03/15/2014 8:24PM

Cavanaugh forging his own path

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Joe Diorio/Winning Images
Florida breeder J.R. Cavanaugh produced 16 stakes winners at Wicklow Farm near Ocala.

There have to be hundreds, if not thousands, of breeding farms throughout North America not unlike Ocala’s Wicklow Farm, the one J.R. Cavanaugh owns on the southwestern outskirts of this horse-crazy Florida town.

Wicklow consists of 10 acres, much of it just spots of grass futilely trying to cover all that ubiquitous Florida sand atop the calcium-rich limestone. Evidently, much of the farm has been kept up as needed – or not – resulting in a delightful slice of rural Americana forged in the spirit of rugged individualism.

Cavanaugh, 79, rises every morning at 6:30, when he probably is already in mid-quip.

“When I’m running late, I just tell my wife to start the argument without me,” he said with a grin.

Glib as he is, Cavanaugh is serious about his horses. A wall chart in his cluttered, musty farm office sports the names of 16 stakes horses bred by Cavanaugh – and they all resulted from his first 60 foals, he claims. Among his best: Grade 1 winner Man From Wicklow and graded stakes winners Marquette, Wild Heart Dancing, and Mambo Meister.

On an overcast winter afternoon, Cavanaugh showed off his three mares in a roomy paddock that fronts his property on an unpaved road just a few furlongs from more modern Ocala suburbia. They are in foal to the young stallions Eskendereya, The Factor, and Algorithms, although Cavanaugh said a mare’s pedigree, sturdiness, and other relevant traits are far more important to him than the sire covering her.

“You could almost breed to a jackass and get the same result,” he said. “I’ve always strongly believed the mare is the critical piece in the puzzle.”

Cavanaugh typically keeps three or four mares, doing all the work himself with them and their foals and any boarders he might have at the time. His mares often are shipped to Kentucky and quickly return here after being pronounced in foal. It is a labor-intensive lifestyle that “keeps me young,” he said.

He also spends quite a bit of time contemplating his next business venture, whether it’s buying an unwanted mare or working out a partnership.

“I love the art of the deal,” he said. “I’m usually just waiting for someone to make a mistake and try to make something out of it. It takes creativity, that’s for sure.”

In his earlier years, Cavanaugh, a father of nine grown children, lived and worked in Michigan, where his grandfather “was an Irish cop who rode a horse in the streets of Detroit,” he said. “That’s how my family wound up getting involved with horses.”

He arrived in Florida in 1967 while still keeping his job as a manufacturer’s rep in an automobile-related business in Michigan and was among the first wave of settlers who witnessed Ocala transform into the horse capital it has become.

“Bonnie Heath, Joe O’Farrell, Carl Rose,” he said. “I was around when they were really getting this place going. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go since then.”

His life has taken all kinds of twists and turns, as countless mementos in his office can attest. There’s the stuffed black bear, the photo of a Panamanian sailfish, the references to him being a former Marine, and the softball gear from the Golden Seniors Softball Club, for which he still plays first base.

But the horses are his primary love.

“I’m going to die with my boots on,” Cavanaugh said. “I’m here working every day – Sundays and Christmas, too. I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”