01/02/2004 1:00AM

For Schettine, hitting the books paid off

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Most owners or breeders had a conventional introduction to the Thoroughbred business. They went to the races with friends, grew up around farms, or lived near a racetrack. Not Bill Schettine, owner of Signature Thoroughbreds, one of Ocala's major stallion stations. He jumped in with only a few months of book learning.

Five years ago, Schettine, who owns a construction company that lays natural gas piping, was flying in a helicopter, monitoring a pipeline that was being constructed through the Ocala area.

"I was flying over all these farms and training centers," Schettine said. "So many training tracks and pastures with mares and foals, that I just had to know more about what was going on here."

Schettine kept his own counsel. In lieu of professional guidance, he read trade publications and books on pedigrees, sales results - anything that would give him some insight about the Thoroughbred business. Armed with rudimentary knowledge and a sizable bankroll, he got his feet wet at the 1998 Keeneland fall sales.

"Only thing I had to go by were stud fees," said Schettine, who used that criteria to buy the dam of Take Charge Lady.

Schettine readily admits he is still learning about the business. He says that as you gain knowledge and experience, there is a danger of outthinking yourself, and he has been guilty of that since those early experiences at the sales.

One problem, Schettine says, is that you can have a herd of horses before you know it, and for him, big numbers became difficult to manage. Last fall, he sold a slew of mares to Eugene and Laura Melnyk's Winding Oaks Farm.

"I try and keep at least one filly out of every mare I sell," he said.

Schettine has roughly 40 horses in training, including young horses with five trainers across the country. Everything in the stable is for sale. He consigns horses to the sales, and if they don't sell, he races them until someone buys them.

"Five of my homebreds won stakes this year," he said. "I raced two of them and sold three at the sales."

Signature Thoroughbreds, 120 acres north of Ocala, has had several incarnations. Designed and built by Pat Kennedy, it began as Hyllview Stallion Stations, was next operated as Sylvan Crest Stud, more recently Dun Hill Stud, and now, under the ownership of Schettine, it is Signature Thoroughbreds. It is the residence of the stallions Cohiba, Dollar Bill, Middlesex Drive, Mongoose, Straight Man, Texas Glitter, The Silver Move, and Unbridled Time.

Schettine seeks horses that, he thinks, Florida breeders will support. If the horses make it, and he is always optimistic they will, he looks for stallion appreciation.

"I'm not looking for horses to develop and ship to Kentucky or anywhere else," he said. "If our stallions make it, I want them to stay in Florida."

One lesson Schettine has learned from his five years in the game is that absentee ownership is not for him. He says he is hands on, and that's the only way he can operate in this business. When asked if, after five years, he is on track with his still evolving business plan, Schettine says he is not.

"Still boning up on the business," he said. "The more you learn, the more you have to keep on learning."