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Horses and luxury meet up at equestrian hotel
May 08

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Tampa Bay Times

OCALA, Fla. (AP) _ Aside from some opulent resorts in the Orlando area, Central Florida has never been known for luxurious accommodations. And for many visitors and Floridians alike, Ocala registers as little more than ``horse country'' and a few exits along Interstate 75.

That is rapidly changing, due in no small part to the new World Equestrian Center and the Equestrian Hotel.

Spread over nearly 380 acres west of the interstate, this $800 million project is emerging as the Disney World of the horse set. Riders from all over the United States and dozens of foreign countries are flocking here to compete in state-of-the-art facilities, including huge air-conditioned arenas with VIP viewing suites. They never have to leave the grounds to stable their horses, shop in high-end stores or dine in a wide variety of restaurants.

But this isn't just for horse owners. What is being called the finest equestrian center in the country is also a lovely resort at which you can relax by the pool, get pampered in the spa or just watch horse and rider move as one as they jump fences or go through their dancelike dressage paces.

The Ocala/Marion County area, with more than 1,200 horse farms, has long claimed the title of ``Horse Capital of the World.'' Miles of scenic pastures have produced six Kentucky Derby winners and 26 Breeders Cup champions, making it the logical place for a major equestrian center.

Opened in December 2020 after four years in the making, the center was entirely funded by Larry and Mary Roberts. The couple, originally from Ohio, started with a single truck and built it into R+ L Carriers, one of the nation's largest trucking companies. A friend and I recently checked into the Equestrian, the 248-room hotel that anchors the center and reflects Mrs. Roberts' dramatic design sense.

The lobby, with a fireplace and ceilings that soar 24 feet, is a crisp white with accents of black and gold in the French provincial-style furnishings. Enormous portraits of dogs _ one of Mary Roberts' favorite animals along with horses _ line the upper walls. Fresh flowers abound.

Our room, which overlooked an outdoor arena, had two king-size beds and two bathrooms, one with a Victoria & Albert clawfoot tub and toiletries by Balmain Paris. After dropping off our bags, we stopped by the shops that line a wing of the hotel.

Lugano's, with outlets in Newport Beach, Aspen and Palm Beach, creates one-of-a-kind jewelry _ some of the diamond pieces on display top $200,000. From there we headed past a leather goods store, Emma's Patisserie and into Mr. Pickles and Sailor Bear Toy Shoppe. Lamenting the fact that kids nowadays get most of their playthings from Amazon, Mary Roberts wanted the center to have a real toy store. This one features life-size animatronic animals that growl and roar, and a rocking horse modeled after one of Queen Elizabeth's steeds. Price: $15,000.

The rest of the equestrian center is so vast that Justin Garner, the director of hospitality operations, gave us a tour by golf cart. Whereas the hotel lobby was filled with casual visitors in shorts, almost everyone outside was a rider _ many in jodhpurs, jackets, caps and boots _ slowly walking or riding their horses down paths marked with ``horse crossing'' signs.

In addition to the 2,500-seat arena by the hotel, there are several indoor arenas, an outdoor stadium, two expo centers, a chapel, a general store, a gas station, 280 RV campsites and 2,880 climate-controlled stalls for horses (for exhibitors only, no long-term boarding is permitted). Another hotel is planned, with 400 rooms and a lower price point than the Equestrian, whose rates start in the $400 range. Also in the works are an emergency medical clinic and a veterinary center, while buyers soon will have their choice of 104 3-to-9-acre home sites big enough to keep their horses on.

With its well-landscaped grounds and multiple facilities, the center is becoming a popular venue for weddings and other non-equestrian events. Among them: a youth volleyball tournament and a food and wine festival.

That evening, we ate in Stirrups, the center's fine-dining restaurant that features prime steaks, Florida seafood and seasonal specialties like black-eyed pea salad. Other eateries throughout the center include Filo's Mexican Cantina, Ralph's Burger and Sandwich Shop and Viola & Dot's Italian Kitchen and Pizzeria.

Later, we popped into Yellow Pony, the hotel's pub. It was packed, not only with hotel guests but residents of Ocala and developments springing up nearby. Given its central location, the Ocala area has become a major distribution hub that is drawing many new people and businesses.

Before leaving the next day, we spent a few hours in the shaded outdoor arena, enjoying a soft breeze and watching the show jumpers leap over a series of 4-foot fences. The riders, scored by time and other criteria, came from several states including Illinois, Texas and California.

The West Coast horse, we learned, had been shipped in just the day before _ by Federal Express.


By The Associated Press, Copyright 2021

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