08/10/2007 12:00AM

McKinnons make rare sales appearance

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There are 1,507 yearlings cataloged for the five-day Ocala Breeders’ August sale. The selected session, Monday, Aug. 20, offers 248 yearlings. The remaining yearlings will be auctioned over four days – Aug. 21-24.

Midway in this auction comes Hip No. 726, a stout bay or brown colt with no markings. He is by Sweetsouthernsaint and out of the unraced Swishy Lady, by Sword Dance. He is the only sales horse representing Tom and Mary McKinnon’s Mac Mt. Thoroughbred Farm.

The McKinnons rarely make headlines, but their connections to the Thoroughbred world are formidable. Tom’s father, John, a trainer in his own right, was a stable agent for the legendary trainer Marion Van Berg. Tom McKinnon grew up in the company of that Hall of Famer and his Hall of Fame son Jack.

Tom McKinnon worked his way up the Van Berg hierarchy becoming an assistant to Team Van Berg. Among those employed at that time were Frank Brothers, Wayne Catalano, and the 1998 Hall of Fame inductee Bill Mott. Recalled McKinnon: “Frankie was a groom, Wayne was a hot-walker, and Bill galloped horses. I should add that Mr. Van Berg saved the toughest horses for Bill, but Bill was pretty tough himself.”

McKinnon, 60, led a sort of vagabond lifestyle. His father and family moved with the stable and the stable went to a variety of venues. Such movement presented all sorts of social and educational adjustments for a youngster. Often, Tom would rise early, go to the track, walk hots or fill the feed tubs, and then hustle to get to school on time.

“I was going to high school in Arkansas, and the local kids hazed me, making fun of my Yankee accent,” he said. “Those were tough times, but thanks to my father and school officials the hazing stopped. One of the kids in that class, sort of a ringleader, was Bill Clinton.”

In the mid 1970s McKinnon sensed that the economics of racing were changing. He had met his future wife, Mary, and the thought of soliciting a variety of owners to stock his public stable and never quite knowing where one would be six months or a year from now caused him to rethink his status and his future.

“We wanted kids and a family life,” McKinnon said. “Hard to do when you are on the move.”

Meanwhile, his father had relocated to Ocala and suggested his son join him. McKinnon and his new wife, Mary, pregnant with the first of three children, made the trek. McKinnon initially worked for Noel Hickey at Irish Acres Farm before associating himself with the late Marv Gillum of Alice Ann Farm. It was during his tenure with Alice Ann Farm that he invested in a wooded parcel of 25 acres.

“Some place to go, if and when we needed to go,” said McKinnon.

Years later, it proved to be a propitious investment.

The McKinnons named their homestead Mac Mt. Thoroughbred Farm. “It’s a long story,” said McKinnon, “and it has to do with a friend’s property in North Carolina.”

What makes the McKinnon property unique in Florida – perhaps in the entire Southeast – is that the land is split by a gulley, and to get from one ridge to another, McKinnon himself built a covered bridge, reminiscent of the ones you see in New England tourist magazines.

“Went down to the lumberyard, got the materials, and built a 75-foot long, 16-foot high covered bridge,” he said. “I did it because it looks neat, and it does the job when flash floods sometimes cuts our house off from the highway.”

What is also neat is the Mac Mt. Farm operation of 14 mares and their produce.

“We seldom sell at the sales,” said McKinnon, “The Sweetsouthernsaint yearling is an exception. I deal with people who mostly race, and our breeding and training program suits these needs. We’ve bred and raised a good number of stakes horses on this farm. Now and then, however, you breed a horse that looks like the right stuff, and you get to thinking: This horse could be a home run at the sales.”

Gibson County to Ocala Stud

The partnership that owns Gibson County is moving the stallion to Ocala Stud Farm for the 2008 breeding season, and the fee remains at $3,500. Gibson County had stood in ’07 at Cloverleaf II.

“We just thought Ocala Stud was where he ought to stand,” said the partnership’s Luke McKathan.

Gibson County was among the nation’s leading 2-year-old sires last year based on win percentages. The stakes-winning son of In Excess was not popular with local breeders until midway in ’06 when the first of his small crop began racing and winning. Since April of last year he has covered close to 140 mares.