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Developers chomping at the bit for horse land

When Silver Charm crossed the finish line first at last year's Kentucky Derby, Diane Dudley and her husband, Scott, raced down to the winner's circle to join the celebration.

They had raised the 3-year-old colt from the day it was born until he was sold as a yearling. As the couple and Silver Charm's breeder, Mary Lou Wootton, neared the Churchill Downs track, they were stopped by an usher. The winner's circle was reserved for the owner, trainer, jockey and their families.

The snub still hurts Dudley a year later. "The breeder is a forgotten person," she says.

Still, 1997 was a whirlwind year for the Dudleys. After watching one of their own win the sport's biggest race, the couple were besieged by the national media. For the quiet, unassuming couple, the attention was uncomfortable, yet they graciously endured interview after interview.

They prefer the routine of rearing thoroughbreds: Rising before 7 a.m. to lead the horses out to pasture, overseeing visits by the vet and occasionally playing doctor as a mare readies to deliver her foal.

"I like the hands-on too much," Diane Dudley said. "I can't imagine doing anything else."

But now the Dudleys plan to sell their 50-year-old, 173-acre farm and move to another one in Marion County. The spread of development in Ocala has put a premium on their land. While their hearts say don't sell, the economic reality is hard to overlook.

By some estimates, land that once sold for $3,000 an acre is now fetching $15,000 to $25,000 an acre. Diane Dudley can rattle off the names of retirement communities that have sprung up around her farm on State Road 200: Oak Run, Majestic Oaks, Paddock Downs. Billboards line a stretch of congested highway, touting homes from $59,900 to $65,900 for "active adults."

The Dudley's neighbors, the Heaths, are also considering selling their land. The two families are among the pioneers of Florida thoroughbred racing. Bonnie Heath and Jack Dudley, Scott's father, co-owned Needles, which won the Kentucky Derby in 1956.

Now developers want to put 2,500 homes and a few golf courses on their farms. "In the Bible, nowhere does it say "It came to stay,' " Diane Dudley said. "It says "It came to pass.' I read that once."

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