08/12/2005 12:00AM

Winding Oaks Farm has found its niche


Phil Hronec has passed a time marker: It' has been 40 months since he became the general manager for Eugene and Laura Melnyk's Ocala breeding and farm operation. The Melnyk's Winding Oaks Farm has a storied past. It was initially developed in the 1960's by John Nerud for the McKnight family, who named it Tartan Farms. When the McKnight family divested in the late l980's, Harry T. Mangurian Jr. bought most of the acreage and renamed it Mockingbird Farm.

The Melnyks bought the 1,000-acre property in the spring of 2002 for just under $15 million. It was one of the last horse farms on Florida State Road 200. In the beginning, all the farms in the Ocala area were located on one side or the other of State Road 200. Now only Winding Oaks Farm remains.

"We're a green oasis in the middle of rapid development," said Hronec. "The track viewing stand faces 80th Avenue, and it seems every time I look in that direction, I see new roofs or scaffolding indicating more construction is coming."

Hronec, whose bona fides include being general manager for the late John Franks Ocala breeding and training property, oversees an operation that by current count numbers 547 horses of all ages. There are 165 in the broodmare band and the rest are foals, yearlings, or assorted horses. It takes 92 employees to operate Winding Oaks Farm and farm expenses run into the millions annually.

Whereas its predecessor Mockingbird Farm stood four or more stallions at a time, Hronec said that Winding Oaks's business plan is not geared to such numbers.

"It takes a team to properly market a stallion," he said, "and it takes a lot of money as well." Nevertheless, Graeme Hall, a multiple Grade 2 stakes-winning son of Dehere, stands at Winding Oaks Farm for $7,500 and his first yearlings are going to market.

Hronec candidly admits that marketing Graeme Hall was not a slam dunk. The numbers tell the story. The stallion's first book closed at 58, and 42 of those were supplied by the farm. The second year, the farm supplied 22 of the 48 booked.

"I needed a different approach to promoting this horse, but I had neither the time nor the personnel to do this properly," Hronec said.

His solution was to hire a marketing agency that specializes in stallions. He picked Ocala based Briggs & Cromartie to build Graeme Hall's book, especially as the stallion was entering his third season, traditionally a slow time in the booking cycle of stallions.

"They sure got the job done," said Hronec. "We bred 40 of our own mares and got 68 outsiders. Graeme got the job done, too. Last count, 101 of the 108 were in foal."

There are 17 yearlings by Graeme Hall consigned to the Ocala Breeders' Sales annual yearling auction, which gets underway Monday, Aug. 21. And 12 of those were bred at Winding Oaks Farm. When asked what the criteria is for determining who gets chosen to be sold and who does not, Hronec said that he and the Melnyks had worked out a business plan. All the farm yearlings are initially appraised in terms of pedigree and market worth. There are four classes, A through D. The horses are then evaluated for overall appearance, conformation, and athleticism. Some A-class pedigree horses are dropped, while some C or D class pedigrees are moved to a higher class. Depending upon the numbers needed to keep the stable resupplied, a random selection is made from each group and these are the ones who go to the sales.

Hronec has supreme confidence that the Graeme Hall yearlings will be well received at the coming sales. "I know my mares and I know the stallions that they were bred to in the past, and I know what their foals by these other stallions look like," he said. "Graeme Hall moves his mares up."

Five million dollars is an approximate number, but that's what Hronec says it takes annually to operate the Melnyk racing and breeding operation. Hronec wants to limit the population on the farm to no more than 500 horses at a time. The modus operandi will be to send mares from the farm to be bred elsewhere and foal in various states, breed them back, and return the mares or their weanlings to home base.

When asked if the farm's business plan called for adding stallions to the business mix, Hronec expressed no great enthusiasm to remake the farm into a stallion station.

"Let's put it this way," he said, "Graeme Hall and any other stallions retired from the racing stable are going to stand where they can be most valuable to the business."

The Thoroughbred business, he says, is not a one-way street. You can't keep investing millions without getting something back.

"The yearlings we're selling next week with the OBS will generate operational income and put our homebreds into good hands," he said. "Ideally, it will be a win for us and a win for the buyers."