01/12/2017 11:28AM

Beyond the Wire: Building an even brighter future


Michael Blowen did not hear voices that said, “If you build it, they will come.” But everyone did think he was out of his mind when he told people his concept for Old Friends.

“People told me, are you crazy? This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” said Blowen, founder and president of Old Friends, of his initial effort to solicit support for the fledgling idea.

“I talked to one owner of a major stallion farm and explained what we had in mind when we were starting Old Friends, and he said, ‘You’re getting these horses and you’re not going to sell them? What exactly are you going to do with them?’ I said, ‘We’re going to put them in our yard and people will come visit.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Good luck with that. Good luck.’ Now he’s one of our biggest supporters.”

Fans did come. And come. And come. Some 20,000 people – and counting – arrive annually at the main farm in Georgetown, Ky., to see some of racing’s greats, and not-so-greats, because owners, breeders, and trainers saw what Blowen had done and the quality of care and life the horses were given, and they stepped up to provide a steady incoming stream of ex-racehorses, former sires, and retired broodmares.

Today, Blowen’s Old Friends is the premier aftercare facility in the country. As Old Friends has established itself – sporting the largest collection of American classic winners in the world, featuring three Kentucky Derby-Preakness winners, plus two Belmont victors – it is bulging at the seams. And there’s a long list of horses waiting to get in.

To help shape its future, Old Friends recently acquired 50 adjacent acres that will allow it to house more retirees; it has built a beautiful new multi-purpose barn to replace the one that burned down in January 2016; it will renovate its old tobacco barn into an entertainment/educational center; and it will begin offering onsite bed-and-breakfast facilities to accommodate visitors who want to stay on a farm.

All these initiatives are being undertaken to help make Old Friends more self-sustaining, because the not-for-profit facility requires considerable operating funds to pay the upkeep for scores of horses no longer producing revenues from stud fees or purse earnings.

Expansion is already under way, with fences being built to create additional paddocks on the new 50-acre tract. The new acreage will allow Old Friends to accommodate 30 to 40 more horses beyond the present 105.

On the newly annexed acreage is a metal barn that will be used as an equine-care facility. Blowen said the medical facility will have six stalls, and that Bryan Waldridge, the primary veterinarian for Old Friends, and people from Rood and Riddle veterinary clinic will help design it.

The new 12-stall multi-purpose barn was completed last summer, replacing the wooden quarantine barn that burned down.

Like all major projects, the new barn required a lot of money – a commodity often in short supply at Old Friends.

Blowen said he got a phone call from Fasig-Tipton CEO Boyd Browning asking him to consider naming the barn after the late owner-breeder and former Fasig-Tipton chairman John Hettinger.

“I said I certainly would,” Blowen said.

“John Hettinger really cared about his horses. After they retired, he dedicated his life to taking care of horses, to give them the best chance they could possibly have. It would be an honor to name the barn after him, I told Boyd.

“He said, ‘Oh, and it comes with a check for $50,000.’ ”

The barn provides a lot of flexibility, serving as a quarantine facility as well as a space for horses that must be confined while recovering from injury or illness. Three shared walk-out paddocks are available from six of the stalls, enabling horses to go outside into a quarantined area.

The newest barn is located just 50 feet away from the original tobacco barn. The tobacco barn had all of its interior stall walls removed, so the barn will be wide open, with asphalt flooring throughout, which will help accommodate sizable parties and gatherings. Old Friends already hosts some large seasonal parties, and with the new facility those functions will likely be more frequent. Plus the barn can be rented for outside parties, such as weddings, to help raise funds.

“One of the things that used to irritate me is that every time we had a party here, like around Derby time, we had to rent a tent for $2,000,” Blowen said. “I always wanted a place where people could go and enjoy themselves.

“[The entertainment facility] will also be a place where we can put up televisions and show some of these horses’ races and other informational pieces. I want it so you can push a button on a monitor and see Silver Charm’s races.”

Blowen said that Old Friends will bring in speakers, such as jockeys, trainers, and veterinarians, to help educate the public on racing and horse care.

“We get requests from schools all the time for kids to come out,” he said.

“The more knowledgeable people are about racing, the greater the chances are for the sport to improve.”

◗ This story is excerpted from the 2017 issue of the Old Friends magazine, published by Daily Racing Form, which goes on sale today. You can order your copy at (502) 863-1775 or www.oldfriends-equine.org
“Beyond the Wire, a Focus on Aftercare” is a new feature appearing every weekend in DRF. To submit an OTTB  story idea or inquire about sponsorship opportunities, please email us at aftercare@drf.com