In the middle of downtown Ocala, Florida, on the second floor of the Chamber & Economic Partnership building, is an office unlike any other in the building. It stands alone on the floor, surrounded by offices occupied by those who promote and sustain the economy in the town nicknamed the “Horse Capital of the World”. While most offices don photos of smiling couples, posed family moments, the occasional pet or finger painted picture, there is no doubt when you step into the office of Louisa Barton where her true love lies.
The Director of Equine Engagement, Assistant Director of Business Attraction, farm realtor for New Millennium Realty, and host of The Horse Talk Show sits at her desk surrounded by racing memorabilia; there are photos on the walls, hats propped up on the shelves behind her from the Breeder’s Cup, collages of Louisa snuggled in tight with multiple champion horses and, of course, a photo with her two children. She stands to show me the different framed photos on her wall; the horse girl in a black and white dress – her cowboy boots replaced with heels as is often the case for her day job.
“This one is American Pharoah’s win picture,” she says, each syllable of his name punctuated by her British accent. “The one I have at home has his hair in the frame,” she notes as she traces her finger over the photo, reminiscing of the day she witnessed Pharoah win the Triple Crown. “He will forever be a special horse to me. I fed a bag of baby carrots to him – I’ve still got the bag because he sucked it. I also have a hat that he chewed that I had on, it’s a white hat and so there’s this big green chew mark,” she says through a laugh, in a way that acknowledges how other horse fans will understand why she has kept those mementos.
There’s a small statue of American Pharoah on the other side of the office, she points out, of the champion in full stride. “He’s like a big dog. He’s got an amazing body and an amazing stride and a great mind. The McKathans here in Ocala gave him a great start, and of course the work that the Barnes family put in with him played such a huge part in his success. Putting all of those ingredients together – plus his huge heart and desire to win – that’s what got him the Triple Crown. It was a dream come true to meet him after the Triple Crown.”
Louisa Barton was riding before she could walk and a black and white photo of a young girl perched on top of her mother’s horse, Alice, says it all: Louisa’s love of horses runs deep. By seven years old, she was chasing the local fox hunt through the English countryside on her pony who would ” buck me off, roll with me in a pond, go over a hedge – or through it – refuse, it was just fun. I just wanted to go fast,” she says. “I think the love of racing goes back to the reason I loved fox hunting. I love foxes – I think they’re the cutest creatures ever, but the reason I loved fox hunting was the gallop, the run, the excitement, the adrenaline.”
The two minutes of adrenaline that course through Louisa’s veins is what keeps bringing her back to the racetracks around the country. The excitement that is made that much more intimate by the relationships she has with the people behind the scenes. So many of the horses have a connection to Ocala, to Marion County, to Louisa; American Pharoah was trained at McKathan Brothers just outside of the bustle of the city.
“I’ve been in the McKathan barn and watched J.B. [McKathan] kissing horses and, you know, a lot of people really give the Thoroughbred world a bad rap as far as behind the scenes, but I’ve seen a different side and I love it…I just love it. If I’m at the track for eight hours, six of it will be behind the scenes. I’ll go up to the front of the racetrack to watch the race but I want to be in the barns, going barn to barn. That’s where I want to be; it’s the behind the scenes that drives me.”
To the far right of American Pharoah’s win picture is another photograph, one matted with the same white border and black frame. This one is of 2013 Breeder’s Cup winner, Mucho Macho Man. This champion too has ties to Ocala, and to Louisa’s heart.
“My friends Carole and John Rio bred him,” she says. “He was born not breathing and they all got in a circle and prayed for him and he jumped up and ran off. He was born dead and had all these issues and then his trainer, Kathy Ritvo, had actually had a heart transplant. With both of their hearts having been restarted, it was so fitting that they went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic together.”
Louisa and her parents ended up owning a half sister to Mucho Macho Man, and subsequently was there for many of his races, and it was one of the first times that she recognized the difference it makes when you know the connections – the history to a horse and the people behind it. When you do, the horse feels like it belongs to you and each win, each moment, is so much more intense. Those connections, that behind the scenes experience, has driven Louisa to help others relate to racing through her radio program, The Horse Talk Show. Although she covers all things equine, the stories she brings to the air are those that make us all feel more connected to the racehorses we love.
Louisa looks to the middle photo hanging on the wall, her eyes soften. “That’s my Sunny,” she says of the gelding standing in the sun, coat bouncing the rays of Florida sunshine off each hair. “He’s been with me here for 24 years, so almost since I moved over here. 31 he is – love of my life. He’s my baby.”
Louisa and her family decided to move to the USA when she was 17 years old and the family ended up in Cape Coral. The town was just never “horsey enough” for her, but Ocala was the perfect landing spot. A drive through Ocala makes any horse enthusiast swoon: the rolling hills that teem with young life every spring, the training tracks that are abandoned in the height of the Florida heat but spring to life in the early, misty, mornings, the rows of barns that speckle between expansive pastures. There is history in these hills, the oaks have watched foals grow to Derby hopefuls and champions for years, protecting them from daily downpours and the scorching sun.
Today, it is an industry that brings a lot to Ocala’s community and economy through the 57 different breeds represented here, but there’s also a division – one that Louisa hopes to mend through the Equine Engagement Program.
“There really is a division between equestrians and non equestrians, and we’re trying to break that down and make the horse world friendly to non-horse people. I think that’s really important because when people can really relate to a $2.6 billion industry they can gain a lot from it in their business and in their personal life. Horses are such a joy whether you own one or not. Once you get to touch a horse and be around a horse it’s just such an experience for people.”
If Louisa is not in her office, surrounded by reminders of the horses and moments that mean the most to her, she’s probably out making Ocala a better, stronger (horse) community. If not that she’s probably home with her kids and Sunny, soaking up time with her old friend. Except for on Saturday mornings, when you can find her on the radio sharing the stories of the horse world with her wit and humor that makes her so endearing and engaging. And if she’s not in any of those places, you can find her in the barn on the backside of track visiting champions in their stalls. Or for the two minutes that the horses come thundering down the track you will find her track side, losing her voice among the fans, cheering for the horses with the Ocala connections to once again reign supreme.
At the end of the day, whichever hat Louisa Barton is wearing – Director, Assistant Director, farm realtor, radio host, or fascinator – the bottom line is that she is a horse lover at her core, an ambassador for the sport, and the best bet for the future of horse racing in Ocala.
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