow golfers at Brookhaven.

This I know from personal experience.

I thought it would be instructive to ask him about last weekend’s exciting renewal of “The Test of the Champion,” in which Union Rags rallied along the rail in deep stretch to edge Paynter.

Paynter controlled the pace from the outset of the race at 1 ½ miles.

He was ridden by Hall of Famer Mike Smith, who took the blame for allowing his rival enough room to get through.

“Yeah, he did indeed give it away,” said Erb. “When I was coming up, you were always taught to never let anyone through, at any time. Mike Smith was right when he said it was criminal for a man with his experience to do that.”

Jockey John Velazquez, who will join Smith in the Hall of Fame this summer, was aboard Union Rags.

Erb is convinced that Union Rags could not have gotten up in time had Smith shut off the rail.

Belmont Park is a massive track, and its circumference of 1 ½ miles is three-eighths of a mile longer than Saratoga.

Visiting jockeys are often overwhelmed by the size of the famous place.

“Make no mistake, the Belmont is a rider’s race,” said Erb. “A new rider can absolutely be awestruck. When I rode Needles, his owner and trainer had me come to New York a week early and work him the full distance before the race. When I got there, I went up into the stands and counted the poles to try and be familiar with it. Believe me, I was well aware that it was a mile and a half.”

Erb piloted Needles to victories in the Flamingo, Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes that year.

He lost the Preakness by a length and three quarters to Fabius, and turned the tables on that rival in the Belmont.

A confirmed stretch runner as he got older, Needles had won the previous year’s Hopeful Stakes by more than three lengths over Career Boy, who fell a neck short of him in the Belmont.

“Needles really liked Belmont Park and he handled that track just fine,” said Erb.

But there was a hiccup

early in the Belmont Stakes just before leaving the clubhouse turn.

At that time, Belmont Park included the old Widener Chute, which provided for straight races of up to nearly 7 furlongs.

It intersected with the main track on the clubhouse turn, near the point of the backstretch.

“I remember distinctly that when Needles saw the change in the track as he crossed over, he kind of pricked his ears and stuck his toes into the ground for a couple strides,” said Erb.

Needles, who was champion 2-year-old of 1955 and champion 3-year-old of 1956, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000.

Erb presented the plaque to Scott Dudley and Bonnie Heath III, sons of owners Jackson Dudley and Bonnie M. Heath, respectively.

The skilled hands and quick mind of Dave Erb played an important role in that honor.