Sunshine Beginnings

Courtesy of Becky Johnston

The first bet I ever placed at a track (Birmingham Race Course), I bet on a Fred Hooper owned horse, Florida-bred Shuttle Jet, and I won.  The first time I went to a Florida racetrack (Calder), a Fred Hooper bred and raced horse paid for the trip.

My Florida employer told me of dating Mr. Hooper’s granddaughter and said it wasn’t unusual to see Mr. Hooper and the actor John Forsythe relaxing in their smoking jackets.  It was ‘other-wordly’ to a Florida teenager.

The first Florida breeding farm I ever visited was Mr. Hooper’s Marion County farm.  The first stallion I ever touched was Precisionist.  

I remember that day because it was a fall afternoon and we couldn’t get the Alabama football game on the radio locally, but we heard that the games were broadcast on a radio station in Ocala, so we set off from Daytona Beach in search of football.  At least one of us was in search of the football.

We came upon Mr. Hooper’s farm, when passing by I asked “couldn’t we just go back and see if they will let us look at the horses?”  We turned around and drove in the open gate.  The road let to the stallion barn and there he was, the great Precisionist.  

The chestnut horse was being groomed.  His handler showed me his the champion’s trick.  If you brushed his neck he would close his eyes and wiggle his lips.  He looked like he was giggling.  “He’s ticklish,” his groom told me.  

There’s something to that phrase “the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man” or a woman.  I could not have cared less about Alabama football at that moment.  I walked forward and placed my hand flat on Precisionist’s nose.  I could feel the rhythm of his breathing and my eyes filled up as I thought of all the great things he achieved, yet he wasn’t a machine, he was flesh and blood.  These are my kind of athletes.

A little ways down was Florida Sunshine, the son of Alydar out of the champion Susan’s Girl.  Alydar, at this time, was the Storm Cat of his generation.  He was the sire of one of my favorite horses, Easy Goer.

There were some words amongst the grooms and I turned around to see a man that looked like Fred Hooper standing impatiently, but it wasn’t him.  “He’s ready to go,” one of the men said.  I asked them who the man was.  “That’s Mr. Hooper’s brother, he wants to go fishing.”

I turned around and noticed he had parked his pickup truck in the dirt entry road and he had his boat with him.  It it wasn’t on a trailer hitch. The boat was tossed into the bed of his pickup truck.

I have always felt that image was a fitting metaphor for the start of the Florida breeding industry.  It didn’t necessarily look pretty or proper, but it sure did get the job done.

The Marion County Start

The California and Florida Thoroughbred Industry will put their beloved wares on display Saturday when they face off on both coasts.  Since Florida is my home state, I thought we might take a look back at some of the people and horses that begot the second largest producer of Thoroughbreds in the country.

Carl Rose – moved his sand dredging business to Ocala in 1917 and moved himself and his family there in 1918.  When his friend Dave Scholz became governor in 1932, he dismantled the racing commission and filled it with his supporters.  Rose was one of those, although he knew little about Thoroughbred racing, his business acumen and common sense were good enough.  

Rose raised cattle in Ocala and he knew you could raise good strong animals with the springs and the limestone based ground.  After his term was up on the racing commission he decided to start breeding Thoroughbreds.  He bought land, lots of land and he encouraged others to do the same even if it meant he sold it to them at 100%-200% profit.

Before this time, breeding in Florida had been done very sparingly in the Jacksonville/St. Augustine and south Florida areas, but it wasn’t going anywhere fast.

Rose set about to buy horses, cheap horses.  His first mare, Jacinth was a Jacopo mare owned by a department store magnate.  The owner rejected her due to her temperament and inability to be broken, but Rose wanted her.  The filly, at less than two years of age, became the foundation mare for his Rosemere Farm.  

Jacinth produced fourteen foals and fourteen winners during her career.  She produced Rosemere Rose in 1939, the county’s first born and registered Thoroughbred.

The first stallion Rose used in Marion County was a Cavalry remount stallion named Green Melon.  So you had a filly with behavioral issues, a seven-year-old cavalry horse and a road contractor breeding them.  The mating produced the first Marion County homebred winner in 1943, Gornil, who won at the old Tropical Park.  

In 1943 after Green Melon was returned, Suffern became Rose’s next stallion.  He was by Sweepster out of Saffron by Marathon.  Suffern was a winner on the track and had some success for Rosemere.

Rose obtained some of his stock by waiting for closing day at the Tampa track and collecting what he could, the culls.

All of this sound like a recipe for failure, but the contractor was laying the groundwork for what would eventually produce the all time record $16,000,000 sale of a horse.  

Rose began shipping his broken and working two-year-olds to Hialeah each winter and selling them.  Thus began the small beginnings of the two-year-olds in training sales.

In 1946, the first Florida-bred won an open stakes race.  Donna’s Ace won the $10,000 Ponce de Leon Handicap at Tropical Park.

Then in 1948 an event began that could easily be the standard for the Sunshine Millions, the Florida-Cuba series.  Each would produce their best locally bred horses and the races would alternate between Oriental Park in Cuba and Tropical Park in Florida annually.  Later, Gulfstream would host the event.  

Dickey Farms and a colt named Needles

William Leach’s Dickey Farms (later to be known as Ocala Stud Farm) was established in 1950 in Marion County.  It would not take the limestone of Ocala very long to meet up with the Bluegrass of Kentucky.  The mare Noodle Soup delivered her son of Ponder in 1953 at Dickey Farms.  So sickly was the colt that he was named Needles, after his many treatments.  

