Cashel Stud: Then and Now
Ocala didn’t become Horse Capital of the World® overnight. It took the steadfast efforts of dedicated horsemen decades to establish this area as a proven site for breeding, raising and training successful horses.
Through the years, specific farms become industry leaders, their accomplishments branding them as icons in Florida’s horse business.
Showcase Properties of Central Florida, Inc. has had the privilege of representing both sellers and buyers of several of these iconic farms when they changed hands. To celebrate their storied histories and learn about the plans of current owners, you’re invited to explore the “then” and “now” of these noted farms.
Our journey continues with Cashel Stud.
Thoroughbreds were nothing new to the Hartigan family. The founder of Cashel Stud was John Hartigan, a 10th generation horseman who was born in Ireland in 1929. Thoroughbreds were nothing new to the Hartigan family. The founder of Cashel Stud was John Hartigan, a 10th generation horseman who was born in Ireland in 1929. His father, H.M. Hartigan, was an accomplished Irish trainer, and John worked for him until he got the opportunity to come to the States.
“Dad was your typical young man who wanted to spread his wings. He first came here with a load of horses on a boat in the late 1940s,” relates Brian Hartigan, the eldest son of John Hartigan.
It was while working in Virginia that John met Mildred (Sandy) Riddle.
“They were both tall people and mutual friends thought they should meet and introduced them,” says Brian of his father and mother who were 6’6″ and 6′, respectively.
Many people don’t realize John Hartigan didn’t work exclusively with horses his entire career. In fact, after he and Sandy married, he briefly ran a cattle operation in Virginia before the couple moved out West. They ended up settling in Colorado where John ran a livestock show for a time.
“He met a man named Allison who had a big cattle ranch but wanted to up his social standing and get horses. So, he finds this Irish guy named Hartigan from a family who knew horses,” says Brian of how his father dove back into Thoroughbreds.
“Eventually, Allison sent Dad back to Ireland to buy a group of yearlings and those horses were brought to the U.S. via plane, which was one of the earliest times that was done,” Brian continues.
Hartigan trained those horses for Allison and began campaigning them at tracks in the Midwest and Northeast. He was at Thistledown in Ohio when he met another trainer, John Nerud, who was training for William McKnight of 3M fame. It was Nerud who inspired McKnight to buy a farm in Ocala, which turned out to be the historic Tartan Farms that McKnight launched in 1960.
Hartigan later shared when he first heard about Ocala after meeting Joe O’Farrell (eventual founder of Ocala Stud) at Saratoga around 1958.
He said O’Farrell talked about Ocala like “it was the greatest thing to come down the pike.”
Not long after, Hartigan got a call from Bonnie Heath of Bonnie Heath Farm in Ocala, which was established in the mid-1950s. Heath had recently sold some land to McKnight and said that the new owner wouldn’t close on the property until they had a farm manager. Heath told Hartigan if he was interested in the position, he should call John Nerud.
Indeed, the two men connected and Nerud recruited Hartigan to manage the operation.
Hartigan reportedly said, “I figured I’d be done here in a year to 18 months. The general public gave me six months with Nerud.”
John Hartigan more than outlasted the naysayers and went on to manage Tartan until 1975. During the years he was with Tartan, Hartigan bought land to begin building his own farm, which he named Cashel Stud after the iconic Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary, Ireland. In fact, his early farm letterhead included a depiction of the Rock of Cashel.
“At that time there were just a handful of big farms, most 1000 acres or more, and it was a fairly small group of people who pioneered the whole horse industry here in Marion country,”
—Brian Hartigan, son of Cashel Stud founders John and Sandy Hartigan
When Hartigan bought approximately 300 acres on South Highway 475 in Ocala in the early 1970s, it was unimproved cow pasture.
“At that time there were just a handful of big farms, most 1000 acres or more, and it was a fairly small group of people who pioneered the whole horse industry here in Marion country,” says Brian.
Cashel Stud adjoined the land which would eventually become the Florida Horse Park.
“For many years, my family had a lease on that land from the state. We referred to it as the ‘canal property,”’ recalls Brian, of the acreage that was originally part of a dubious government plan to dig a barge canal across the middle of the Sunshine State.
