THE MANE EVENT
With a comprehensive lineup of events and beyond-the-barn amenities encompassing everything from fine dining to fashion, Ocala's Equestrian Hotel isn't just for the horsey set. Written by Bridget Williams
Ground level in The Grand Arena with The Equestrian Hotel in the background. Photo by Andrew Ryback.
For quite some time, Lexington, Kentucky, and Ocala, Florida, have been engaged in a chess-like series of legal and PR maneuvers to lay claim to the title of being the "Horse Capital of the World." Ocala declared a definitive "checkmate" two years ago with the World Equestrian Center (WEC) opening. A move punctuated when the luxurious Equestrian Hotel (equestrianhotel.com) opened its door at the WEC last May. Ocala's foray into the equine industry dates back to World War II, when Carl Rose established Rosemere Farm, the area's first Thoroughbred farm. Rosemere's soil has a similar limestone composition famous in the Bluegrass for producing nutrient-rich grasses and fast, healthy racehorses. Success for Sunshine State-bred horses came quickly, with Needles winning the Kentucky Derby in 1956, the first horse from Florida to do so. This was followed by Carry Back in 1961; Triple Crown winners Affirmed and American Pharoah in 1978 and 2015, respectively; and. most recently, Derby winner Nyquist in 2016. Today, there are nearly 1,000 racehorse farms in Ocala/Marion County, giving it the statistical designation of being home to more horses than anywhere else in the United States. Providing the brains and budget for the WEC and the Equestrian Hotel is the Roberts family, who self-made their fortune in the trucking industry before diversifying their portfolio with several real estate, equine, and hospitality ventures, among others. Mary Roberts led the family's foray into horses four decades ago, beginning with 4-H and progressing to the All American Quarter Horse Congress. Mary and Larry Roberts built an arena on their family farm in Wilmington, Ohio, thirty-five years ago that hosted many futurities and circuits. However, when the next generation of the Roberts family took an interest in horses, their efforts went from a trot to a full-on gallop. Roby Roberts and his wife Jennie rebranded the Wilmington arena as the World Equestrian Center in 2016. They made numerous improvements to the 200-acre site, previewing the ample amenities for spectators, visitors, and competitors at their next project: World Equestrian Center Ocala. slmag.net