Equine Rescue

For horse racing stars, retirement home provides peace

SOURCE:  USA TODAY by Jennie Rees, USA TODAY Sports

 It doesn’t happen often but when it does you need to reach out and grab the moment for every now and then you find yourself face to face with an individual of special character, commitment and morale integrity; I lived that moment in September of 2013 when I shook hands with Michael Blowen of Old Friends in Lexington, Kentucky.

Michael has an enlightened mission in life that is near and dear to many of us; he is the founder and operator of Old Friends Thoroughbred retirement farm where retired race horses can live out the rest of their years in well deserved pampered enjoyment.  TBs have been historic throw-aways of the horse racing industry and a main supplier to the horse slaughter pipeline but Michael has made himself a serious speed bump in that road to hell and all of we equine advocates are forever grateful for his intervention.

With two very special and well loved TB racing throw-aways in OUR backyard I want to thank Michael for all he does and am delighted that we can share this major media story on his historic and compassionate efforts during a season where love rules supreme.

Keep the faith, my friends, and remember that every, single one of you is important and essential in improving the quality of life for our equine companions, be they wild or domestic, and ultimately in return…ourselves.” ~ R.T.


GEORGETOWN, Ky. – At the Old Friends equine retirement facility, Arson Squad played seeing-eye horse for his blind buddy I’m Charismatic.

635546166033715564-AP-SILVER-CHARM-KENTUCKY-RACING-69147324

In this May 17, 1997, file photo, jockey Gary Stevens sits on Silver Charm in the Winner’s Circle after winning the 122nd running off the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. Trainer Bob Baffert stands at right. Former Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm has returned to Kentucky to live out his days as a celebrity at a retirement farm. (Photo: Roberto Borea, AP)

Special Ring raised his lip, upon command, to show off his tattoo. His paddock pal Popcorn Deelites — one of eight stand-ins for Seabiscuit in the movie — tried futilely to do the same.

“Here’s another great story,” said Michael Blowen, a former Boston Globe movie critic, before launching into another tale about one of the horses he cares for at the facility.

But it is Blowen’s story that may be the most remarkable: He has brought together more than 100 horses at Old Friends, providing dignified retirement for some of racing’s biggest names as well as obscure horses at risk of abandonment or the slaughterhouse. In the process, he has given people the chance to get up close and personal with the animals.

For its efforts, Old Friends on Friday was named recipient of the industry’s 2014 Special Eclipse Award for outstanding contributions to racing. That capped a huge month in which Blowen landed his biggest prize yet: Silver Charm, whose 1997 Triple Crown bid was narrowly thwarted in the Belmont Stakes.

The nearly white Kentucky Derby winner arrived at the 137-acre Scott County farm on Dec. 1 from Japan, where he’d been in stud since 2005.

“He’s a tremendous tourist attraction,” Blowen said of Silver Charm. “I had a guy come on a tour one time who said, ‘You know, I just came back from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. It was fun, I learned a lot of stuff. But I didn’t see one football player. I come here, and I get to see them.’ I thought that was a great way to put it.”

Beverly Lewis, who campaigned Silver Charm with her late husband, and son Jeff picked up the $60,000 tab to transport the Derby winner from Japan, and set up an endowment for his care. They plan to do the same for their 1999 Derby winner Charismatic, a former Horse of the Year, when his career as a stallion ends in Japan.

Silver Charm came two months after another horse trained by Bob Baffert, $6.5 million-earner Game On Dude, arrived. Baffert and his wife Jill wanted the 7-year-old gelding to “just be a horse” in retirement.

“If you’re loving on him, he’s happy,” Baffert said. “He’s getting so much attention now.”

Blowen said he’s been blown away by the horses. “It’s like all of a sudden Jack Nicholson is going to make your movie. Holy cow! And Beyonce is going to do the soundtrack,” he said. “I never got star-struck around movie stars, but I’m really star-struck around these horses.”

A cause is born

The sense of urgency to get Old Friends operational escalated when news broke in 2002 that 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand had perished in a slaughter house after his usefulness as a stallion in Japan ended.

Blowen, 67, said he talked to former Kentucky Gov. Brereton Jones, who owns Airdrie Stud, about his plan. “He goes, ‘Let me get this straight: You’re going to get these horses, right?’ Yeah. ‘You’re not going to breed them?’ No. ‘You’re not going to sell them?’ No. ‘You’re not going to race them?’ No. He says, ‘What are you going to do with them?’ I said, ‘Put them in my yard and hope people come visit them.’

“He looked at me like I was from outer space, and now he’s one of our biggest supporters.”