The Florida State Canal Commission was established in 1931. Various presidents, from Franklin Roosevelt through Lyndon Johnson, supported the project.
The Depression gave Roosevelt an excellent excuse to promote the project under the auspices of creating jobs. More than 6,000 workers tackled the enormous task, clearing some 4,000 acres until federal funding for the canal project dried up in 1936.
Marjorie Harris Carr moved to Florida in the late 1920s. Recognizing the threat the canal posed to the area, Carr and other activists launched a group known as the Florida Defenders of the Environment and worked tirelessly to halt the canal project. Their efforts finally resulted in a federal court injunction. President Richard Nixon pulled the plug on canal construction in 1971, and in January 1991, the federal government “deauthorized” the Cross Florida Barge Canal Project.
In 1998, the State of Florida turned the former canal route into a 110-mile-long corridor aptly named the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway. Encompassing more than 70,000 acres of land, the Greenway spans across Central Florida, all the way from the Gulf of Mexico up to the St. Johns River. All together, the 110-mile linear park offers over 300 miles of trails for horseback riders, hikers and mountain bikers.
“Dad built all the barns on Cashel, six on the main farm and two on the canal property,” says Brian. “He built the racetrack in the late 1970s, so horses have been training on that track about four decades now.”
Rough n’ Tumble, Florida’s leading sire and grandsire of Mac Diarmada.
Other stallions of note that stood at Cashel were Canadian champion Greek Answer, Sunny Clime, Pair of Deuces, Royal and Regal, and Unreal Zeal. Additional top-performing Florida-breds bred by Cashel Stud/ John Hartigan are multiple graded stakes winner Romacaca ($944,992), multiple stakes winner Victorian Hill ($754,540) and stakes winner Conway Two Step.
All through its years of operation, Cashel Stud’s focus was breeding to sell, whether as yearlings or 2-year-olds in training. Hartigan himself owned only a few racehorses and remained steadfast in his support of Florida’s Thoroughbred industry.
Hartigan was actively involved in the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association, first serving as its vice president in 1967. He also served on the Breeders’ Cup board of directors and on the board of the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company. Hartigan helped found the now prominent Thoroughbred sales company, which held its first 2-year-olds-in-training sale in January 1975.
While John Hartigan was a force to be reckoned with, Brian relates that his mother, Sandy, was also passionate about the farm and horses, but in her own way. She educated herself about horses and bloodlines early in the marriage when she started reading race results and became very knowledgeable about pedigrees. She later worked in Cashel’s office and handled the farm’s advertising. She volunteered with numerous community projects and associations, including the Marion County United Way and The Florida Cattlemen’s Association.
Sons Brian and Kevin Hartigan were both raised in the Thoroughbred industry and vowed to continue their family’s farm. They did just that for many years.
“I sold out my interest to Kevin around 2000, and he kept it going for a while,” says Brian, who now works as an equine adjuster for Great American Insurance.
Sadly, Kevin Hartigan passed in 2019. Portions of the farm had been sold off over the years, with the last piece of the original Cashel Stud property sold in 2021.
Equels Racing and Training Center and Horse Park Lane
Tom Equels’ first view of Cashel Stud came in the early 1980s and it was from the air. A lawyer and pilot, he was flying to Florida State Prison for a volunteer pro bono case when he flew over the historic 300-acre farm in southeast Marion County.
“I saw the racetrack and that there was a grass airstrip,” recalls Equels.
Of course, at that time he had no idea that about 12 years later he would own that very land. Born in Pennsylvania, Equels has called Florida home since his family moved here when he was 13. He was only 17 when he left behind a college scholarship and joined the Army, determined to fly.
“As a boy I wanted to fly P-51 Mustangs, but by the time I got old enough, they didn’t have those,” says Equels, adding that the Cobra gunships he piloted were a close substitute.
Equels flew over 300 combat missions in Vietnam, returning home with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, two Distinguished Flying Crosses and 15 Air Medals. Equels earned his Bachelor of Science and Master of Science while in the Army.
