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On a night when the rest of America celebrated Hollywood, this central Florida farming community toasted the success of its thoroughbreds.

Ocala's version of the Oscars featured videos of horses named Skip Away and Silver Charm rather than acceptance speeches by Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt. Winners clutched bronze horse heads instead of gold statuettes.

Instead of Billy Crystal, this awards dinner called on little-known actor Jim Gammon, who had a minor part in the movie Major League. "I would like to thank the Academy," he joked in his introduction.

Ocala horse owners and breeders had reason to toast good times. Florida-bred colt Silver Charm won the Kentucky Derby last year and came within a split-second of winning thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown. Skip Away, another horse born in Florida, was best among older colts.

Twenty years after Florida produced the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, the state is still working hard for bragging rights in its heated rivalry with Kentucky over which state raises the best racehorses. Most of the time, the Sunshine State places a distant second.

The Bluegrass State has the top stallions, the top mares and all the big money at horse sales. For instance, Kentucky's leading sire, Mr. Prospector, carries a stud fee, or mating price, of $150,000; Silver Buck, the 20-year-old sire of Silver Charm, stands for only $7,500.

Still, last year's success at the racetrack is more proof that Florida-breds continue to outrun their modest pedigrees. Skip Away, which sold for a paltry $22,500 as a 2-year-old in 1995, has earned nearly $7-million in his lifetime.

Another sign of respect: Ocala, the heart of Florida's thoroughbred industry, has become one of the best places in the world to raise horses. The sunshine has lured top owners, who have set up training centers in Marion County. More recently, Satish Sanan, chairman of fast-growing Information Management Resources Inc. in Clearwater, teamed with one of racing's top trainers, D. Wayne Lukas, to buy a farm in Ocala.

Yet the state can't shed its backwater image in the elite world of horse racing. The Arab sheiks and Japanese business tycoons who spend millions at Kentucky horse auctions normally snub Florida horses. Even horse lover George Steinbrenner skipped the awards dinner, held at his own hotel. "Everyone still thinks we're just a bunch of cowboys," said Dick Hancock, executive vice president of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association.

Gaining respect

Outside Barn 12 at the Ocala Breeders' Sales complex, Mike Sherman shows off his toddlers: 2-year-old thoroughbreds that will soon be paraded on a crescent-shaped stage in the auction ring.

Dressed in a black sweater, black jeans and white tennis shoes, Sherman stands out among the Wrangler-jean, cowboy-boot crowd at the March auction in Ocala. He's a native of Boston, and his childhood dream was to own the Red Sox.

Sherman started buying horses in the 1960s instead of going to business school at Columbia University. He has no regrets.

Two years ago he was named the country's outstanding breeder. Horses from his Farnsworth Farms in Ocala earned nearly $7-million in 1996.

"What it really showed was that the little guy can succeed in this business," the 58-year-old Miami Beach resident said. "But it takes a long time."

Despite being home to a host of respected breeders like Sherman, Florida is still regarded as merely a proving ground for stallions, sort of a farm team for Kentucky. Mr. Prospector is the best example of this long-standing trend. Once his offspring started having success at the track in the late 1970s, he was sold to a partnership for $40-million. The new owners shipped him from Florida to Kentucky, where he fetched higher stud fees.

"The dollars just are not here as they are in Kentucky," said Becky Thomas Montgomery, who trains yearlings in Ocala that are sold again as 2-year-olds.

Florida breeders have lived without the best bloodstock since the 1930s, when the thoroughbred industry started in the state. Without the pedigree to sell, breeders held on to their yearlings and trained them for sale as a 2-year-olds, the age when a horse can start racing.

Indeed, the 2-year-old thoroughbred market was created in Ocala in 1957 to give buyers an alternative to the premier yearling sales in Kentucky. Mike O'Farrell was 10 years old when his dad, Joe, helped organized the first auction.

"I have a tremendous amount of pride because 2-year-old sales now have a tremendous impact on the industry," said Mike O'Farrell, who runs the 500-acre Ocala Stud Farms. "For 20 years, we went unrecognized."

Today 2-year-old sales make up 20 percent of the thoroughbred market, with auctions held all over the country, including Kentucky. Floridians made the market so attractive that Kentucky could no longer afford to ignore it, said David Heckerman, a senior editor with The Blood-Horse, a leading industry trade magazine based in Lexington, Ky.

At the two-day March auction in Ocala, 288 horses were sold for $18.3-million, an average of $63,424 per horse. The average price was 25 percent higher than the previous record high of $50,504, set last year.

