Michael Blowen takes jockey Rosie Napravnik on a tour of Old Friends. (All photos by Rick Capone)
When the sun creeps up over the neighboring farm, Michael Blowen stands and revels in the pattern of sunlight. Each day it’s a little different. Then he sets out on his early morning chores, lingering sometimes in the long shadows cast by horses in the side-by-side paddocks at Old Friends Equine.
“I can’t believe how lucky I am, to be able to wake up every morning and see what I see,” Blowen, 66, said. “I’m old enough to remember a lot of our ex-racehorses when they were at their peak. I like to tell folks it’s like having Larry Bird and Michael Jordan in your backyard. I’m living my dream.”
Blowen is an uber-optimist. That’s the reason he launched a Thoroughbred retirement facility back in 2003, nestled in the rolling hills of Georgetown, Ky. at the 92-acre Dream Chase Farm. A former film critic for the Boston Globe and longtime racing fan, Blowen became aware of the tragic fate for many racehorses while working in the mornings as an apprentice trainer at Suffolk Downs in East Boston. He decided if he ever had a chance to do something about all of the unwanted racehorses, he would.
Blowen and his wife, Diane (also a former Globe journalist), took an attractive retirement package in 2002 then packed up and moved to Kentucky bluegrass country.
Initially, Blowen was met with skepticism and indifference when he first rolled out the Old Friends’ concept to the region’s horsemen. But he struck gold when Kentucky Thoroughbred owner Betty Sue Walters offered him the use of part of her farm to launch his retirement program.
Photo by Rick Capone
The farm’s first retiree was the aptly named broodmare Narrow Escape who had failed to attract a bid at her last auction in 2004. Over the past decade 235 ex-racehorses have called Old Friends home. Today, the retirees number 150 at the sprawling Georgetown farm with another dozen at the Bobby Frankel division near Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
“It’s kind of the old good news, bad news scenario,” said Blowen, president of Old Friends. “They are all pretty much happy and healthy which translates to there is a waiting list [one that includes a couple of Breeders’ Cup winners]. We need more room.”
Old Friends now takes care of more stakes winners than any farm in history. Blowen pays tribute to Wallace Station in Paynes Depot for regularly donating carrots and apples to the retirees and Woodford Reserve, which is teaming up with the farm on a number of special events in 2014. He especially lauds his staff, the volunteers and all of those who have contributed donations over the years.
In early January, Blowen announced that Old Friends has signed a lease with an option to buy on a piece of land abutting its current property on Paynes Depot Road in Georgetown, which will add 47 acres. It is a green-space parcel of a property purchased by Roy Cornett, a longtime supporter and real estate broker. Cornett has an agreement on another 54-acre farm that would take the Old Friends property all the way to Iron Works Pike.
Photo by Rick Capone
Blowen has also teamed up with Ron Wallace’s Equine Farm Management. Wallace joined Old Friends’ board of directors last year, with the aim of helping oversee the expansion and design of the new property. For nearly two decades, Wallace combined a love of horses and knack for farm development and management to help farm owners improve their operations. Wallace worked at operations such as Juddmonte Farms and Three Chimneys Farm and designed Summer Wind Farm across the road from Old Friends.
“Ron has agreed to look at Old Friends from top to bottom to make sure that every donation is aimed at creating a great environment for more and more retirees,” Blowen said. “It will save us a lot of money and we’ll be able to bring in horses we’ve been keeping at auxiliary farms.”
Photo by Rick Capone
In another fortuitous turn, Blowen’s operation was among the facilities awarded a total of $1 million in grants by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA) last year. Old Friends is among 20 aftercare facilities accredited by the TAA, a non-profit organization designed to serve as both an accrediting body for facilities that care for retired Thoroughbreds, and a fundraising body to support these approved facilities. The money is provided by the Breeders’ Cup Ltd., The Jockey Club, Keeneland Association, sales companies, and donations from farms, owners, breeders, and fans.
By May a string of new celebrated retirees should be on the grounds — Jeranimo, Areyoutalkintome, Johannesbourbon, Rail Trip and Eldaafer. Samantha Siegel’s 2009 Hollywood Gold Cup winner Rail Trip is arriving from California. Eldaafer won the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Marathon.
Still, a horse does not need to have star power to earn a spot in an Old Friends paddock. There are plenty of retirees who were local favorites or raced in anonymity. They even look after the sport’s most loveable loser Zippy Chippy, who went 0-for-100 at the racetrack. In 2000, People Magazine voted Zippy Chippy one of the year’s “Most Intriguing Characters.” He is now at the Old Friends Cabin Creek farm near Saratoga. The oldest retiree in Kentucky is Clever Alamont, 32.
It was a tough start of the year for the Kentucky division, which lost three of its beloved elder retirees. Patton, 23, a stakes-winning son of Lord At War was euthanized at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute. Dancin Renee, 22, a graded stakes winner and 1997 New York Horse of the Year, lost a long battle with laminitis and was euthanized.
Champion Sunshine Forever died of a freakish torn diaphragm on January 7 at age 29. The son of Roberto was the champion turf male of 1988. He had been a resident at Old Friends since 2004, when he was returned to the U.S. after having stood at Nitta Farm in Japan.
Photo by Rick Capone
“When they told me that Sunshine Forever was available, I freaked out,” Blowen recalled. “It was like telling me you could have Larry Bird move in or something. He was my favorite horse. I saw him race. He won something like three Grade 1 races in seven weeks. He was the first overseas horse we brought from Japan after his breeding career was over, so he set the standard.”
Still, the demand for retirement facilities far exceeds the supply. Blowen noted that he had more than 60 horses on his waiting list. If you’re curious, $125 per month covers the cost of one retiree. Old Friends gets discounted rates on feed and hay, Wallace Station restaurant donates a healthy supply of carrots four times a week.
Blowen is hopeful of securing other branches in locations near Gulfstream Park in Florida, Fair Grounds in New Orleans, and Arlington Park near Chicago.
“It’s very hard to tell folks that there is no room for their horse,” Blowen explained. “With the success we’ve had in Saratoga, I think we’re headed in that direction. Financially, they should be totally independent by the summer. We’ve proven it can work, so that should open up new opportunities That’s it — our only goal is to provide a dignified retirement to more and more Thoroughbreds.”
One of Old Friends’ recent supporters has been Burt Bacharach. Now 85, the man has been described as the greatest songwriter (along with lyricist Hal David) of the 20th century. He loves the ladies, and his Thoroughbreds. He owned and raced Afternoon Deelites, a descendant of the great Damascus. Old Friends volunteer Beth Shannon describes Afternoon Deelites as “every inch royal. He’s big, busting with muscle, with an interested, friendly, alert, proud eye.”
On the track, Afternoon Deelites earned more than a million dollars for Bacharach. He stood at Clear Creek Stud in Folsom, La., the sire of more than 340 winners and 25 stakes winners who have earned in excess of $26 million. He retired to Old Friends on May 22, 2011 at age 19.
“Burt had an autobiography out last year where he gave Afternoon Deelites two pages — pretty cool,” Blowen said. “One day I got a copy of the book and went out to his paddock. Afternoon Deelites comes over and we take picture of him leaning over the fence. You know, sort of reading the book. Sent it to Burt, he loved it. He also sent us a check for $50,000. Now, that was a good day!”
Photo by Rick Capone