11/09/2001 1:00AM

Florida Thoroughbred industry owes much to Heath


For a half-century Bonnie Heath cast a giant shadow over Florida's Thoroughbred industry. Heath died this past week at the age of 85, leaving his wife Opal, to whom he was married for more than 65 years, two daughters, and a son.

Heath paid his horse-owning dues. He paid them early on with friend and business associate Jack Dudley. The two had made some money with the Dudley-Heath Drilling Co. of Carmi, Ill. Both partners shared an interest in horses and horse racing and formed the D and H Stable, a less-than-formidable enterprise of wanna-bes and has-beens.

At the beginning, there were few hurrahs.

The two men also shared another passion - deep-sea fishing. In the early 1950's the Heath clan moved from Evansville, Ind., to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Jack Dudley and family did not relocate, but they were frequent visitors to the Heath compound. It was in Fort Lauderdale at the marina that both men came to the attention of Hugh Fontaine.

To script the life and times of Hugh Fontaine needs a Hemingway or Damon Runyon. Bits and pieces from Fontaine's resume read: ace pilot of the World War I Lafayette Escadrille, bootlegger, real estate agent, yacht salesman, and horseman.

He was married to an equally redoubtable spouse in Lynn Fontaine, who was what Runyon would have called a moll. She was a speakeasy entertainer and consort to the rich and famous. Before meeting and marrying Fontaine, Lynn was the paramour of the famous French entertainer Maurice Chevalier.

Things were not going so well for Fontaine in 1955. He was not selling his share of boats and yachts, nor much of anything else. In later years Fontaine would tell how he was determined to sell the Dudley-Heath duo something - anything. D and H Stable was not getting anywhere on the racetrack and the two partners were considering packing it in. Fontaine, always on the hustle, wanted them to buy a 2-year-old in training who was in the Dickey Stable consignment at Hialeah. There were no organized 2-year-old sales in the mid-1950's. Elmer Heubeck Jr. would bring the Rosemere Farm homebreds to the ex-stable market at Hialeah and Dickey Stable, which would later become Ocala Stud, sold their prepriced 2-year-olds in a similar way.

The asking price for the bay colt by Ponder-Noodle Soup, by Jack High, was $20,000, a princely sum at that time. Fontaine pleaded for D and H Stable to buy the colt. When there was reluctance, Fontaine hit the partners with his coup de grace: "Damn it. If you won't buy this horse, lend me the $20,000 so I can!"

D and H Stable were hooked. They bought Needles whose championship seasons brought a recognition to Florida, which the famed turf writer Joe Palmer said at the time "was only good for raising oranges and grapefruit."

Both Bonnie Heath and Jack Dudley resettled in Ocala. They bought side by side farms. The Fontaines, it happened, were also in real estate. There were just seven farms in the area at the time. Both the Dudley and Heath families became integral parts of the social and economic fabrics of the budding horse community.

Through the years Bonnie Heath would help organize the first indigenous Florida Thoroughbred sales company together with the local industry trade publication, The Florida Horse. He was elected president of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' Assoc-

iation in l960 and reelected again in '61, '62, and '64. He funded the Heath Commission to save racing at Hialeah Park. No worthy cause or goal escaped his support.

In l989, at the age of 73, Heath decided to cut back and in so doing sold the Ocala Ramada Inn to George M. Steinbrenner. Said The Boss upon learning of his friend's death: "I have met some pretty big men in my life, a lot of big people here in New York and elsewhere, but Bonnie would hold his own with any of them."

A memorial service will be held Nov. 16, 2 p.m., at the Ramada Inn Convention Center. Bonnie Heath touched so many on his life's journey that getting a seat at this farewell will not be easy.