he days surrounding this year’s Kentucky Derby were busy and varied for the people who run Old Friends Equine Retirement Farm in Scott County, Kentucky. Four busloads of elderly folk showed up one morning. Every second grade class from the town of Corbin came up on another. A television crew was on hand to do a feature that aired on the CBS Evening News.
And, there was the phone call from the agent for the high wire circus act, the Flying Wallendas. “The horse, Wallenda, is our newest resident,” said Michael Blowen, founder and president of Old Friends. “They heard about it, and we’ve arranged for the Flying Wallendas to perform here on July 13th, 14th and 15th. Seems natural, doesn’t it? I’m not exactly sure just where on the property they’ll be able to set up. We’ll figure out something.”
That has pretty much been Blowen’s philosophy from the time Old Friends got started seven years ago. Grasp hold of a good idea, then figure out how to convert it into a done deal. The farm’s mission is to provide a home for old racehorses, including American champions who have done stud duty abroad, but whose careers in the breeding shed are over.
Old Friends operates as a facility that promotes both education and tourism. “We don’t charge any admission price to tour the farm,” Blowen said. “We appreciate any donation anyone ever gives us. But we never, ever, want people to think they can’t afford to come here. These horses don’t belong to just us they belong to everybody.”
Right now, there are two dozen horses on the 53-acre Old Friends property. The group includes Sunshine Forever, who was North America’s champion male grass specialist in 1988; Ruhlmann, who was victorious in the 1990 Santa Anita Handicap; and Kudos, the 2002 Oaklawn Handicap winner.
In adjoining paddocks, visitors to Old Friends can find Kiri’s Clown, who defeated Awad in the 1995 Sword Dancer Invitational Handicap at Saratoga; and Awad, himself, who avenged that defeat four weeks later by defeating Kiri’s Clown in a course record performance in the Arlington Million.
For fans of the European pattern racing, there is Creator, who in 1990 was a multiple Group 1 winner at Longchamp near Paris. For those who appreciate the pedigrees of Triple Crown competitors, there is Bonnie’s Poker, the dam of the 1997 ‘Derby and Preakness Stakes winner, Silver Charm. And for fans of the silver screen, there’s Popcorn Deelites, who was one of eight horses who played the role of Seabiscuit in the 2003 movie, which was based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book.
Ogygos is at Old Friends, as well. the guildlines at Old Friends inform visitors that Ogygian’s name stems from the Greek word “Orygos,” which was the name of the island where Odysseus lived in the Homeric tale, ‘The Odyssey’. And, they also point out that Ogygian was undefeated as a two-year-old, and thrice during his career defeated the 1987 sprint champion, Groovy.
Then, there is BullintheHeather, winner of the 1993 Florida Derby. The rains that frequent Central Kentucky in early spring were no hindrance to him – BullintheHeather found a mud patch, and happily rolled over and over in it, giving his grey coat a tie-died appearance. BullintheHeather’s in the au- tumn of his life, and he’s having a ball. Plenty of food, a nice place to sleep. And lots of attention, too.
Caring for horses, be they old, friendly or otherwise, costs money. So do mortgages on horse farms. Blowen spends a good deal of his time soliciting donations and devising plans to raise funds by other means. He has been known to walk into a local bank and request a six-figure loan, even though he has “nothing to put up for collateral.”
But bankers, merchants, industry people – they all strive to help. Part of their willingness is a reaction to Blowen’s personality. People appreciate the fact that he so dearly loves what he’s doing. If someone donates $10,000 or $10, or even just a dollar, his response is always the same. “That’s terrific. Thanks so much,” accompanied by a broad smile and a firm handshake.
Old Friends is a 501C 3 non-profit organization, and people bend over backwards, forwards and sideways to help the farm out. A former movie critic for the Boston “Globe,” Blowen used to spend his mornings grooming horses on the backside of Suffolk Downs, and his afternoons interviewing actors and directors, and previewing films.
Blowen carries around in his head a treasure trove of sto- ries about Thoroughbred racing and filmdom. His wife, Diane White, is a “Globe” book reviewer, and an equally talented storyteller. In the late evening hours, one can often find them at a tavern in nearby Georgetown or Midway, talking about horses, films, books – with anyone willing to share a conversation.
On the Old Friends property, Blowen and White also operate a bed and breakfast. Guests can stay in the Creator Room for $175 + tax per night, or in the Sunshine Forever Room for $150 + tax. When dawn comes to that part of the country, a low, thin fog often hovers over the land – the horses, as they glide through their paddocks, are dark silhouettes, graceful, beautiful and a touch mysterious. Sitting outside at a picnic table, watching them while enjoying a breakfast of coffee and hot, home-made cinnamon buns, is an experience to be savored.
There is a gift shop at Old Friends, where one can pur- chase hats, t-shirts, polo shirts and sweatshirts, all bearing the farm’s logo. “Bath robes too, which cost $70 apiece,” said Sylvia Beurkle, who describes herself as “director of stuff and nonsense.” Beurkle’s real title? “Don’t have one,” Beurkle said. “Outside of Michael, nobody here really does. But I guess you could call me the office manager.”
