06/19/2015 11:21AM

Ocala Training Center serves many uses


The Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co. June sale of 2-year-olds in training and horses of racing age wrapped up an active juvenile auction season in central Florida. Now, the Ocala Training Center can get back to being what its name implies.

The one-mile oval and its surrounding property, owned and operated by OBS, wears a variety of hats: training center, auction grounds, breeze-show facility, simulcast facility, and occasional racetrack. In the past, the training center has housed Horse of the Year Favorite Trick, champion Countess Diana, and several top runners from the stable of trainer Mark Casse.

The property is first and foremost a sales facility, with six auctions in 2015, meaning the majority of the traffic in and out of the stable area isn’t for horses looking to stick around for long. While the sales do not typically have deleterious effects on the regular residents, high-population auctions like the spring sale of 2-year-olds in training do require temporary upheaval of the horses in the property’s 30 barns to make room for sales horses.

“It’s a unique situation because it’s not operating as a training center for 12 months of the year because of the 2-year-old sales, especially April,” said OBS president Tom Ventura. “The April sale takes up all of our stalls, so whoever’s stabled here needs to find other arrangements. It’s a little different that way, but it’s seasonal down here when you’ve got some of the trainers coming from up north who ship down here. We still utilize it as a training center, but it is a little unique in that we have to kick everyone out, basically.”

Ventura said the training center’s peak residency comes between November and March, when about 300 of the 1,200 stalls are occupied. The bulk of the clientele is made up of horsemen using the property as a winter base to ship to Gulfstream Park, roughly four hours away, and to Tampa Bay Downs, about two hours south. The training center is also a popular spot for local farms to put the finishing touches on their horses before going to the races or sales.

The setup has worked well for Casse, whose horses occupy two or three barns each winter, then clears out in late March for the Keeneland and Woodbine meets.

Ocala Training Center has the all-weather Safetrack surface, making it an ideal spot for horsemen who race at a track like Woodbine, as Casse does, which has a synthetic main track. In addition to providing the advantage of a familiar surface, the trainer said the track handles adverse weather conditions extraordinarily well, helping keep horses on schedule.

“I can remember seven or eight years ago, Bill Farish [of Lane’s End] flying in to watch some horses train, and it was a monsoon,” Casse said. “We got so much rain that the horse path flooded, so we had to wait on that to go down enough to get the horses to the track, and the track was perfect. It handles rain very well. We’ve been very fortunate over the years to have a lot of good horses, and a lot of them had a good part of their early training there.”

Ventura said the synthetic track’s consistency has been a boon for the under-tack shows, removing the variable of weather that could turn a traditional dirt track muddy and complicate the analysis of workouts.

“This will be our eighth year [with Safetrack], and we’re very happy with it,” Ventura said. “We’ve done very minimal maintenance with it, and from a sales standpoint, it’s an excellent surface in that it is more likely to be consistent from 8 o’clock in the morning to 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and it can handle the rain. It gives the buyers a good sense of comparison how the horses move.”

The surface makes the training center one of the last holdouts among North American venues to host races on a synthetic track.

OBS hosts a Day of Champions card for its 3-year-old auction alumni in conjunction with its winter mixed sale in January. The 2015 program featured two divisions of a $50,000 stakes race at six furlongs, a pair of 1 1/16-mile races, each with a $100,000 purse, and a $10,000 Quarter Horse race.

The Day of Champions card has moved on the calendar over the years, previously being held in conjunction with the OBS March sale of select 2-year-olds in training and featuring races for older graduates. The lucrative purses draw high-end riders and trainers wintering in south Florida.

In addition to serving as an incentive to buy and sell horses at OBS, the races allow the company to operate its simulcast facility by fulfilling a state mandate requiring it to host non-wagering races worth a combined minimum of $250,000 in purses. The races have traditionally been non-wagering events, but OBS began hosting two pari-mutuel races on each card in 2014 in order to maintain the company’s Quarter Horse permit.