By Lauren R. Giannini
In 2002, when a story in Bloodhorse magazine broke the news that Ferdinand – 1986 Kentucky Derby winner, 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and 1987 Eclipse Horse of the Year – had met his demise in a Japanese slaughterhouse, cries of outrage rippled throughout the horse world about such a cruel fate for the big chestnut son of Nijinsky II, winner of the English Triple Crown. The tragic news galvanized Michael Blowen, former Boston Globe film critic and passionate racing fan, who decided that this country needed a Retired Racehorse Center.
Michael founded Old Friends in 2003 on a lovely farm in Georgetown, Kentucky, just around the country corner from the Kentucky Horse Park and a short drive from Keeneland Race Track in Lexington. Old Friends cares for 131 Thoroughbreds in Kentucky and the satellite farm in New York, founded in 2009, where they live out their days being pampered and enjoyed by the devoted and dedicated staff, led by Michael.
Old Friends is also a major stop for many tourists to the Lexington area, which gives the retired racehorses the chance to enjoy the admiration and attention of many visitors. One of Old Friends’ busiest times is the week of the Kentucky Derby as well as the previous weekend when the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event takes place at the Kentucky Horse Park.
“Our biggest fundraiser of the year is the Annual Homecoming, the day after the Kentucky Derby,” Michael said. “Then we do several events in the summer up at Saratoga where we have another Old Friends farm,” said Michael. “We rely on grants, fundraisers — we have a ‘How To Help’ page on our website — and the generosity of people.”
For example, Afternoon Deelites earned over a million dollars in 12 starts for his owner, songwriter Burt Bacharach. “Last year, we got a call from Burt’s office asking if we’d like to have the horse,” said Michael. “I was so excited — he’s a wonderful horse. Kent Desormeaux, Afternoon Deelites’ only jockey, said he was the fastest horse he ever rode. We don’t ask for money; we accept horses unconditionally. A few weeks after Afternoon Deelites’ arrival, we received a check from Burt’s foundation for $50,000. It paid for a lot of vet care and treatments for our horses.”
On May 26, Old Friends lost their eldest equine statesman, Clever Allemont, at age 32. “He was an amazing horse,” said Michael. “Kristin Chambers found him in a slaughter auction in Kansas and paid $200 for him. He was in terrible shape when he came to us — skin and bones, but veterinarian Doug Byers recommended a special diet and after three years he ended up gaining 365 pounds.”
Clever Allemont won $316,329 in the course of his racing career, which started when he was 2 with a five-race winning streak. All told, he made 47 starts for 8 wins, 7 seconds, and 7 thirds. In retirement, Clever Allemont’s value was best measured by his heart and gentle nature. “That horse had an incredible personality,” said Michael. “You could lead him around the farm with dental floss. He had one eye and he was deaf. When we had deaf students or visually impaired visitors, he quickly became their favorite horse.”
Another personal favorite was Precisionist (1981–2006): 2003 inductee to the National Horse Racing Hall of Fame, 1985 Eclipse Award Sprint Champion, winner of nearly $3.5 million, and possibly the last American race horse with the stamina, speed and versatility to win Grade 1 stakes races at 6 furlongs, 7 furlongs, 1 mile, 1 1/16 mile and 1 1/4 mile.
“That’s what Steve Haskin, who writes for The Blood-Horse, told me,” said Michael. “If Precisionist did it, nobody did it after him. He came to us in 2006 with sinus tumors and could only be turned out for short spells — we try to keep the horses out as much as possible because it’s healthier. When he came in at night, I’d go and clean out his nose and give him some carrots. We really developed a relationship and it got so he’d tell me what to do. If I wasn’t there at the right time, he’d get mad at me.”
Chris McCarron, Hall of Fame jockey, often showed up at Old Friends to visit his former racing partner, Precisionist, and the two redheads would hang out together. “Chris said that the horse taught him how to be a jockey — as a rider you have to figure out what a horse wants to do and then get out of his way,” recalled Michael. “Precisionist taught me things, too. The really great racehorses we have here — the stakes winners, Breeders’ Cup winners — are all shapes, all sizes and all different kinds of breeding, but the common key is that they were all really, really intelligent. Precisionist was top of the class. When we knew it was his time and we had to euthanize him, it was heartbreaking. He was our only Hall of Fame horse. He was gorgeous, he was smart.”