Jack Dudley and Bonnie Heath were young oilmen in their 30’s and 40’s and had taken a liking to Thoroughbred racing, but not by much.  They wanted to win and the wins weren’t coming fast enough.  Their trainer, Hugh Fontaine pleaded with the duo to buy the aptly named colt, Needles.  They were not as excited about him as the trainer and the price was a princely sum of $20,000.  He was the blue ribbon winner in the baby sale, but they still needed convincing.  They agreed to watch him work three furlongs and he did it faster than anyone had before.  They were convinced.

It did not take long to get him to the track in March of 1955.  He set a track record for 4 ½ furlongs at Gulfstream Park that stood for 40 years.  The Sapling, The Hopeful and The Garden State Stakes were some of the colt’s other triumphs on his way to two-year-old championship honors.  Not bad for a foal crop that numbered only 79.

As a three-year-old, Needles won the Florida triple-crown prep staples, the Flamingo and Florida Derby.  Early in the Kentucky Derby the colt found himself some 25 lengths behind.  But he came with a weaving rush to take the Run for the Roses in 1956 and thus, the first Florida-bred to win the Derby.  

Needles went on to run second in the Preakness and won the Belmont Stakes.

After Needles retired at four, the owners did the unthinkable and retired him to stand at stud in Florida.  There could be no greater endorsement for Florida breeding than standing a Kentucky Derby winner whose sire and grandsire had recorded the same impressive victory.  Granted, his female line was not quiet as strong.

Another Derby

When Carry Back came along to take the 1961 Kentucky Derby, the Florida-breds were riding a 100% ratio in entries to wins.

Carry Back was owned and bred by Jack and Kathryn Price.  He was foaled at the now famous Ocala Stud Farm.  Out of the Star Blen mare Joppy, by Country Life Farm’s stallion Saggy, who stood in Maryland.

Ocala Stud Farm had a unique tradition of ringing a bell every time a Florida-bred won a stakes race, but they no longer practice that exercise.  They must fear having to employ a full-time bell ringer.  A nice problem to have.

Carry Back was a little more than 15.2 hands and was named for a tax loophole.  The owners were hopeful that the little colt would make some money and that his earnings could be “carried back” against their losses.   

The foal of 1958 won some of the same races Needles had won five years previous, Garden State, Flamingo and Florida Derby.  He also emulated Needle’s style of lagging behind the field.  He went on to win the Preakness but failed to win the Triple Crown.  The colt would go on to represent Florida in the Prix de l’ Arc de Triomphe, but finished eleventh.  

Carry Back did collect wins in prestigious races such as the Metroplitan, Whitney and Monmouth Handicaps.  When it came time to retire Carry Back to stud, the Kentucky hardboots saw the writing on the wall that Florida-breds might be getting too big for their britches and using his pedigree as an excuse, made no reasonable offers (in the owners’ opinion) to stand the stud.  He returned home to Ocala Stud and after covering thirty mares, he made a racing comeback only to be retired once again.

Another thing happened after Needle’s success and during Carry Back’s popularity; important names began popping up in the register of property owners in Ocala.  One of them was Louis Wolfson’s Harbor View Farm.

Many Contributors

You could fill volumes with the stories of the founding members of the Florida breeding industry in the Ocala area.  The previously mentioned Ocala Stud Farm and the O’Farrells who produced the influential My Dear Girl and horse of the year Roman Brother.  William McKnight’s Tartan Farms, the breeder of Unbridled, Ta Wee and the 1968 champion handicap horse, champion sprinter, champion grass horse and horse of the year, Dr. Fager, are some of the best.

Fred Hooper went from being a barber, teacher, steelworker, prizefighter, potato farmer, politician, construction company owner to breeding over 100 stakes winners including the three-time champion filly/mare (1972, 1973 and 1975) Susan’s Girl.  Frances Genter, in addition to racing some of the Tartan Farms’ and Ocala Stud’s breeding stock, bred the champion sprinter Smile.

Harbor View’s Affirmed would be the state’s only Triple Crown winner, but he would also be the last for any state.

The names are so many, Farnswoth Farms, Harry Mangurian, George Steinbrenner, John Nerud, Irving and Marjorie Cowan and on and on.

So when we see the Florida-breds on the track tomorrow, we’ll remember that they too have a rich and storied history.  That is not something that is exclusive to Kentucky.  

After a year of controversy in the college football bowl championship series, how great would it be to see Florida take on Southern Cal.  Well, you are going to see it on Saturday.

Here are some of the greatest Florida breds racers in history.

Dr. Fager setting a world record for the mile in 1:32 1/5

Dr. Fager in retirement

Unbridled winning the Kentucky Derby

Precisionist and Smile fight for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint win

Ta Wee takes the Interborough carrying 142 pounds

Dr. Patches, son of Dr. Fager, vs. Seattle Slew in the Patterson Handicap

What a Pleasure’s son Honest Pleasure in the Travers

and Foolish Pleasure in the Derby

Cozzene in the Breeders’ Cup Mile

Conquistador Cielo in the Belmont Stakes

Hollywood Wildcat Breeders’ Cup Distaff

Lost in the Fog in the King’s Bishop

Afleet Alex Tribute video

Affirmed guts out the Belmont Stakes to win the Triple Crown

Champion Ginger Punch in the Sunshine Millions Distaff

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