07/01/2004 11:00PM

Stronach has ambitious plans for Ocala farm

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Eight summers ago, Frank Stronach made a fact-finding trip to the Ocala, Fla., area. The purpose of the tour was to determine if the Stronach horses, numbering in the hundreds, would be better off training and wintering in Florida than at Stronach's home base in Kentucky.

Mark Roberts, now the general manager at Stronach's Adena Springs Farm South near Ocala, served as a guide for Stronach during his tour.

"Mr. Stronach had a plan in mind back in '96," recalled Roberts. "He wanted to buy a place to break his yearlings, winter his older horses, close up for the rest of the year, and move the snowbirds back to Kentucky. Didn't quite work out that way. By October, he had bought most of Lin-Drake Farm, 454 acres, and asked me to manage it for him. Instead of 40 yearlings and some older horses, as originally planned, I was shipped 45 broodmares, 90 yearlings, and three stallions. I was also informed that there was a number of older horses on the way."

What started off as a seasonal facility rapidly evolved into a major component of the Stronach Thoroughbred empire. It wasn't long before the realization came that the acreage of the former Lin-Drake property was insufficient. Again, Stronach, with Roberts navigating, toured Ocala and picked out a parcel of 3,500 acres; another 1,000 acres was soon added. It was a polyglot parcel of land. There were undulating sections covered with tree stumps left from indiscriminate harvesting. Other areas had clay-bottom ponds where one would not expect ponds to be.

Stronach conveys a variety of images to the Thoroughbred and business worlds. The man, however, is not hesitant to put his money up and he doesn't go on the cheap. The new Adena Springs South, located between State Roads 316 and 318, north of Ocala, is an estimated $50 million project. But, the final tab has yet to be calculated.

Roberts, while motoring about the property, estimated the land cost several thousand dollars per acre to clear and make it ready for Thoroughbred purposes. There are 20 miles of wire mesh fences at $5 plus per foot - estimated cost of more than $600,000. There are four 36-stall broodmare and foal barns; eight 36-stall training barns. Each stall measures 12 x 12 with rubber linings. The estimated cost per barn is a half-million. There's a 12-stall stallion barn being readied. There is a one-mile dirt training track, 60 feet wide, with a seven-furlong turf course, 45 feet wide. Near the barns and the track is a sales pavilion to accommodate the annual Adena Springs South 2-year-olds in training sale, hosted by the Ocala Breeders' Sales Company immediately following its own March selected sale.

Roberts says that Adena Springs South employs a work crew of 280. Because the facility is located some 20 miles from Ocala, the farm will provide homes for key personnel. Under construction are eight four-unit apartments. In the immediate area for these employees will be a nine-hole golf course, a large community pool with a workout room, regulation courts for basketball and volleyball, and a regulation soccer field.

Roberts could not give a precise account of the Stronach legion of horses.

"There are roughly 600 broodmares - 250 of them in Florida," he said. "The yearling count is most likely in the 400 range. We have five stallions in Florida but this is subject to change. As for horses at the track, Mr. Stronach's office in Toronto issues a status report every three days. Again, without having the numbers in front of me, I'd estimate there are several hundred horses stabled at the various tracks."

Stronach's operation figures to carry on for years to come. His wife, Freida, "really enjoys being in the horse business and is hands on," Roberts said. "Mr. Stronach has three grandchildren. One of his older granddaughters has a keen interest in horses. So Adena Springs is in good hands now and should be down the road."