10/13/2006 12:00AM

Martelli makes best of failed venture


In the autumn of 1985, Domenic Martelli, then an active New Jersey real estate developer, traveled to the Ocala market scouting for business opportunities. His forte was building upscale homes in New Jersey for Wall Streeters, but he was no novice to the Thoroughbred industry - he had a string of horses in New Jersey under the supervision of trainer Bill Sacco.

"We were winning our share of races," said Martelli. "Good races, too."

But Martelli hankered to get into the entrepreneurial end of the racing business. Quarter Horse permits in Florida were readily accessible in the 1980's, and Martelli applied for one to operate a combined parimutuel Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred meet in the Ocala market.

"It looked like a piece of cake," said Martelli. "Boy, was I wrong."

Martelli has an impatient streak in him. When he wants something done, it's usually full steam ahead. He obtained his permit and developed a 704-acre parcel of rolling landscape, a few furlongs west of the late Fred Hooper Farm on U.S. Highway 40. A regulation one-mile racetrack with a seven-furlong turf course was constructed. The pilings and the superstructure for a grandstand were begun. More than 27 barns went up, with over 800 stalls, and each barn had several paddocks for turnouts. Says Martelli: "I built over 100 paddocks in and around the barn areas."

Martelli named his enterprise Classic Mile, and as Classic Mile began to take shape, Martelli said he realized that a competitor, the Galaxy project, was a potential threat to him and his business plan. The Galaxy project was a local, privately owned enterprise that could, if permitted by state authorities, become a prototype for offtrack betting in Florida. If Galaxy operated within 10 miles of Classic Mile and offered offtrack betting on Thoroughbreds, Martelli said, he perceived that Classic Mile would be in trouble. Most are keenly aware that parimutuel Quarter Horse racing in Florida, although attempted many times, had not been a successful venture, and without territorial protection for Classic Mile's offtrack betting, there was no way it could become profitable.

Martelli challenged the legality of Galaxy in court and won the challenge, but by then the climate and circumstances had changed. Offtrack betting at parimutuels was happening, and the question Martelli had to answer was, "Could Classic Mile make a profit in this new climate?"

"Nope," he said. "The political climate had changed and the nature of the business was changing."

Construction on the Classic Mile facility was halted - remnants of a few ghostly girders put in place to support a grandstand and clubhouse can still be seen. The barns, however, had been built, the paddocks fenced and seeded, and the pathways to the racetrack had been cleared.

"I was left with a training center," said Martelli.

Twenty years have passed. Martelli still shows a bit of frustration when the subject of Classic Mile Racetrack comes up, but he is more than satisfied with the outcome of his enterprise.

"We made a success out of what a lot of people thought was a boondoggle," he said. "We have first-rate horsemen who have leased barns and stalls from us for 10 years or more. Bill Recio usually rents 100 stalls. Tom Caruso, Barry Manifee, Brad Brinkman, and others are regulars. Calumet, when it was in operation, had its own barn and trained here. John Brunetti of Red Oak Stable has his own farm and training center down the road from here, but Rick Sacco, who manages his farm for him, puts the finishing touches on Red Oak's and their clients' horses here."

Hialeah is no more, and likely will not be an operating racetrack again; from the Hialeah team, Martelli induced Alex Lopez to become the Classic Mile grounds superintendent.

When asked about getting back into the racing end of the business, Martelli grinned and said, "I won't be getting into the breeding end of it - takes too long, and I'm no chicken. Besides, I like to be on the move. I am thinking seriously about buying a couple of 2-year-olds in training at the coming sales. Once you become involved in racing, you're hooked and you never really get it out of your system."

* Don Dizney was re-elected as president of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association at the association's annual meeting on Oct. 7.

* The new officers of the Ocala Breeders' Sales Co. are: Mike O'Farrell, chairman; Frances Vanlangendonck, vice president; and Steve Silver, secretary/treasurer.