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Fast Horses of Marion County

Needles, first Florida-bred to win the Kentucky Derby

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 Carl G. Rose 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. Joe O'Farrell of Ocala StudThe 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.Affirmed winning the Kentucky Derby.

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Most of the signature farms of Ocala's early breeders have been replaced by businesses, homes, colleges and shopping malls.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.

Horses racing in black and white drawing.

Fast Facts

  • In 1957, Needles became the first Florida-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes.

  • Calcium from the limestone in Ocala's soil helps build strong horse bones.

  • Ocala's sunshine and mild weather makes it the world's only region where horses can be trained 365 days a year.

  • Besides Ocala, Lexington, Kentucky and Chantilly, France are the world's top racehorse breeding regions.

  • Pinhooking, buying to quickly resell, is the fastest growing aspect of racehorse breeding.

  • Racehorses are exercised on land and in water to develop leg strength.

  • Breeders describe racehorses' legs as "fragile as strawberries" because 1,200 pounds rest on legs that are smaller than most mens'.

  • Florida law forbids nighttime horse racing. Only dogs may be raced at night.

  • Of the 70,000 acres viable for racehorses in Marion County, 60,000 are in production today.

  • Horses racing in black and white drawing.
Ocala Thorougbred History
Ocala horse farm
1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s
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      Created by Mary A. C. Fallon          Copyright © 2003 Criterium Communications          All rights reserved