DADE CITY — With its rolling hills and endless fences, Sheik Island Farm looks like it belongs in Ocala or Kentucky, not the home of the Kumquat Festival.
But the 351-acre training and breeding facility is here, under century-old oaks, tucked at the end of a dirt road off 242-foot LeHeup Hill, among the highest points in Florida.
And now, it can be yours, if you have an interest in horses and $4.5 million.
"It's for the serious horse person," said Kimberly Wilson, 39, who owns the property with her father, Tampa investment banker J. Patrick "Rick" Michaels. Michaels, a former door-to-door Bible salesman, made his fortune handling sales of media companies as the founder and CEO of Communications Equity Associates. "It's not something for somebody who owns a couple of horses."
In 1997, Michaels, an avid fox hunter, and Wilson, who first fell in love with horses at the Tampa Yacht Club and went on to win equestrian competitions, bought the land, which had once been a dairy farm.
It was a bold project. The land was mostly open pasture. Michaels and his daughter built roads and a couple of homes and spent a year just designing the barns and offices.
The farm, which gets its name from the surname of a past owner, is described as "an equestrian paradise." Sandwiched between two lakes, it features two barns. The larger barn, with 16 stalls, is for horses, while the eight-stall barn housed polo ponies. At one time it had a stick and ball field that was built to accommodate Wilson's husband, John, a former professional polo player.
"It can be used for everything but thoroughbred racing," Wilson said. "There wasn't enough land to build a big enough track."
The family spent a year working with Blackburn Architects, a firm based in Washington, D.C., that specializes in horse farms to design Sheik Island. They also put in shell roads connecting the barns, a house and a cottage. Each barn also includes an apartment for staff.
The architects overlooked no detail to create an environment that maximizes horse safety, efficiency and aesthetics.
Corners are rounded so as not to injure horses and riders. Ceilings are high and well ventilated to best capture the summertime breezes that blow through steamy Central Florida. A light sits above each stall so horses and groomers aren't always in the dark. The barns include a special stall that can be used to quarantine newly acquired horses.
The large barn has an oversized stall to accommodate a laboring mare and her newborn. One wall features an observation window so staffers can discreetly check the mare's progress without upsetting the horse.
Even the hay rooms are made so that trucks can back in and drop a new load in such a way that older hay gets used first. The room is also well ventilated to prevent fire.
"Hay can spontaneously combust," Wilson said.
John Blackburn, a principal in the firm and author of the book Healthy Stables by Design, recalled how he designed the farm to create distinctly separate areas for horses, vehicles and office workers.
"The only thing I'd do differently is I would put a skylight in it," said Blackburn, who didn't incorporate those into his designs until years after Sheik Island was finished.
He said Sheik Island has one distinct feature: reinforced hurricane gates.
"I don't think I've ever designed a farm with hurricane gates before," he said.
Michaels and his family enjoyed the farm for years. It was where Wilson kept her favorite show jumper, a bay thoroughbred named Whatever You Do.
But as the Wilsons started a family — their children are 4, 7 and 9 years old— and John retired from polo to start a fly fishing equipment business, they were too busy for such a huge equestrian operation. They moved to the city, making their home in South Tampa. Kimberly Wilson got her real estate license and now sells luxury properties for Premier Sotheby's International. She's also the agent for Sheik Island Farm.
The family first put the farm up for sale about two years ago with an asking price of nearly $6.5 million. No takers. They tried to auction the property, but it didn't fetch the reserve. They recently relisted it, hoping the reduced price would entice a buyer.
They also tout its location. It's about 50 miles from the show circuit that hosts events in Orlando and Ocala. Its proximity to Interstate 75 makes it easy to transport horses.
"It's just so peaceful," said barn manager Dona Alarcon, as she watched a farrier refit some horseshoes. "It should go to someone who's going to use it and enjoy it."
A neighbor praised the farm for its natural beauty and mint condition.
"I think it's a pretty piece of property," said Bob Blanchard, owner of Little Everglades Ranch, which hosted steeplechases for years north of Dade City. "Its facilities are first class. They've just got to find a horsey person with a lot money."