Needham takes Code of Honor to gate for Kentucky Derby

Courtesy Illustration

Following the disqualification of Maximum Security for interference during the race, Country House became the winner of this year’s Kentucky Derby and the disqualification moved Code of Honor from third to second. Prior to the May 4 race Code of Honor was escorted to the gate by Lakeside’s Torrie Needham.

“He was a nice horse, beautiful horse, really nice to pony,” Needham said.

Ponying is the term used for escorting racehorses to the gate. Needham has done that at the Kentucky Derby for 15 years, and second place is her highest finish for a horse she ponied.

“I haven’t taken a winner yet,” she said.

Needham escorted Steppenwolfer in the 2006 Kentucky Derby. Steppenwolfer finished third in that year’s Run for the Roses.

When she was Torrie Jones she lived in Santee during her early childhood and was in middle school when she moved to Lakeside. She started high school at El Capitan but was in tenth grade when her mother remarried and moved to Riverside.  She was the resident manager at the Fairbanks Riding Club in Fairbanks Ranch prior to marrying Bill Needham in 2002. She moved to the northern California town of Fortuna after her marriage and has since returned to Lakeside while bringing her husband to town.

Needham became an exercise rider for racehorses prior to her marriage and subsequently met Monnie Goetz, who lives in the Kentucky town of Mount Washington. Torrie and Bill Needham visited Goetz in Kentucky during early May shortly after their marriage; Torrie Needham had been inactive as an exercise rider but agreed to help Goetz decorate the horses at the Kentucky Derby.  The following year Needham was asked to pace horses and take horses to the gate, and she did that every year through 2016.

Two years ago, Needham was riding a horse for the Barretts March Select 2-Year-Olds in Training Sale at Del Mar and was bucked off. A hematoma on the left side of her head kept her in the hospital for more than three weeks, and she watched the 2017 Kentucky Derby on television. Needham returned to Louisville last year and took Instilled Regard to the gate. Instilled Regard finished fourth in the 2018 Kentucky Derby.

Needham, who also takes photographs on behalf of the Lakeside Rodeo, was at all four performances of this year’s April 26-28 Lakeside Rodeo and took a flight to Louisville the following morning.  She took horses for morning workouts April 30, May 1 and May 2.

She also takes photographs for the website and was given photographer press credentials for the Kentucky Derby, but Needham was unable to take photographs while in Louisville.

“Monnie put me to work the first morning,” Needham said.

The horses who raced in the Kentucky Derby include Gray Magician, who is trained by Peter Miller and stabled at the San Luis Rey Training Center in Bonsall if he is not shipped to a track.

“I was taking him to the track every morning,” Needham said of Gray Magician.

Needham took Gray Magician to the paddock and the starting gate and also galloped around the track with him.

“He always had the pony with him in the morning,” she said.

Goetz arranged for Needham to be paired with Gray Magician. “She gives me quite a few of the California horses,” Needham said.

Needham took horses to the gate for both the Friday and Saturday races at Churchill Downs.  The track had 13 races May 3 and 14 races May 4, and Needham ponied horses in ten races each day. Some of those horses won races.

On the morning of May 4 Needham was told she would be taking Code of Honor to the gate for the Kentucky Derby.

“I didn’t know anything about that horse.  I just knew he had come out of Florida,” she said.

The Kentucky Derby is a 1 1/4-mile race. Code of Honor broke 11th among the 19 horses and was in tenth place a quarter of a mile into the race, but a mile into the race Code of Honor was in the lead a head in front of Maximum Security, who was a head in front of third-place Country House.  Maximum Security re-took the lead and as the horses entered the stretch Code of Honor was in fourth.  War of Will was unable to sustain third place and Code of Honor finished 2 1/2 lengths in back of Maximum Security and 3/4 of a length behind Country House.

“Initially he did finish third,” Needham said.

Two jockeys issued rider objections and claimed that Maximum Security had interfered with other horses.

“We were all dumbfounded,” Needham said.  “From where we were sitting we didn’t see any of that.”

Needham and the other ponies were at the far turn near where the infraction occurred.

“They had already passed us,” she said. “We had all those horses behind them in front of us.”

The stewards’ review took 23 minutes, and Needham watched the video replay.  “I was sitting in front of the grandstand right there by the gap,” she said.

Maximum Security was disqualified and placed 17th.

“I thought they definitely should have taken that horse down,” Needham said.

The disqualification of a winner was the second in Kentucky Derby history and the first same-day disqualification of a winner. Dancer’s Image finished first in the 1968 Kentucky Derby but failed a drug test and Forward Pass was declared the winner.

“I may have saw that race, but I don’t remember it,” Needham said. “The only race that I can recall watching when I was little was Secretariat.”

Secretariat won the 1973 Triple Crown. Needham watched the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes that year.

The stewards’ ruling gave Code of Honor second place. “I’m happy for the horse and the trainer and everybody, but it was sort of a bittersweet level to move up,” Needham said.

Needham returned to Lakeside May 7.