01/08/2003 1:00AM

He missed Derby fame twice



It is the prize of prizes. The strains of Auld Lang Syne have barely faded and we are beginning to read about the prospects who can't miss at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

Even now, some 16 weeks before Derby Day, there is frantic activity as agents attempt to line up promising colts for their riders. Every jockey wants to answer "yes" when the inevitable question comes: Did you ever ride a Derby winner?

The ones that got away hurt the most, John Choquette recalls. He hasn't ridden since 1971, and he still feels the distress he knew when he lost the Derby mount on Gallant Man and Needles. In consecutive years, no less.

Gallant Man spent the first part of his 2-year-old season in California with trainer Gerald Bloss, then was transferred to New York, where John Nerud made his headquarters. Nerud selected Choquette to ride, and the decision was sealed at Tropical Park in Miami on Christmas Day of 1956 when Choquette rode the little Migoli colt to an off-the-pace victory at six furlongs. Three weeks later, Gallant Man and Choquette were victorious again, this time at Hialeah in the Hibiscus Stakes, with Pimlico Futurity winner Missile the runner-up.

The 3-year-old racing in Miami that winter was at its brilliant best and Gallant Man was competing against Bold Ruler, Gen. Duke, Iron Liege, and others of that caliber. After Hialeah closed, Gallant Man was sent to New York, where Bold Ruler beat him a nose in a record-breaking Wood Memorial. Choquette was looking forward to renewing the rivalry in the Kentucky Derby, with the longer distance favoring Gallant Man, but a 10-day suspension sent him to the sidelines and Nerud replaced him with Bill Shoemaker. Gallant Man lost that Derby by a nose to Iron Liege when Shoemaker rose in the irons prematurely, just before the finish.

Early in 1955, trainer Hugh Fontaine asked Choquette to breeze a colt named Needles who was to be sold a few days later. Fontaine wanted to train the colt for Indiana oilmen Jack Dudley and Bonnie Heath, but wanted some confirmation from the work. Choquette was enthusiastic upon his return, and Fontaine was able to purchase Needles for his clients for $20,000.

It was a successful move from the outset. Needles made his debut under Choquette at Gulfstream Park in late March, going 4 1/2 furlongs, and won easily by five lengths. He won the Sapling at Monmouth that summer and turned in a sparkling effort at Saratoga when he beat Career Boy by more than three lengths in the Hopeful Stakes.

That fall, however, Fontaine insisted on a prep race before the Garden State Stakes, the richest race in the country. Choquette noted that Needles seemed to benefit from extra time between races but plans remained firm. Needles won the Trial easily, but hung in the drive and was beaten in the Garden State, and Choquette lost the mount to Dave Erb.

Racing at 3 with his starts well-spaced, Needles swept the Flamingo and Florida Derby, captured the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, and just missed the Triple Crown with a second in the Preakness, as Choquette watched on television and winced.

Choquette was born in Canada, was raised on a farm in Vermont, and came onto the racetrack as a teenager, walking hots for the outstanding New England horseman J.L. McKnight. He was a quick study and started his career in 1948 at Narragansett, and though battling weight at the end, rode with distinction until 1971.

He managed a farm in Del Ray Beach, Fla., for eight years, spent 10 years training horses, including his own, and then retired. Fifteen years ago, a friend phoned him with an invitation to work in the detention barn for the three south Florida tracks, and he has been on the job ever since - the last five years as director of a 16-man crew that is responsible for the urine and blood samples taken from three horses after every race.

He enjoys the work and the opportunity to remain close to racing. Occasionally he thinks of the lost Kentucky Derby opportunities and regrets the ones that got away.