Despite his skepticism, Jones said their mutual love of horses sparked him to help Blowen, first with his checkbook and then by sending him retired stallions such as Patton, You and I and Afternoon Deelites.

“It’s expensive to take care of a horse — even one,” Jones said. “Somebody starting a group of horses that will never have the ability to win another race or to put money into the pockets of the people feeding them, it was a different approach. … But most really important happenings in the world come about because some people are determined to make them come about.”

The property that Old Friends ultimately purchased came with the name Dream Chase Farm.

Its first horse was the fittingly named mare Narrow Escape, who didn’t get a single bid at a Fasig-Tipton auction and was abandoned by the would-be seller.

Blowen said Fasig-Tipton called to ask, “‘Do you have a retirement home?’ I said, ‘I think I do.’ I didn’t have one at the time; I just had this idea. … Two days later we leased a paddock.

“Listen, I wouldn’t have gotten into this if I wasn’t a gambler. No person in their right mind who likes money would do anything like this.”

Old Friends landed its first Triple Crown race winner in 2012 with Sarava, who took the 2002 Belmont Stakes at a record 70-1 odds.

“Michael probably missed his life’s calling being a journalist, because he is a super salesman,” said Sarava co-owner Gary Drake, a Louisville businessman. “After talking to him just a few minutes, I was very convinced Sarava would be well-treated. He told me he’d make him a rock star.”

Paying the bills

Old Friends, which doesn’t charge to take in a horse, is funded by donations, giving tours of the farm and through sales at its gift shop.Last year it was part of the first group of racehorse retirement and retraining programs to be accredited by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, an industry collaboration that also raises money to help fund the facilities it certifies.

“I go to the mailbox every day and hope donations exceed the bills,” Blowen said. “The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance grants have given us a foundation that is really, really something.”

Blowen estimates his operating costs are about $1 million a year — and that’s after the many discounted and donated services and products afforded Old Friends, including veterinary work, medication, feed supplements, shoeing and shipping. Supporters sponsoring paddocks, run-in sheds, barns, barn stalls, fencing or horses have their names sprinkled throughout on plaques.

With five employees at Dream Chase, Old Friends also relies on a score of volunteers who help take care of the horses, provide maintenance and give tours. Behind it all is the magnetic force of Blowen.

“We need to clone Michael,” said owner Samantha Siegel, who sent Old Friends multiple graded-stakes winner Arson Squad and $1.5 million-earner Rail Trip. “He actually loves running up and down with those horses.”

Drake, Sarava’s co-owner, said, “Michael has filled a nice niche. He’s using some famous racehorse stallions as a foundation. But he’s expanded well beyond that and is taking care of other horses. His goal to take care of as many horses as he possibly can.”

Love for horses builds

Blowen said his initial interest in horses was simply a passion for betting on them. He decided that if he knew more about the animals, he’d become more savvy at handicapping.

While still working for the Globe, he went to work as a groom at Boston’s blue-collar Suffolk Downs, saying, “as soon as I fell in love with them, the dye was cast.”

Blowen apprenticed himself out to trainer Carlos Figueroa. Dubbed the King of the Fairs on Massachusetts’ one-time infamous fair circuit, Figueroa ran Shannon’s Hope five times in a week in 1963, winning four.

When the Massachusetts SPCA complained, “he told them, ‘This horse is going to run only a little bit every day. Paul Revere rode his horse 20 miles over the woods and stones. You build a statue to him and you want to put me in jail,'” Blowen recalled. “I never earned a penny, but learned everything graduating from Figueroa University.”

But while at Figueroa U., Blowen said he became concerned that a bottom-level claimer could “meet a dubious end.”

He got the horse retired to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and subsequently wrote a story about the foundation’s program that teaches inmates to care for horses at Lexington’s Blackburn Correctional Complex.

After he and his wife, columnist Diane White, took buyouts from the Globe in 2001, Blowen wound up as the foundation’s operations director in Kentucky. A year later, he got serious about starting a facility where people could feed carrots to retired thoroughbreds.

Old Friends was the first major retirement facility to accept stallions, which tend to be more excitable, territorial and sometimes dangerous than geldings or mares. The stallions are in their own paddocks — the geldings have bunkmates — but morph into “the best pets you could ever have,” Blowen said.

“When they come here, they are the boss,” he said. “We try to let them know right away that they can do pretty much what they want. We’re just there to wait on them.

“We’ve had stallions here take a long time to adjust because they were so competitive, like Ruhlman. He was a really tough horse. But eventually even he got to the point where he’d roll over and let you rub his stomach. … We’ve been doing this almost 11 years and nobody has ever been injured or bitten.”