And how many bath robes have been sold to date? “Well, none yet, but we thought we’d give them a try,” Beurkle said. “We sell books, posters, sketches of the horses, coffee cups. It’s a matter of putting the right pegs in the right holes. Parents with young children frequently come here, but a lot of our visitors are senior citizens. They get it – a retirement home for horses.”
Racing personalities often pop in, with or without notice. Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron has relocated to the area, and now runs the North American Racing Academy at the nearby Kentucky Horse Park. “Chris comes over here a lot,” Blowen said. “He’s planning to start bringing Racing Academy students with him. It will be like baseball players in the beginning stages of the minor leagues getting up close to Hank Aaron and Carl Yastrzemski. They’ve heard of these horses, but having the opportunity to see them is something else.”
Kentucky is horse country. And wine manufacturing country. Blowen made many friends in the cinematic world during his days as a film critic. Put these three factors together, and what do you get? Well, a local winery, Christian Mill, is putting out a series of specially made wines (1,000 bottles each), which sell for $21.95. A portion of the receipts from each bottle sold is going to Old Friends.
The first in the series was a Chambourcin, adorned with a label displaying an original sketch by the multiple Academy Award-winning actor, Jack Nicholson, of Silver Charm – no, not the Thoroughbred, a miniature horse by that name who also resides at Old Friends. “Our Silver Charm is 17 years old. I got him off the killer’s truck in New Hampshire for $40,” said Blowen. “Jack fell in love with him. And he did this sketch.”
Albert Brooks, the “Saturday Night Live” alumnus who subsequently became a Hollywood actor, director and screen-writer, is doing the sketch for the next wine bottle. “I went to the art store. Bought paint. Bought brushes. The sketch will be the same size as Nicholson’s,” said Brooks in a phone message he left on Blowen’s recorder.
And what horse has Brooks profiled? “Riva Way,” Blowen said. “He won 11 races, mostly in claiming company. Riva Way is a gelding and when he couldn’t race competitively anymore, we got him. He’s a grandson of both Secretariat (on his paternal side) and Riva Ridge (on his maternal side). Brooks picked Riva Way because he didn’t live up to his family’s expectations.” Riva Way isn’t the only gelding at Old Friends. Six of them (including Kudos) share a large paddock. “Some were sprinters, some were closers,” said Blowen. “When they gallop across the paddock as a group, that’s still the way they run.”
There are stallions at Old Friends who remain capable of doing stud duty. “We’ve had offers from broodmare owners who want to breed to Ogygian,” Blowen said. “Besides earning $455,000 on the racetrack, he’s a multiple Grade 1 winner and the broodmare sire of Johannesburg. Ogygian still has value. But, our promise is that once the stallions are here, their commercial days are over.”
Ogygian is missing his right eye. “The veterinarians at Hagyard Medical Institute removed it after he got here,” said Blowen. “They charged us only $500 to do it. “Doug Byars, who’s retired from Hagyard, does a lot of our veterinary work for free. When I first asked for his help, Doug said, ‘I won’t do it unless you’re willing to call me at 2:30 in the morning if need be.’”
A problem with having a home for retired racehorses is that the retirees eventually pass on. Several graves are located at Old Friends. One belongs to Taylor’s Special, winner of the 1984 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and a track record-set- ting sprinter at Arlington Park. Another belongs to Precisionist, who won Santa Anita’s Strub Series, was North America’s champion sprinter in 1985 and was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 2003.
Taylor’s Special and Precisionist were euthanized last summer. The former, who had been found abandoned in a field in the state of Washington, got so healthy at Old Friends that he tried to jump a fence. “A large bird might have startled him. Taylor’s Special almost got over the fence, but he injured a leg so badly we had to put him down,” Blowen said.
Squamous cell cancer got Precisionist. The tumors that grew in his soft palate and nasal passages became large, fused and inoperable. So, on a sunny, warm day in late September, Blowen walked Precisionist to the site where he would be put down and buried. Not an easy thing to do–especially with a horse who accepted death with such grace and dignity.
But, in the case of Precisionist, his arrival at Old Friends did, briefly prolong his life. Same too, for Taylor’s Special. And the same for many other Old Friends residents. “We’ve got horses here (Wallenda among them) who did stud duty in Ja- pan,” said Blowen. “Sometimes, over there, when a sire has out- lived his usefulness breeding, he becomes hamburger helper.”
While it has never been definitively proven that the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner, Ferdinand, perished in a Japanese slaughterhouse, a substantial amount of circumstantial evi- dence suggests that this, indeed, was the case. The idea this may have, and probably did occur appalls Blowen and his Old Friends team.
“I don’t ever want to hear about something like this hap- pening to a Derby winner again,” Blowen said. “If they don’t want him, we’ll take him. We’re willing to pay for the horse and to ship him over.”
Donations regularly pour into Old Friends. Checks for five-figure amounts. Four figures. Three figures. Two. One figure. Cash contributions, too. Local businesses provide feed, hay, combs, brushes, buckets and halters. Numerous volunteers provide their time.
The farm is a happy place. During the warm weather especially, it is drawing a larger flow of visitors with each passing month. Not a bad place to spend a few hours, or even an entire day–in the company of this group of grand old friends.
Bill Mooney is an Eclipse Award-Winning freelance writer in lexington, Kentucky