One indicator of the strength of the Florida market was the first-time presence of Japanese buyers at the sale. Traditionally some of the biggest horse traders in the world, the Japanese have tended to dismiss the Ocala sale as middle-of-the-road. But with the downturn in Japan's economy, buyers are finding Florida's offerings more attractive.

"People realize you don't have to spend an exorbitant amount of money to buy a good horse," O'Farrell said.

Ted Keefer of Magnolia, Texas, knows this firsthand. In previous March sales, he has bought million-dollar earners Richman and Marlin. Now he hopes his latest acquisition, a $200,000 colt, turns into another gem. "You don't see all that fancy pedigree," Keefer said. "I come here to buy athletes."

Ocala is horse country

The pioneers of the Florida thoroughbred industry must have known something when they settled in Ocala to raise horses.

Sure, the warm climate was an obvious advantage over Kentucky and allowed young horses to spend more time outside exercising. But Ocala is also one of the few places in the country with limestone-rich soil, which helps build strong bones in horses _ and also means locals have to deal with nasty lime deposits in their bathtubs.

More than 400 thoroughbred farms grace the gently rolling hills of Marion County (see map). Kentuckians could easily mistake Ocala for home, with its miles of black-board fencing and ancient oaks veiled in Spanish moss.

Indeed, several Kentuckians now call Ocala home. "Ocala reminds me of Lexington 10 years ago," said J.T. "Cosmo" Cosdon, who moved from Kentucky a few years ago to help run a local horse farm. "The only thing I miss is a good jazz station."

Some of the world's biggest thoroughbred operations have come to the area in recent years. Canadian breeder Frank Stronach, chairman of Magna International Inc., an auto-parts manufacturer, bought a 452-acre farm in 1996, complete with dirt and turf training tracks. Stronach was one of the area's leading owners last year, with almost $4-million in earnings.

A few years before Stronach arrived, Allen Paulson, founder of Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., established the Florida branch of his Brookside Farms. Paulson owned superstar racehorse Cigar, which closed his career in 1996 by winning 17 of 20 races, including 16 in a row.

Marion County's latest coup comes via the Tampa Bay area. Earlier this month, Information Management's Sanan, whose company's stock market value has nearly tripled since going public 17 months ago, bought the 600-acre Silverleaf Farm with Lukas, who has trained winners of six consecutive Triple Crown races from 1994 to 1996. As part of the deal, Lukas will move his training center to Florida from California.

"This is like bringing another Fortune 500 company to Ocala," said Hancock of the breeders' association.

But the addition of the new training operations only reinforces the industry cliche that horse owners breed thoroughbreds in Kentucky and raise them in Florida. The distinction doesn't sit well with Florida breeders, and it's Hancock's job to convince people otherwise. He's always ready with statistics to back up his claims:

+ Florida produces about 3,500 thoroughbreds a year, or about 11 percent of the North American foal crop, second only to Kentucky, which raises more than 7,500 foals a year.

+ The state's thoroughbred industry is an economic engine, employing more than 29,000 people and generating more than $1-billion for the economy.

Despite the impressive numbers, Hancock still feels like he's running in place when it comes to winning recognition for Florida-breds. Last year, Kentucky Derby runner-up and Florida-bred Captain Bodgit was identified on television as being from Maryland because the colt's owners were from Maryland.

Hancock is trying to persuade industry publications like The Blood-Horse to identify horses by their birthplace. Heckerman listens but doesn't buy the argument. "There is a tendency for underdogs to think that the ruling powers are keeping them down," Heckerman said.

The only way to change the perception of being second-class is to keep winning at the track, industry experts say. Silver Charm's victory at the Kentucky Derby was the first for a Florida-bred since 1990. The colt sold for $16,500 as a yearling.

While Hancock was celebrating the victory, he received a fax from his counterpart, David Switzer, at the Kentucky Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association.

"Dark clouds hung over the Twin Spires (at Churchill Downs)," wrote Switzer jokingly, after no Kentucky-bred horse finished first or second.

Switzer went on to congratulate Hancock on the Florida-breds' finish, before adding in small print at the end of the page: "Bet you both of them come to Kentucky to stand (stud)."

Record setting sales

Prices for Florida-bred 2-year-old's were higher than ever this year.

1997 SALES

Auction Horses sold Gross Average

Calder 153 $10,428,000 $68,157

Ocala 254 $12,828,000 $50,504

1998 SALES

Auction Horses sold Gross Average

Calder 153 $12,564,000 $82,118

Ocala 288 $18,266,000 $63,424