Urban Sprawl Overtaking
Land - not horses and buildings - is the thoroughbred horse breeder's greatest potential risk or reward. Today Ocala, Florida, (map) the world's top racehorse breeding region, is losing its heritage farms as unplanned urban sprawl engulfs rolling pastures.
Sunshine, inexpensive land and homes, and favorable tax laws for retirees have made Marion County very popular. Its growth rate is one of the fastest in the U.S.
The rural character of Marion County is threatened by the lack of a city and county master plan.Urban sprawl has pushed out of central Ocala all but one of its original racehorse farms. Rapid population growth, spurred by a boom in the development of retirement communities, is making farm land too valuable to remain agricultural. Today, the county and city offer no incentives to farm owners not sell out to developers.
"There is no question that if this community wants to preserve this area and wants to remain horse capital of the world, it is going to have to offer incentives for the large farms to stay here," said Dick Hancock, executive vice president Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association (FTBOA), which has been based in Ocala for nearly 50 years.
"What makes this industry work is the large, major farms of several thousand acres with a good set of stallions and a lot of top mares," Hancock said. "The rest of us that have 10 acres and one mare. We could not be here if it were not for these farms."
To help maintain the region's rural character and keep its industry here, the FTBOA is lobbying city and county officials to develop new conservation easements and new laws that allow the city to purchase a breeder's right to develop his or her property.
Estimating the future worth of rural land if it were transformed into urban sprawl is expected to be difficult and controversial.
"In Ocala, people are just now realizing what they are losing," Hancock said. "People moved here to this community because of the rural character but if you want to keep it that way, you got to pay for it."
One of the people closing his heritage farm is Bonnie M. Heath III, son of breeding pioneer Bonnie Heath II whose race horse Needles was the first Florida-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby and Belmont stakes. Next year Bonnie Heath Farm's 400 acres will be turned under by the bulldozer's blade and eventually become a golf course, stores and houses.
Nearby, Ocala Stud is the only large, heritage thoroughbred horse farm remaining in center of Ocala.
Local real estate experts expect land prices will continue to rise making it unfeasible for horse breeding to continue at Ocala Stud six to 10 years from now - especially if the city and county fail to provide farm owners with incentives to keep their land rural.
- Marion County, Florida is home to 450 racehorse farms
- 4,500 foals were registered in Marion County in 2003
- Largest farms: Adena Springs South 6,000 acres and Live Oak 4,500 acres
- Racehorse breeders usually make most of their money in stud fees, not racing wins
- Since 1979, when Ocala-bred Affirmed won the Triple Crown, no horse has swept the classics
- Skip Away earned $9.6 million - more than any other Florida horse - but never won the Derby, Belmont or Preakness