By Sid Fernando
Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company’s April Sale of 2-Year-Olds begins next week and it’s a reminder that the Florida Thoroughbred industry in Ocala–and greater Marion County in Central Florida–made its name in its early years, in the 1950s, as the place to buy early maturing stock.
The unlimited supply of sunshine and limestone-rich soil helped produce tough horses. With 24-hour access to outdoors and no winters of note, Florida-breds started off with physiological advantages over their Northern counterparts.
Florida-breds frequently outran their pedigrees because of the land and the weather, but the ways in which they were raised tough and trained early seemed to put more speed into their pedigrees, too–even where stamina was evident. This held true from the beginnings of the 2-year-olds-in-training industry, when Carl Rose’s 1940 German St. Leger winner Samurai (Oleander)–a spoils of war–put Rosemere Farm in Ocala on the map in the 1950s as a sire of early maturing stock. The stamina was evident in the 1980s, with Charlie DiLibero’s prolific duo of An Eldorado (Vaguely Noble) and Lawmaker (Round Table) at DiLibero Farm in Citra. And even today, you see it in the young Irish Derby winner Treasure Beach (Galileo) at Joseph and Helen Barbazon’s Pleasant Acres in Morriston.
And how about when speed sires were involved? Aisco Stable’s brilliant sprinter Mr. Prospector and his miler son Fappiano, a John Nerud homebred whose influence on the classics is constant, are the best examples.
Change is a constant in life and the in Thoroughbred industry but it’s particularly evident in Florida. From 2007 to 2016, The Jockey Club stats indicate the annual foal crop in Florida has declined 54%, from 4,367 foals to 2,026. Major farms have disappeared or are disappearing–not a new trend but something that’s been common throughout the state’s relatively young history of spurts of growth and decline. The impact of Florida on the breed at large, however, has been consistently visible, from before Dr. Fager to after Affirmed and in between, and it is evident in the female families of the two major Kentucky Derby contenders, Scat Daddy’s Justify and Malibu Moon’s Magnum Moon. Ironically, both were unraced at two and will be on a change-making mission to become the first Derby winner since Apollo in 1882 to have not raced as a juvenile. The sires of both, incidentally, were produced from daughters of Mr. Prospector.
Justify’s third dam is Florida-bred sprinter Voodoo Lily, a daughter of Baldski from Cap the Moment, by For the Moment. She won the six-furlong GIII Columbia S. (now the Safely Kept) at Laurel and five of 18 starts altogether for earnings of $250,370. She was bred by two Florida stalwarts, Farnsworth Farms and Gerald Robins. Farnsworth, which won an Eclipse Award for leading breeder of 1996, was founded in Ocala in the early 1960s by the father-son duo of Isidore and Mike Sherman and stood Baldski, a son of Nijinsky and a half-brother to the top 12-furlong horse Exceller. The breeder of more than 200 stakes winners, Farnsworth also bred Cap the Moment, Justify’s fourth dam. Mike Sherman closed the operation in the mid-2000s.
Robins raced For the Moment, a Grade I winner at two and three and a brother to Honest Pleasure, also a Grade I winner at two and three. Both were bred by the Sams family’s Waldemar Farms near Williston and were sired by the farm’s flagship Bold Ruler stallion What a Pleasure. The latter led the general sire list in 1975 and 1976 and had also sired the Waldemar-bred Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure. In partnership with Tim Sams of Waldemar, Robins bred the Fappiano colt Tasso, with whom he won the 1985 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile by a nose from Storm Cat. Tasso was later named 2-year-old champion.
Waldemar, by the way, is now Gil and Marilyn Campbell’s Stonehedge Farm South, where the top Florida sire Sword Dance (Ire), another son of Nijinsky, stood his entire career. The Campbells are top state breeders but like many in Florida they have cut back their operation–including the standing of stallions –in recent years. It’s notable that Gil Campbell bred Songbird’s dam, Grade II winner Ivanavinalot, and stood her unraced Forty Niner sire West Acre during headier times.
Magnum Moon’s third dam, Win Crafty Lady, was another graded stakes-winning Florida-bred sprinter. By Crafty Prospector from Honeytab, by Al Hattab, Win Crafty Lady was bred by Estelle Sands and James H. Iselin and won the six-furlong GIII Interborough Breeders’ Cup H. on the inner track at Aqueduct and overall eight of 25 starts and $303,844.
Win Crafty Lady got her speed and toughness from Crafty Prospector, a freaky Florida-bred son of Mr. Prospector who Jimmy Iselin had trained to win seven of 10 starts. The colt was a sprinter-miler who’d been plagued by unsoundness, and though he never won a stakes race, he was second in the GI Gulfstream Park H. and earned his ticket to stud. He began his career at Steve and Gary Wolfson’s Happy Valley Farm near Ocala. The Wolfson brothers were sons of Harbor View’s Louis Wolfson–the breeder and owner of Florida-bred Triple Crown winner Affirmed.
