The Legacy of Bonnie Heath Farm

By Cynthia McFarland

It’s probably safe to say that, were it not for a horse by the name of Needles, there would never have been a Bonnie Heath Farm. This breeding and training operation, which would gain recognition as a cornerstone of Marion County’s early Thoroughbred industry, became a reality, thanks to a colt who almost didn’t survive an early bout with pneumonia.

Bonnie M. Heath was not born into horses. A native of Arkansas, Heath moved to Oklahoma as a young man where he attended Oklahoma A&M University, majoring, majoring in engineering. He found success in the oil fields with friend and partner Jack Dudley; the two men founded Dudley-Heath Drilling Company in Carmi, and Evansville Indiana. In 1950, Heath and his wife Opal (affectionately known as “Budgie”) moved to Ft. Lauderdale, while Dudley continued to run the drilling operation in Illinois and Indiana. When Dudley visited during the winter that year, the two men met Hugh Fontaine, a charismatic and colorful horse trainer who was introduced by yacht salesman Bill Gould.

It was Fontaine’s enthusiasm that ignited Heath’s and Dudley’s interest in racing. The first horse owned by D & H Stables was a $10,000 claimer named Foster Son. And as fate would have it, Fontaine’s encouragement later resulted in their fortuitous purchase of Needles as a two year old.

Just before Heath and Dudley purchased Needles, the two partners were seriously considering getting out of the horse business. D & H Stables had won a few small races but nothing of merit, and the expenses were definitely higher than the financial rewards. They didn’t quit the game, however, and the rest of the story reads like a fairy tale of the Florida Thoroughbred history.

Before Needles, no Florida-bred had even run in the Kentucky Derby, let alone walked away with the coveted blanket of roses. Needles changed the way the world looked at Florida horses and made an impact on his home state that is felt to this present day.

Heath and Dudley would not be disappointed by their impulsive purchase. Needles won his first start at Gulfstream Park, just 2/5 of a second off the track record. As a two year old, he went on to win the Sapling Stakes, Hopeful Stakes, and Garden State Stakes, ending the year with six wins and two thirds in 10 starts. He became Florida’s first national champion when he was named Champion Two-Year-Old Colt of 1955.

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