At Old Friends, the retired horses rush to the board fences of their paddocks, eager for the admiration of visitors enjoying a guided tour with Michael or another member of the staff, who talk about the horses, where they came from, their careers and answer a gazillion questions. The hour or so of the tour is happy for both humans and Thoroughbreds.
In early April, Old Friends and New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program, both accredited by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (an organization that also raises funds for grants to help support approved facilities), formed a partnership. New Vocations is an adoption program that rehabilitates, re-trains and re-homes ex-racehorses at its farms in Ohio, Michigan and Lexington, Kentucky. According to the terms of the partnership agreement, a Thoroughbred donated to Old Friends who receives the vets’ approval for being sound, healthy and suitable for a new career can be sent to New Vocations for re-homing. This is a win-win for the horse and for both aftercare organizations.
“The first horse to benefit from our partnership with New Vocations is Gameday News, who suffered an injury and was retired to us,” said Michael. “I think they had paid $350,000 for him. He was owned by football coach Bill Parcells and trained by Wayne Lucas. Gameday News spent a little over a year with us. He was young — only 5, I think. With the help of our vets and acupuncture, he was treated and all of his injuries healed. He’s gorgeous, very intelligent and a good candidate to be the first horse for the New Vocations program.”
Gameday News moved to New Vocations in April and has been adopted, starting his new life with an accomplished hunter/jumper rider, who’s also a previous New Vocations adopter. In June, Old Friends welcomed the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Marathon, Eldaafer, who won’t go anywhere without his two goat sidekicks, Yahoo and Google. “Already I love the goats — they’re like celebrity sidekicks,” said Michael. “You don’t even need lead ropes. They just follow Eldaafer wherever he goes.”
Little Silver Charm is a popular attraction at Old Friends. The gray miniature horse is the smallest stallion on the farm and came off a slaughter truck 15 years ago, part of a $40 package deal with two ducks and a goat. “He’s been a phenomenal pal, probably the most popular horse on the farm,” said Michael. “He’s tiny and cute; the kids get to play with him. He plays soccer with me, puts on a little show. He’s very intelligent. He even comes in the house.”
There are many reasons to visit Old Friends and they all have four legs and a tail. “You get really close to these horses,” said Michael, whose outgoing, easy nature, gift of gab and obvious enthusiasm for his job makes him a natural emcee as vans, buses and private cars pull into the parking area of Old Friends. “”People say you shouldn’t make pets of them, but we make them all pets. That’s what these horses do now. They’re not racing, they’re not breeding — they’re pets. All of them eventually become very easy to deal with.”
One of Michael’s missions is bringing horses home from abroad to retire at Old Friends. “Another of my dear favorites was Sunshine Forever — we just lost him a few months ago and he came here in 2004, the first horse we ever brought home from Japan,” said Michael. “After we found out about Ferdinand, we made arrangements with the Japanese breeders to notify us when the horses were done with their breeding careers and we would raise the money to bring them home. So far we brought five home from Japan and one from Italy. We have a real good relationship with the Japanese breeders now.”
Michael became involved with racehorse retirement, because he’s a racing fan. He used to own racehorses and was an assistant trainer. He has one ex-racehorse at Old Friends, claimed for $3,500 up at Fingerlakes in New York. When asked how they deal with losing these wonderful Old Friends, Michael paused for several seconds before replying.
“We know we’re assisted living, we know we’re an aftercare,” he said. “The horses know that we’re their waiters, their butlers and their maids. They know that we don’t run things — they understand that they run things. We know that when they come to us, this is pretty much the end of the road, but still we hope that they’ll last a long time. With the tours we see them four, five, six times a day. We get to know them so well. They’re such individuals and characters. They’re like family. You never get used to it. It’s heartbreak.”
For visitors, however, Old Friends is a place of joy, hope and celebration — a living history museum, populated by magnificent creatures. Before you leave, visit the memorial garden, a small, tree-shaded area with benches and engraved markers. It’s a happy, peaceful place where you can sit and dream of past glories, a place of great love and Old Friends.
For more information, visit www.oldfriendsequine.org.