On the road: No hobos at old Hobeau

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The signature blue post-and-rail fences are long gone-save for a small segment left behind as a tribute-and so too are the nearly 500 horses that once called the place home. An old blacksmith shop’s windows are dark, and the farm’s movie theater and dining hall are long demolished.

Hobeau Farm is no more, and it hasn’t been for a while now. The nearly 2,000-acre farm was sold in 2005 and a majority of the horses in subsequent years after that, and completely in a dispersal at the 2010 Keeneland September yearling sale.

What remains are the memories.

Plenty of memories for Craig Wheeler, who managed Hobeau for the late Jack Dreyfus for 23 of the more than 30 years he worked the land in northwest Marion County and about half hours drive from the center of Ocala.

The land is not dormant. Far from it.

Roy Lerman’s Lambholm South is in full operation on the huge piece of property, and the training center sports a strong list of recent graduates led by 2012 Breeders’ Cup winners Fort Larned and Mizdirection along with major graded stakes winners Ron the Greek, Speighstown, Saint Liam, Tizway, and Wildcat Heir. Lerman bought Hobeau for $12.75-million back in 2005, when Dreyfus was scaling back the operation he launched in the 1960s and led him to national acclaim in the racing industry.

The farm’s training track is in use and the training and broodmare barns are full, mostly, just not the way Wheeler remembers it. Other things are gone, too. The movie theater that entertained the huge number of employees that worked the farm and its horses is gone. So, too, is the farm’s kitchen and dining hall, where those same employees could get three squares a day in exchange for a small portion of their paychecks.

It’s a cloudy day and intermittent rain is falling in the Ocala area as Wheeler graciously gives a driven tour of Hobeau. The stories are priceless. They’re about horses and people.

About Dreyfus, his longtime farm manager and Wheeler’s boss Elmer Heubeck, and Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens.

About Onion, Prove Out, Step Nicely, Duck Dance, Kelly Kip, Miss Shop, Delightful Kiss.

About would-be farm workers taking the Greyhound to Ocala, hitching a 30-mile ride to the farm, sleeping in the barn. Wheeler would wake them up and offer them a job. A new start, at a place he calls and the industry recognized as one of the best in the game.

“What a place,” said Wheeler, who still lives nearby on a 20-acre farm he uses for layups and foaling, part of he and his wife Elizabeth’s successful full-service operation that counts recent Gulfstream winner and promising 3-year-old Park City among its graduates.  “Originally they had a deal [at Hobeau] where if a homebred won a $100,000 stakes or more, of course that’s like a $1-million race now, the whole pot of the horse’s first win would get divided up amongst all the help. You’d get so many points for how long you’ve been there and so many points for how much you’re getting paid and they had a way to figure it out. The whole pot would get divided up.”

“Jack, he was the best. Really the whole organization was the best. Allen was the best at what he did. Elmer was the best at what he did. Jack was the best at what he did.”

Hobeau was a force starting in the 1960s, then Beau Purple defeated Kelso three times over two seasons and Handsome Boy dusted Buckpasser in the 1967 Brooklyn Handicap. Then came the 1970s, Onion toppling the great Secretariat in the Whitney Handicap and Prove Out beating the Triple Crown winner in the Woodward Stakes.

Wheeler wasn’t at Hobeau yet for those wins, but he’s heard the stories, he’s got some of the the farm’s winner’s circle photos in his office, and he’s worked with and cared for the many of the horses responsible for those monstrous scores.

Step Nicely was one of those horses. A son of Watch Your Step that Jerkens considered one of the gamest horses he ever trained, and the winner of nearly $500,000 racing in the early and mid 1970s. He was a useful stallion standing at Hobeau, never getting a breakout-type horse but consistently getting a tough runner like himself. He was equally tough on the help.

“You know how everybody brings the mares to the stallions, well [Heubeck and Dreyfus] had an idea of bringing the stallions to the mares,” Wheeler said, driving past the farm’s former breeding shed. “So our stallion barn was up the hill. We used to jump on the stallions bareback … just put a lead shank through their mouth, you’d ride them down, and breed them out in the back of this barn here.

“But each stallion had their own quirky thing they would do. I remember riding Prove Out down. Step Nicely, you couldn’t ride down. He was tough. But his father, Watch Your Step, was supposed to be way worse. He was gone by the time I got there. Step Nicely, you’d go in there with him like you were riding a chariot. You’d have a big gum chain on and then this, they call it an iron halter, this big round iron thing, because the minute he saw the mare he’d go on his hind legs and go ‘Raaaar’ and start running … so you’re holding on and it’s like riding this chariot. It was crazy. He did have a lot of heart that son of a gun.”

Hobeau was always a special place for Dreyfus, even though he didn’t visit much in his later years. He did keep up with the races and continued to watch his horses carry his blazing orange and blue silks, right through memorable wins in the Ohio and Iowa Derbies in 2007.

Those same silks made it to the winner’s circle for some of America’s most prestigious races and the winner’s circle photos Wheeler busts out on this day show the dapper duo of Dreyfus and Jerkens celebrating big wins by the Hobeau legends.

The good vibes put out from those signature victories were felt all the way down to central Florida, which was quite a different place than the Ocala of today. Hobeau Farm, named partially for Dreyfus’ fascination of the simple no worry lifestyle of the hobo and after his first big horse Beau Gar, was a standout then, a model of excellence that continued to be right through to the end.

Wheeler, a transplant from the Northeast who was always fascinated by horses even though no one else in his family was, can’t help but gush about the place. And who could argue with the guy. It’s where he met his wife, a native of Queens who was living in one of the farm’s female dormitories and learning to ride. And he raised his children right on the same land where Hobeau’s four-legged stars got their start.

“It was the greatest place on earth to raise kids,” he says, passing his former residence. “My daughter had some show horses. My kids took the four-wheelers all over. I played polo. When we cut down on numbers this barn here was all polo ponies for me. And we had a big game reserve here. We had a big high fence around it. Elmer would give me some of them. He had all sorts of exotic animals at his place. He had hundreds of acres of real exotics. He’d give me a black buck antelope or four horn sheep. It was great.”