Ocala / Marion County is home to the largest number of horses and ponies in the United States. Not only to we have the numbers, there is a wide variety of breeds and riding disciplines that call Ocala home. This is what makes Central Florida attractive to horse lovers, competitors, breeders and industry leaders alike.
Thoroughbreds are the dominate breed in Marion county with approximately 35,000 living in the area. Ocala has become internationally famous for raising thoroughbred horses and producing winners
Ocala is also home to champions! Most of the recent Kentucky Derby contenders had their early training in Central Florida. Florida ranks number two as a breeding regions in the US for thoroughbreds and is one of the top five breeding regions in the world.
It all started in the 1940s and 50s when a roadbuilder, Carl G. Rose came with the intent of building roads. When he discovered that the limestone under Ocala’s soil was good for building strong horses, he bought hundreds of acres and started one of the first horse farms. He was followed by Bonnie M. Heath and Jack Dudley in the mid-1950s and with the purchase of a sickly cold called Needles, the Ocala / Marion thoroughbred industry was born. Needles earned his name with his many visits to the vet. The gamble paid off and he won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes in 1956 becoming the first Florida horse to win a “classics” race.
Fred Hooper also came to Ocala in the same time period, “Mr. Hooper put a shovel in the back of his truck and drove around Marion County until he found the dirt he wanted for his horses” remembers Joan Pletcher. It later became Circle H Farm. Mr. Hooper was a giant in the horse racing industry.
Fast forward to 2018. An astounding 17 of the 20 horses who ran in the Kentucky Derby had ties to Marion County. This area has produced more than 45 national champions, 6 Kentucky Derby winners, 20 Breeders’ Cup champions and six horses of the year. Stay tuned, 2019 promises to add more to these winning statistics!
“We raise strong horses in Florida,” Pletcher said. She has ridden horses since she was five and later broke her own horses working them 10-12 hours a day. “Our sunshine and mild weather makes it the world’s only region where horses can be trained 365 days a year.”