Michael Blowen (right) hosted the International Equine Conference 2013 Press Extravaganza with Equine Advocates (left to right) John Holland, R.T. Fitch, Scott Beckstead, Vicki Tobin, Terry Fitch, Simone Netherlands and friend.

Michael Blowen (right) hosted the International Equine Conference 2013 Press Extravaganza with Equine Advocates (left to right) John Holland, R.T. Fitch, Scott Beckstead, Vicki Tobin, Terry Fitch, Simone Netherlands and friends.

6 replies »

  1. One of the best stories I have ever read !!!!!! This is a man of distinction !!!!!! With a heart as big as the world he lives in…………………………Thank You Mr.Michael Blowen , your story should Ring in the ears of all people around the World!!!!

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  2. I applaud your work, truly. My concern is that this article fails to mention the thousands a year of TBs going to slaughter. Over breeding, abuse, even in the largest racetracks. I worked with Affirmed intimately, my ex saddled him when he won the Triple Crown. As much as I embraced the racetrack before? I now want it stopped. Age is knowledge. Want 20 hour days? I worked them way to often to give someone else his fame.

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  3. Little Silver Charm the official spokeshorse for OF now has his idol at the farm! There is a lovely picture of LSC looking into a mirror and looking back at him is Big Silver Charm! LSC is housebroken and will knock on his paddock when he wants out. Many mornings hell venture up to the house and he and Michael will sit and watch an old rerun of Mr. Ed!

    Another retiree Eldafaar came with two goats! This horse has to have his mascots or he won’t go anywhere! OF had to build a new paddock for LSC so he wouldn’t be bothered by the goats. Apparently he didn’t care for the goats who sometimes shared his old paddock!

    The Wicked North was my first Old Friend. Here was a stallion who just calmly let me scratch his forehead for as long as I wanted. He never tired of my presence. Next stall down was a brand new horse who had just arrived. It was an Ernie Paragallo horse that didn’t have a name. That horse became Escapefrom NewYork.

    Marquetry was another favorite. Very calm and let love on him too. When I started to leave in the golf cart he looked over to me like Don’t Leave! I called to him to come along and he turned and realized he had a whole bunch of new friends with him. He turned back to me and I was like I get it.

    I’m Charismatic has his own FB page. When IC first retired he spent a whole year in a stall. He came off the track and needed major surgery to fuse his pastern. Then they had to wait for the healing. His mom Mary has written a long heart felt story about this. And yes, she was there for that first turn out. At the time IC could see. He’s gone blind in the last year. But Arson Squad has been his best friend! He helps him get around! To see his fans and to get to the hay rack.

    Silver Charm has been a horse Michael has been really concerned about. It’s been a LONG road for him to secure and bring SC home. The Lewis’s paid his fees (about 60,000 dollars), the Japanese (JBBA)played a role and SC’s first stallion handler at Three Chimneys Sandy Hatfield led SC off the trailer when he got to OF’s.

    So many wonderful stories. So many caring wonderful individuals that play a role in people helping horses. OF’s is truly one of those not to be missed farms when you visit Kentucky.

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    • Dear Margaret, Thank You!!!!! for those awesome stories , and tidbits how I love to hear about their successful retirements , Had Race Horses many years ago, How I iove each one of them……………………… When My Husband died I had to sell them , a piece of my heart went with each one of them, I made sure they got great homes , they have since passed, but lived their lives each day comfortably,,,,,,, Thank You again Margaret for the nicest Christmas Present of all……..hearing and reading success stories of these awesome warriors of the Race Track !!!!!

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  4. Somebody check my math!!! The total paramutual handle for 2013 was $10.88 billion (not sure if that’s only TBs). $10.880,000,000 x 1 percent = $108,800,000 = 108 “New Friends” facilities. Horse racing is nothing without horses. Way past time for bettors to give back!

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  5. I want to tell you all that this man and his sanctuary are active in some of the most dramatic rescues of horses than is revealed by this “safe” artiicle. Take the cookies and milk, squeaky clean story and turn it over and you will see that the real tough work done by this man and Old Friends is in concert with some of the richest members of our society and literally working with people at the killpens who are lifting lips to read tatoos on exhausted, starved and depressed champions, broodmares, and old campaigners – saves them, many times bringing them to Old Friends. That is the heartstopping drama this story misses.

    But suffice to say, it is a full circle – the love this man has for the majestic TB, his sanctuary and our own personal fight against the evil that walks the same aisleways we do amongst the beauties.

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