Fast Horses of Marion County
Ocala: World-class Thoroughbred Breeding
Fifty years of triumphs and comebacks
Breeding race horses in Ocala has a rich history. It started slow, gained speed, produced world champions, stumbled badly, and recovered.
Highway construction expert, Carl G. Rose, is among Florida's first horse-breeding pioneers. He knew the limestone under Ocala's soil was not only good for building roads, it built strong horses. He bought hundreds of acres in central Ocala for racehorses breeding and encouraged others to make the gamble.
Mid-western oil wildcatters, Bonnie M. Heath II and Jack Dudley, came to Ocala in the mid-fifites and hooked up with trainer Hugh Fontaine, who convinced them to buy a sickly colt called Needles, so named because of his many visits to the vet. To their astonishment, in 1956 Needles won both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, becoming the first Florida-bred racehorse to win a "classics" race.
Florida throughbreds didn't have the best pedigrees. Owners of well-pedigreed Kentucky horses were reluctant to race against them. But, Florida racehorses were fast. To prove their horses on the track, Ocala breeders - led by Joe O'Farrell of Ocala Stud - campaigned to get the racing of two-year-old horses approved. The decision made racing riskier for horses. At two, the bones of a race horses knees' aren't fully developed so they can be fragile as strawberries. But selling and racing two-year-olds spurred on the industry.
In Ocala, the breeding and training of fast horses steadily gathered speed during the fifties, sixties and seventies. By 1979, Ocala' s Harbor View Farm produced Triple Crown winner Affirmed. Since then, no other horse has swept the Triple Crown.
By the early eighties, the horse breeding industry in Ocala was galloping at full speed. Then it stumbled and crashed in 1986 because of a change in a federal tax law. Investors fled. Land prices plummeted. The number of registered thoroughbred foals dropped drastically.
The industry rose to its feet in the early ninties. The industry became infiltrated by pinhookers, who buy young horses just long enough for them to set a good practice run, or "breeze" time, and sell them at a profit. (Learn how to pinhook.)
Most of the signature farms of Ocala's early breeders have been replaced by businesses, homes, colleges and shopping malls. Next year Needles home - the 400-acre Bonnie Heath Farm on State Road 200 - will be turned under the bulldozer's blade as will adjoining Tartan Farm, which bred more than 100 stakes winners, including one of America's fastest horses, Dr. Fager.
Today, the Ocala thoroughbred business is a mulit-billion-dollar industry. From three racehorse farms in 1957, Marion County is home to 450 today - most small operations. The racehorse industry employs 10,000 people locally and 27,000 statewide.
Ocala Thorougbred History
1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s
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