With the aid of his pedigree and the Florida environment, Crafty Prospector prospered right off the bat, getting fast and tough racehorses like Win Crafty Lady. His sire had also started his career in Florida at Butch Savin’s Aisco Stable, and by the time Crafty Prospector was enjoying success, Mr. Prospector had already left for Kentucky and was one of the most prepotent stallions at Claiborne. The Wolfson brothers had played a part in Mr. Prospector’s early success, too, as breeders of his first-crop filly It’s in the Air, the Eclipse champion 2-year-old filly of 1978. And Louis Wolfson had raced Mr. Prospector’s sire, Raise a Native, so the fit at Happy Valley for Crafty Prospector was a natural one.
Crafty Prospector’s success created demand and he later followed his sire to Kentucky where he stood at Fred Seitz’s Brookdale Farm. Happy Valley Farm is now defunct, but the property still operates as Jimmy “J.J.” Crupi’s Crupi’s New Castle Farm–a top outfit for preparing young horses. This consistent pattern of success, failure, and rebirth is jarringly common in Florida, much like the high volatility index in the stock market these days. A lack of trading volume can highlight volatility in the markets, and it’s probably the cause of it in Florida, where lower foal crops affect industry stability at all levels but most especially the stud farms.
Win Crafty Lady had raced for owners Joseph and Winnie Greeley. A year after the mare was retired in 1993, they bought a 147-acre farm in northwest Marion County named Ravenbrook Farm and renamed it Sabine Stable.
Sabine was a successful commercial boutique operation that followed a diversified business plan of breeding and pinhooking that kept it hedged from the vagaries of Florida’s economy. On the breeding end, it patronized commercial Kentucky sires, which meant foaling mares in Kentucky before breeding there. The mares were sent back to Florida with their foals afterwards, and the foals got the benefit of being raised in Florida–but with bigger pedigrees attached to them. Win Crafty Lady became the foundation of Sabine’s commercial operation, and her first notable foal was the Kentucky-bred Dehere colt Graeme Hall, a multiple Grade II winner of $1,147,441 who had cost Canadian Eugene Melnyk $200,000 at the 1998 Keeneland September sale.
The mare’s next foal was the Kentucky-bred Hennessy filly Harmony Lodge, and she also was bought by Melnyk, for $1,650,000 as a Fasig-Tipton February 2-year-old of 2000. Harmony Lodge won the GI Ballerina S. and earned $851,120. Sabine Stable ran until Joseph Greeley died in 2013. The property was sold in 2016 and is being used for ponies now.
Sabine’s link to Magnum Moon continued with Win Crafty Lady’s eighth foal, Win McCool, a Kentucky-bred daughter of recently deceased Giant’s Causeway. Win McCool is Magnum Moon’s second dam. The Greeleys had retained and raced her, and Win McCool, like her dam, was a sprinter. She won the six-furlong G3 Floral Park Handicap and earned $218,982.
Eugene Melnyk stood Graeme Hall at his 1,000-acre Winding Oaks Farm, which encompasses some of Ocala’s richest history. Melnyk bought the farm in 2001 from Harry Mangurian and put Phil Hronec, who’d been running John Franks’s place, in charge. Hronec is managing the property as a boarding entity now while Melnyk is in the process of developing it commercially. When I met Hronec in March, the first trees by the office at the entrance to the farm on SR 200 had been levelled to clear about the way for a Jaguar/Land Rover dealership.
Melnyk and Hronec enjoyed a great run together at what was formely Mangurian’s Mockingbird Farm. The latter was established in the early 1970s on 300 acres abutting Tartan Farms, and Magurian eventually absorbed 700 acres of Tartan when that famed operation closed. Hronec gave me a tour of the property, which includes the Tartan/Mockingbird graveyard where Dr. Fager and other notables rest. Only about 300 acres of the current property, including the training track, will be used for horses, Hronec said, when everything is said and done.
Hronec said Melnyk had tried to sell the property whole but didn’t get the price he’d wanted and had settled on commercially developing the land himself.
A few miles away as the crow flies is Glen Hill Farm, another notable nursery that was established in the 1960s by Leonard Lavin. Lavin’s grandson Craig Bernick now runs the farm, although Bernick has tweaked its mode of operation. Glen Hill, like Sabine did, breeds its mares mostly to Kentucky stallions– Bernick and his mother own L’Elevage Bloodstock, a minor shareholder in Curlin–and the mares, because of economies of scale, are foaled in Kentucky instead of Florida. Bernick also buys yearlings now to develop as potential broodmares. On a recent tour of Glen Hill, I saw young stock by War Front, Into Mischief, Australia (GB), and a number of other high-powered sires.
I also saw a lot of high-powered people on the farm when Bernick hosted his annual crawfish boil after a day of selling at OBS March. The party was held poolside next to a pristine mid-century modern house where Lavin had lived, and the guests included such as Walker Hancock, Alex Solis II, Kip Elser, Wesley Ward, Boyd Browning, Tom Ryan, Mike Wallace, Brad Wesibord, Hubert Guy, Charlie O’Connor, Gatewood Bell, Headley Bell, Jack Wolf, etc. The 2-year-olds at OBS had drawn them to Ocala. It’s still the destination at this time of year and its influence cannot be ignored.