OCALA, Fla. (FOX 35 WOFL) - More than half of this year's Kentucky Derby Contenders have a direct connection to Ocala, Florida.
'Magnum Moon' trained at the Payton Center in Marion County and he's considered an odds on favorite to win.
"We're like an elementary school for thoroughbreds," says trainer Gerard Butler.
Young 2-year old thoroughbreds learn the basics at the Payton farm from galloping on the track, learning how to get out of the starting gate and running alongside other horses with riders. They get their start at Payton before they take their next step on a real race track.
Manny Ortega an 18-year veteran exercise rider with the farm was 'Magnum Moon's' rider when he trained there.
"It's a nice horse, I guess he's the best since he made it to the Derby," says Ortega.
The Payton Training Center was developed on old farm land nearly two decades ago. J.J. Pletcher owns and operates the farm. His son Todd, one of the world's top ranked trainers, won the KY Derby last year.
The farm stables 100 high end horses with price tags in the million dollar range. And it takes a staff of 35 people to care round the clock for these young Triple Crown hopefuls.
"They're like Formula One race cars, admits Butler, they're acceleration is incredible."
With more than half the Derby field of 20 having ties to Ocala, Butler thinks it might be something in the water.
"12 horses in the Derby this year have direct connections to Ocala," reveals Butler. "It could be the water, the grass, the people. It all makes for a unique environment."
Ocala's natural spring water and limestone aquifers have long been credited by many Marion county horse owners with building strong bones and even stronger, faster horses.