09/05/2002 11:00PM

Florida breeding: Horses just what doctor is ordering

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The August yearling sales in Florida were spun off from the October mixed sales some 20 years ago. For most of this period, other than big ticket items, much of the export traffic went south.

Mexico was a major destination, as were Venezuela, Panama, and a number of Caribbean republics. Most of that export business, except for Puerto Rico, has dried up, but in its place is the growing Italian market.

Dr. Paul Romanelli, M.D., a south Florida physician, is the man behind the Italian connection. He bought 18 yearlings at the recent Ocala yearling auction and spent close to $200,000 for his Italian clients. In the last decade, Romanelli has bought nearly a million dollars worth of horses, mostly Florida-breds, at these Ocala yearling sales.

He was, he will tell you, bred for this role. "I was born in Pisa," said Romanelli. "My maternal great-grandfather, Luigi Regoli, was a colleague of Federico Tesio. They were in the military together. He later would become Tesio's assistant trainer. My great-grandfather had three sons. All were in the racehorse business. One of them, Luigi Jr., would become my grandfather. Another of the brothers, Antonio, rode first call for Tesio in the stable's glory years. He's even mentioned in a Hemingway short story. So, you see, while I am a physician, as my father is, horse racing is in my blood."

Romanelli's first stop after leaving Italy was California, where he went to work for a medical research lab. "It worked out that I had plenty of spare time to make Hollywood Park, Santa Anita, and visit horse farms."

A foreign education and diploma does not guarantee a license to practice medicine in the United States. "I had a degree from an Italian university, but I lacked certain credits, so I had to go back to school," said Romanelli.

He elected to continue his education at the University of Miami. The spare time that Romanelli had in California prompted him to develop a business, the Ital-Cal Agency. Its primary function was to serve as liaison between Italians who wanted to race in America and the trainers who took over the reins and, conversely, to assist Americans who wanted to race in Italy. When Romanelli moved to south Florida, he continued his Ital-Cal business.

"I did not have much money to work with when I first began to buy yearlings at the Ocala sales. But my first group of purchases included the group stakes winners Bog Wild, Golden Oriental, and Solitary Dancer - all Florida-breds."

The success of the inexpensive Florida-bred sales yearlings stimulated a two-way flow of business. Floridians like Art Appleton and John Franks sent horses to race in Italy, and Italian owners and trainers began to look into the Florida market as a relatively cheap source of winning racehorses.

"The yearlings I bought at the August sales will be leaving for Italy after the 30-day quarantine period in Ocala is up. Then they are flown to Milan or Rome for $3,800. Once in Italy they will go to their respective trainers. Expenses for breaking and training range between $1,000 and $1,500 per month. In dollars, the prize money is very good.

"Used to be that it was difficult to get up-to-date information on the American horses in Italy. Not any more. The Internet has solved this problem."