09/12/2002 11:00PM

Hickey,Irish Acres still going

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Noel Hickey, the previously ubiquitous horseman, has not been to the racetrack this year, but he has not packed it in.

"I've never been so bloody busy," he said, speaking at his Irish Acres Farm in Ocala, Fla.

"I have a lot of young horses," Hickey said, watching a group of unraced 2- and 3-year-olds go through their training routine. "And I want to give them full attention. I am racing some of them at Calder Race Course, off the farm, and others will go to the main Irish Acres group, which is stabled in Illinois."

There is a sign in the office window of Irish Acres Farm that reads "Gone to Wal-Mart." Noel Hickey and his wife, Bobby, do not anticipate another generation of Hickeys operating Irish Acres Farm, so when representatives from the Wal-Mart organization contacted them last spring to purchase the 320-acre facility, with a plan to transform it into a regional distribution center, the Hickeys listened to the company's proposals.

The proposed change in land use soon became a civic confrontation between the "greens" and the Ocala business community.

A minority of Hickey's peers in the area championed green rights over property-development rights and campaigned against the proposed rezoning. After many months of challenges and demonstrations, Wal-Mart withdrew. Neither of the Hickeys are prone to talk about the matter.

"Come with me," said Hickey. He then walked over to his stallion barn, opened a stall door, and led out a chestnut horse with a white blaze. "Ever see anything like him?" Hickey asked with palpable affection and enthusiasm.

The object of Hickey's pleasure is 28-year-old That's a Nice (Hey Good Lookin-Our Bonnie S., by Palestinian). That's a Nice raced for Hickey in the late 1970's. A grandson of Noholme II, he won stakes from six to nine furlongs and finished second in the Hialeah Turf Cup, the Pan American Handicap, and the Dixie Handicap, all at 1 1/2 miles on the turf.

That's a Nice began his stud career in Florida in 1981. He has, as have many Irish Acres Farm stallions, made the rounds, and also has stood in Canada and Illinois. His best get was Lady Shirl, a millionaire Grade 1 stakes winner who was a finalist for Eclipse Award honors in 1991 as best turf female.

"I have six 2-year-olds in training by him," said Hickey. "We have a couple of yearlings, and we bred him to three mares last year and all are in foal. We'll see to it that he gets a couple of mares this year, too."

Also in the same barn are Bucksplasher, born in 1977, and Zafarrancho and Tour d'Or, both foals of 1982.

Hickey noted that Bucksplasher has sired more graded stakes horses than any other sire currently standing in Florida. Bucksplasher's best horse is 1998 champion turf horse Buck's Boy.

"We don't get much call for Bucksplasher seasons from local breeders, as he is not a 2-year-old sales-type sire," Hickey said. "Buckies don't really come around until they're 3, but then there was Blair's Cove; he's by Bucksplasher, and he won the Bashford Manor Stakes in his first start, as a 2 year-old at Churchill Downs. So, you should never say never, but Bucksplashers usually need time to mature.

"Tour d'Or has no problem getting bookings. We like to limit him, however, to 70 [mares] or less. He's in excellent shape and he's fertile.

"Zafarrancho never really had a chance to prove the kind of sire he can be. His overall numbers are really very good. We got him late in his career, and when you look over the so-so mares he has gotten, he's done well. Zafarrancho is from the Nasrullah sire line through Nashua.

"My broodmare band has leveled off to between 15 and 20. I have 18 right now. I used to have many times this number, but it's time to keep things manageable. After all, and I wish it could be otherwise, I am not getting any younger."