Ocala's horse business growth
For all its success, the industry faces challenges, starting with changing attitudes toward animal care and safety, as reflected in Ringling’s decision to shut down its circus and controversy that led SeaWorld to phase out orca shows. As of November, 35 racehorses had died at Santa Anita Park in California despite new anti-doping and drugcontrol rules aimed at improving the track’s safety record.
Last fall, shortly after voters statewide banned greyhound racing in Florida, Ralph DeMeo, a Tallahassee-based lawyer and animal rights advocate, began getting calls from people urging him to take on the thoroughbred industry.
“There’s no question that abuses go on,” says DeMeo, a shareholder with Baker Donelson. Most, he says, involve retired, non-champion horses. “Sure, the Secretariats of the world are treated like gold because they’re worth gold. But most horses — no,” he says.
Thoroughbred racing has no central governing body, and regulations vary by state. In Florida, the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering oversees horse tracks. Last year, at Florida’s largest thoroughbred track, Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, 25 racehorses died over 17,763 starts, according to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, equating to 1.41 deaths per 1,000 starts. That represented a downward trend from a decade ago and was slightly better than the national average of 1.68 deaths per 1,000 starts in 2018.
McKathan says he can’t think of another animal that’s as well cared for as a racehorse. “We stay up all night and do everything we can to make them as happy and healthy as they can be,” he says. He worries about the animal rights movement — “the concern is having people vote on legislation without any idea about what goes on.” But he doubts that horse racing will go the way of dog racing. “The thing about horse racing is there’s a lot of money behind it,” he says.
DeMeo concedes that it’s unlikely that horse racing could be outlawed in Florida anytime soon. “Taking on a failing, financially strapped, relatively low-end sport like greyhound racing is a whole different challenge than taking on the multi-millionaires, sheiks and international money that is associated with thoroughbred racing,” he says. “The animal welfare groups that I know and work with are afraid to go near it.”
If the industry is safe from legal challenges for the moment, it continues to face increased competition from Vegas-style casino resorts and online gambling. Attendance at horse races has been declining for decades. Hialeah Park, which once attracted celebrities and heads of state — Winston Churchill reputedly was a fan — stopped hosting thoroughbred races in 2001. Miami’s Gulfstream Park West (formerly Calder Race Course) plans to replace horse racing with jai-alai, to the consternation of Florida’s thoroughbred industry.
Under state law, only pari-mutuel facilities that allow betting on jai-alai games or horse racing can also have a poker room and slots gaming. Some tracks appear to keep horse racing just so they can make money from cards and slots. When Gulfstream West changes over to jai-alai, Florida will have only two thoroughbred tracks: Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach and Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar.
Even with those challenges, the industry in Ocala remains bullish on its prospects. It’s working to build stronger relations with the community and, within the industry, is marketing itself as an alternative to Wellington, with land that’s more abundant and cheaper.
Long term, the biggest challenge to the business is likely to be the traditional Florida issues of development and sprawl. For years, Marion has been one of the fastest-growing counties in Florida, thanks largely to the Villages, the 115,000-resident retirement community about 20 miles southeast of Ocala. Additionally, Ocala’s location between Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa has made it a warehouse and distribution hub for companies like FedEx and Chewy.
Last year, local residents formed a non-profit called Horse Farms Forever to protect Ocala’s horse culture by monitoring land-use decisions.
But even McKathan acknowledges he’d leave the area for the right price. He notes that boarding and training horses requires a lot of land. His property sits on 200 acres north of Ocala, near U.S. 301 and I-75, and he recognizes its potential value.
“I actually have a vision that my farm should be an Amazon distribution center,” he says. “Eventually, it’s going to be outgrown as a horse farm.” If that happens, he says, he’ll cash in and move on — training thoroughbreds somewhere else.
“It’s a neat, neat way to make a living,” he says.
Ocala-area residents haven’t always felt connected to the local horse industry. “If you stop at any gas station in Lexington (Ky.) and ask people what horses are racing today, they know. Here, there’s a big division.” In Ocala, “the town doesn’t know a lot about the country, and the country doesn’t know a lot about the town,” says Louisa Barton, director of equine engagement at the Ocala/ Marion County Chamber & Economic Partnership. Barton’s job — the only one like it in the U.S., she says — is to engage local residents through initiatives like “Equine 101” classes for chamber members, a weekly radio show and an annual all-breed horse parade in downtown Ocala. Plans also are under way to adorn downtown sidewalks with plaques featuring the names of legendary Ocala horses.
Clayton Fredericks is an Australian Olympic silver medalist in eventing, an equestrian sport that combines dressage, cross-country and stadium jumping. Coming to Ocala as a technical adviser to the Canadian eventing team in 2012, he and his wife, Lucinda, now own and operate Greenbrier Farm, a stable with about 30 horses near Ocala. Fredericks, who hopes to compete again for Australia in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, also gives riding lessons and trains and sells horses for equestrian sports.
Horses Sold at Auction
Ocala Breeders’ Sales is the state’s largest thoroughbred auction house, drawing buyers and sellers from around the world. It hosts six sales annually.