11/06/2001 1:00AM

Owner-breeder Heath dead at 85


Bonnie Heath, who was the co-owner of 1956 Kentucky Derby winner Needles and was regarded as the founder of the modern Florida breeding industry, died on Sunday night at the Monroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala, Fla., after a struggle with pneumonia. He was 85.

Although raised in Oklahoma, where he prospered in the oil business, Heath made his mark in the Thoroughbred world in Florida, a circumstance that had as much to do with Needles - the first Florida-bred colt to win the Derby and a champion at 2 and 3 - as it did with planning.

Heath, who owned Needles with a friend, Jack Dudley, initially shopped the colt to Kentucky interests after his retirement in 1957. The reception, though, was lukewarm, so Heath started up Bonnie Heath Farm in Ocala.

"The hardboots in Kentucky said that since Needles was a Florida-bred, he was nothing but a freak," said Ket Barber, a friend of Heath's and the former president of the Florida Breeders' Sales Co., which Heath helped establish. "So Heath and Dudley made a statement that they weren't going to put up with that and would do it their way. Needles started the farm, and the farm put Florida on the map."

Needles, a popular saying went, sold more real estate in Ocala than any broker ever did.

Today, Florida produces more foals than any other state except Kentucky. In addition, 18 Florida-breds have won Breeders' Cup races, the second-highest single-state total by far.

"He is really going to be missed," said Richard Hancock, the executive director of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association. "I don't think you can single out anyone who did more for the Florida breeding industry and for Ocala."

Heath's involvement stretched from his farm to ownership of an Ocala hotel, the Ramada Inn, where local breeders spent nights talking and trading horses at the bar. After helping found the Florida Breeders' Sales Company in the late 1950's, he hit upon the idea of staging two-year-old training sales at Hialeah Park in the winter, in part so as not to compete with pricey yearling sales in Kentucky. Today, 2-year-old-in-training sales are an established niche in the auction business.

Heath made his money in the Oklahoma oil business after attending Oklahoma A&M. With the help of Dudley, he made his first foray into racing circles in the late 1940's with a cheap claiming stable, but after failing to attract much success, the partnership dropped out of the business in the early 1950's. But in 1955, trainer Hugh Fontaine contacted the partners about an unraced 2-year-old by Ponder that was available for sale. The price was $20,000, well above the average price of yearlings at the best auctions in that day, but Heath and Dudley agreed.

Later named Needles, the colt won 6 of 10 starts as a 2-year-old while earning $129,805 and setting two track records. At 3, he delivered quickly on his juvenile promise with wins in the Flamingo Stakes and Florida Derby, and although he narrowly lost the Preakness Stakes, he took two-thirds of the Triple Crown when he added the Belmont Stakes to his Derby win.

Needles died at Bonnie Heath Farm in 1984, and was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame last year on the "Horses of Yesteryear" ballot.

Bonnie Heath Farm, which raised champions Holy Bull and Silver Charm, was turned over to Bonnie's son, Bonnie Heath III, in 1991, but it was sold for development in 1999. Horses based at the farm were moved to other operations in Florida, and Bonnie Heath III remains active in the Florida Thoroughbred industry.

A memorial service has been scheduled for Nov. 16 at the Ramada Inn, which is now owned by George Steinbrenner. Heath is survived by his wife, Opal; his son, Bonnie III; and two daughters, Heather O'Neill and Hillary Wellborn.