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Until Needles won the 1956 Kentucky Derby with his stirring come-from-behind run, no one had ever thought of the state of Florida as a place to breed quality Thoroughbreds. Five years after Needles, another Florida-bred named Carry Back became the country's best 3-year-old, and now the Florida boom is on. Its center is Marion County, particularly the rolling land surrounding Ocala (where both Carry Back and Needles were foaled), about 100 miles north and slightly east of Tampa. There were three Thoroughbred farms in the area in 1956; now there are 46, with a combined value of more than $15 million. Ten years ago about 75 foals were registered in Florida; this year there were 350.
Ocala's rich land could have been bought for $12 an acre before World War II. The price now is $1,000, and some recent buyers include many of racing's top owners, breeders and trainers: Leslie Combs, the Greentree Stable of J. H. Whitney and Mrs. Charles S. Payson, Pete Widener, Lou Wolfson, Ralph Wilson, the Brookfield Farm of Harry Isaacs and the Tartan Farms of William L. McKnight.
Ocala's natural assets are its climate, soil and water. The land, sitting on a lime-rock ridge about 20 miles long and five to 10 miles wide, is nearly 200 feet above sea level. This is high for Florida and provides the area with steady breezes which, together with the shade of the abundant oaks, create ideal temperatures the year round. From June to October there is usually a brief shower every day; the rest of the time there is seldom more than one good rain per month. As Tartan Trainer John Nerud puts it, a climate that al lows young horses to spend as many as 20 hours a day outdoors is bound to produce sound animals.
The earth, a heavy producer of cotton and tobacco a century ago, varies from light sand to heavy topsoil. It is rich in calcium and phosphorus, though it requires the addition of such ingredients as extra nitrogen and potash to keep it in balance for good pastures. Much of the water comes from wells 100 feet deep in lime-rock caverns and underground rivers and has a high calcium content.
Largest of the nurseries in the area is the Ocala Stud Farms—the busiest breaking-and-training establishment in the U.S. today. This week Manager Joe O'Farrell is breaking more than 150 yearlings on Ocala's 7/8-mile training track. "In Kentucky," says O'Farrell, "they don't like to admit that we're doing something important down here. But many of the farms up there depleted their own land without spending money to restore it. That won't happen here." Looking over one of his pastures toward Needles' home on Bonnie Heath's neighboring farm, O'Farrell aimed another shot at a prize Kentucky asset. "We have two deep-rooted grasses here, Pensacola Bahiagrass and pangolagrass, and both are kept well clipped, because horses prefer them in the lush growing state rather than mature. The bluegrass of Kentucky is lush in spring and fall but lies dormant during the heat of summer. In other words, while we're getting our regular daily rainfall and our grass is prospering, Kentucky's bluegrass is being baked."
Florida is still a long way from approaching Kentucky in the production of good Thoroughbreds. Florida-breds earned $2,620,717 last year, while horses foaled at just one Kentucky farm, Claiborne, earned more than $3 million.
Such success for Ocala's farms lies several years off. The only proven sire in the area now is Rough'n Tumble (sire of Conestoga, Yes You Will and My Dear Girl). When men with money, like McKnight, Isaacs and Wolfson, bring in top sires, "we won't," says one Ocala farm manager, "have to breed to so many $500 horses." Sires new to Florida which are expected to stand their first seasons at stud in Ocala in 1962 include Clandestine, Francis S., Alcibiades, Prince Edward and Like Magic, a full brother to Swaps. And at Tartan Farms now, for example, are foals by Hasty Road, Sailor, Ballydam, Needles, Mark-Ye-Well, Decathlon, Porterhouse, Alibhai and Gallant Man. Next year there will also be foals by Correlation, Turn-to, Amerigo and Nashua. Never before have foals by sires of this quality been taken to Florida.
The move south by good horsemen and their valuable stock has a sound basis, and the challenge to Kentucky's supremacy may become more serious each year.