After serving his country, he attended Florida State University College of Law and became a practicing lawyer at Miami’s prominent Greenberg, Traurig and Askew law firm in the 1980s. He later started his own practice, establishing the Equels Law Firm in 1990 with offices in Miami and Orlando.
Equels has been riding since childhood. As his law practice thrived, riding became a wonderful escape and form of relaxation. He and his wife, Laura, own both Paso Finos and Thoroughbreds. Equels has been riding since childhood. As his law practice thrived, riding became a wonderful escape and form of relaxation. He and his wife, Laura, own both Paso Finos and Thoroughbreds.
While living in Orlando, Equels knew Ocala would be the perfect spot to have a weekend farm with access to great riding opportunities. In 1995, he bought 11 acres next to Cashel Stud. He met his neighbors and soon discovered he and Kevin Hartigan both had a passion for restoring old muscle cars. They worked on a number of those cars together.
As portions of Cashel Stud went on the market, Equels began buying contiguous acreage over a period of years until he’d purchased 147 acres of the iconic farm. Which is how he found himself owning the very 5/8-mile racetrack he first saw from the air many years earlier. At the same facility and location that had produced so many stakes winners and top racehorses over the years, Tom and Laura Equels established Equels Racing and Training Center.
“Out of respect for the tremendous contributions John Hartigan made to the racing industry, I named it the John Hartigan Memorial Track,” says Equels.
“We always have a Thoroughbred or two we’re racing. They’re typically trained at our place and either race at Tampa or we send them to a trainer in another state. We were fortunate enough to win several races in Pennsylvania in the summer of 2021.”
— Tom Equels, owner of Equels Racing and Training Center
On the same property as the track are three training barns with a total of 80 stalls, which Equels leases out to trainers. On the same property as the track are three training barns with a total of 80 stalls, which Equels leases out to trainers.
“We spent quite a bit of money resurfacing the track to get it close to the surface at Tampa Bay Downs,” he says, noting that the track crew from the Tampa track came in to help with the renovation.
Equels leases to both out-of-state trainers bringing horses down from northern states, and local horsemen who specialize in breaking and training.
“There are a lot of 2-year-olds in training and also older horses who race from the farm at Tampa,” he says. “It’s primarily seasonal from October through April, but in 2020 all the barns stayed full through the summer because of the pandemic and trainers not being able to go race.
The track has the status of being a certified training center so published works can be done there. Tom and Laura Equels have been deeply involved in the Paso Fino industry for many years as breeders. Tom is also an award-winning rider having shown several of their horses to national and international championship honors. The couple has both Paso Finos and Thoroughbreds now.
“I’m so involved with my work right now, I haven’t been able to show lately, but I still regularly pleasure ride and take advantage of the Greenway trails right next to the farm,” says Equels. “We always have a Thoroughbred or two we’re racing. They’re typically trained at our place and either race at Tampa or we send them to a trainer in another state. We were fortunate enough to win several races in Pennsylvania in the summer of 2021.”
When he’s not working, Equels, 69, still enjoys riding on the scenic Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway trails that first enticed him to the area. As a Greenway volunteer, he regularly helps maintain those trails, clearing brush and obstacles and making sure trails are well marked. Knowing he wasn’t alone in his passion for exploring those trails, Equels designated a portion of the former Cashel Stud property for development as exclusive equestrian properties, naming it Horse Park Lane.
“For people who love to ride, this area is like waterfront property, so I developed the area so each lot has an easement that goes to the Greenway,” says Equels.
Although it’s been 50 years since Equels earned his pilot wings, he continues to maintain his commercial multi-engine pilot’s license and helicopter license. He enjoys flying at least a couple times a month now.When he takes to the skies, there are times he’ll make a pass over the farmland that first caught his eye and later captured his heart. The picturesque land that unfurls below his wings still has the power to quicken his pulse. The best part is that he also calls it home.
Pick View and Protea Weddings & Events
“I worked on Thoroughbred farms and then discovered the equine business management program at the College of Central Florida,” says Pickerrell.
While at CF, he met Courtney Roberts, a Florida native who also grew up with horses on her family’s tree and avocado farm in Homestead. Courtney moved to Ocala with her horses in 2008 to attend the same equine program at CF. The two kindred spirits “clicked,” and they’ve been together ever since.
