September 22, 2023

Sports Business

Ocala's horse business growth

Amy Martinez | 11/26/2019

Training a Yearling

Yearling trainers like Kevin McKathan are independent contractors who charge a daily fee, plus a percentage of prize money — and in some cases a share of breeding rights — to feed and care for a horse while getting it racetrack-ready. McKathan’s daily rate is $75 and includes food and boarding. He and his 30-person staff train dozens of horses from October to June.

The first step is to get the yearling used to wearing a bridle and saddle and having a rider on its back, McKathan says. The horse then learns to breathe and move with tack on and to respond to the rider’s reins and leg pressure. “As long as you can turn them and stop them, you can pretty much ride them,” he says.

After two weeks, the horse starts jogging on a small racetrack, gradually building up endurance and speed, he says. The horse also learns to enter, stand in and exit a starting gate. “Some horses are claustrophobic. Them ones are not fun,” he says. “But most accept it very easily.”

Once a horse can run a steady half-mile “breeze” and is “sound and happy,” he says, it’s shipped to a racing trainer. “By June, they’re off to the races somewhere.” Thoroughbreds born in the same year share the same official birthday — Jan. 1. Most thoroughbreds begin racing at age 2 or 3 and retire by 4 or 5. The Kentucky Derby is open only to 3-year-olds.

Ocala’s Horse History

Up until the 1950s, Ocala was largely rolling pastures dotted with live oak trees. In 1950, Bonnie Heath II, an oilman from the Midwest, moved to Fort Lauderdale and met Hugh Fontaine, a charismatic horse trainer. Several years later, Fontaine persuaded Heath and partner Jack Dudley to race a thoroughbred colt named Needles.

In 1956, Needles became the first Florida-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby. In 1957, Needles retired and stood as stud at a farm in Ocala. Other thoroughbred breeders and trainers soon followed, drawn to Ocala’s mild winters, mineral-rich soil and spring-fed aquifer — all good for horse health, says Tammy Gantt, associate vice president at the Ocala-based Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ & Owners’ Association.

In 1999, the association trademarked the slogan “Horse Capital of the World” to promote Ocala/ Marion County’s equine industry. Today, Ocala also is home to a slew of equine services providers, including veterinarians, dentists, blacksmiths and farriers, feed and tack stores and horse transportation companies.

Coming in 2021 World Equestrian Center

In the horse world, Ocala is best known for raising thoroughbreds, but trucking magnate Larry Roberts and his family are changing the mix with a large new commercial development for show jumping, dressage and other equestrian sports.

The project, called World Equestrian Center, is being built on nearly 4,000 acres northwest of Ocala. When it opens in 2021, it will have a three-acre, 8,000- seat outdoor event venue, a 2,500-seat stadium, four indoor and 18 outdoor arenas and 2,100 climate-controlled horse stalls, as well as an on-site veterinary clinic, RV park and dog-grooming services. There also will be a “five-star” 248-room hotel and a chapel for destination weddings.

“They can have a trade show, a huge meeting, a dressage show, a cross-country event and a dog show all at the same time,” says Louisa Barton, director of equine engagement for the Ocala/ Marion County Chamber and Economic Partnership (CEP). “There’s really nothing else like it,” adds CEP President and CEO Kevin Sheilley.

Larry Roberts made his money by founding R&L Carriers, an interstate trucking company based in Wilmington, Ohio, in the 1960s. He and his wife, Mary, who have three grown children, got hooked on American quarter-horses and built a large show facility in Wilmington. In the late-1990s, they moved to Ocala and established a farm for breeding and selling western pleasure horses.

“Ocala is a really great place to bring up kids and horses,” Mary Roberts told Ocala Style Magazine in 2005, praising the area’s “friendly people and the beautiful oak trees. To me, it’s heaven.”

In the early 2000s, the family launched Golden Ocala, a gated golf-course community where homes sell for more than $1 million. The Roberts’ son Roby, whose wife and daughter enjoy riding and showing horses, leads Fort Myers-based RLR Investments, the family’s real estate company. Many of the details of the equestrian center project, located next to Golden Ocala, are still being worked out. Larry and Mary Roberts no longer do interviews, according to a publicist, and Roby Roberts only answers questions via e-mail, with questions and answers vetted by a lawyer.

The Roberts family isn’t the first to try to capitalize on Ocala’s potential as an equestrian destination. New York-based Horse Shows in the Sun (HITS) has long produced an annual, three-month hunter-jumper competition at a facility it owns in Ocala. The HITS Ocala Winter Circuit, one of four hunter-jumper series produced by HITS nationally, takes place from mid- December to mid-March.

The area also is home to Live Oak International, an annual three-day driving and jumping competition geared toward high-level equestrians. Last month, the 954-acre Ocala Jockey Club hosted a three-day Olympic-qualifying event for cross-country equestrians.

Kristen Vale, show manager for HITS Ocala Winter Circuit, says HITS welcomes the Roberts’ project as a “positive,” noting that the development, with its climate-controlled arenas and barns, will attract equestrian competitors and enthusiasts to Ocala year-round. HITS, which makes money from competition entry fees, feed and supplies sales, stall fees, concessions and corporate sponsorships, will continue as usual in Ocala, she says.

Ocala’s emergence on the world equestrian stage makes it a competitor to Wellington, a winter playground for the world’s richest equestrians, including the daughters of Bruce Springsteen, Michael Bloomberg and Steve Jobs. Bill and Melinda Gates, whose daughter Jennifer is an accomplished equestrian, own an estate in Wellington.

The Palm Beach County community is running out of land, however. As part of its vision for Ocala, the Roberts family plans to develop three-acre lots for about 300 “mini-farms” next to its equestrian complex.

“Wellington has no land left to buy. A lot of the Wellington crowd will want to come up here to be part of the World Equestrian Center,” says Barton, who also is a Realtor. “Those are the people we’re hoping will buy farms up here — hopefully from me,” she says, laughing.

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