“We started off renting a barn from Tom Equels for our 2-year-olds and used the track. Riding the horses to the track we went through this beautiful section of the farm. It was for sale, but we weren’t in a position to buy it then,” recalls Pickerrell.
“A few years down the road we ended up buying 45 acres from Kevin Hartigan and then, in April 2021, we bought the remaining 40 acres that was for sale, which included the former stallion complex,” he explains, noting that their total of 85 acres encompasses both their horse operation and Protea Weddings & Events.
On their property are two barns where Joe and Courtney stable about 30 horses. Needing more stalls for their horses in training, they continue to rent a barn from Tom Equels on that side of the farm.
“The vast majority of our business is breaking yearlings, either for owners going to the races or for the 2-year-olds in training sales,” says Pickerrell, who breaks about 50 head per year.
Courtney has also had much success in the world of barrel racing, including setting the arena record at the All American Quarter Horse Congress, as well as training horses that have competed at the National Finals Rodeo. She still actively trains barrel horses on their farm.
“So many graded stakes winners have come off this place. There’s just something about this farm, this ground. The horses do really well here; they just thrive.”
— Joe Pickerrell, owner of Pick View and Protea
Weddings aren’t the only festivities happening at Protea. Anniversary and birthday parties, quinceañeras, showers and business functions have all been held at the venue. In addition to the stunning structure and one-of-a-kind setting, the business also offers event planning packages. About 20 acres are dedicated to the venue, encompassing the barn, parking area and different options for ceremony sites. The first wedding was held at Protea in June 2020 and the venue has been busy ever since. The event business is named after the national flower of South Africa, which is where Courtney’s family hails from.
“The ability to be outdoors was an advantage during Covid, so we actually picked up some business during the height of the pandemic,” says Pickerrell, noting that bookings have come from out-of-state, as well as locally. With over a dozen weddings booked in October 2021, the venue is already booking into 2024. The Pickerrells’ businesses – both Thoroughbreds and wedding venue – are booming. Much of the credit goes to their passion and work ethic, but Joe Pickerrell believes the land itself plays a role. “So many graded stakes winners have come off this place,” he says. “There’s just something about this farm, this ground. The horses do really well here; they just thrive.”
Now that Joe and Courtney own this stunning section of the historic farm, they don’t plan on going anywhere.
“It’s always such an honor to work together with like-minded individuals who honor the history of these storied Marion County farms. There are still memories being created every day on the property. Mr. Equels isn’t just selling to anyone. He’s offering an opportunity to be surrounded by like-minded individuals who want to write their own stories while enjoying the natural amenities of the property, including the Florida Horse Park and Greenway Trails”.
— Valerie Dailey, owner/broker of Showcase Properties
“A lot of the big old farms are going away. One of the things that drove us to purchase the first portion of the farm was fear of it being subdivided,” says Pickerrell. “We’re here for good; we won’t be subdividing or selling this property.”
“It’s always such an honor to work together with like-minded individuals who honor the history of these storied Marion County farms,” says Valerie Dailey, owner/broker of Showcase Properties. “There are still memories being created every day on the property. Mr. Equels isn’t just selling to anyone. He’s offering an opportunity to be surrounded by like-minded individuals who want to write their own stories while enjoying the natural amenities of the property, including the Florida Horse Park and Greenway Trails.
“In the same vein, Protea offers the opportunity to live your once-in-a-lifetime moment with the backdrop of a storied farm here in Marion County,” adds Dailey. “It’s these choices that continue to write the legacy of this very special piece of Ocala’s history.”
We love where we live and we hope to inspire the same in our customers– you can browse horse farms for sale in Ocala to learn more about what we have available in the Marion County area. If you’re interested in creating your own equine legacy in the Horse Capital of the World®, contact an equestrian real estate agent today! You might also like to view Alachua County Farms for sale.
The Iconic Horse Farm series was created with the goal of exploring the history of the farms and local equine industry that helped make Ocala the city that we love. You can take a look at our previous Iconic Horse Farm series posts here.