01/25/2016 1:40PM

Industry, community pledge support to Old Friends after barn fire


Moving on comes with the territory at Old Friends Equine Retirement in Georgetown, Ky. Normally, the emptiness comes from a departed member of the farm’s vaunted roster of equines, but this time, the hole in the farm was quite literal.

The farm’s quarantine and medical barn caught fire at around 7 a.m. on Saturday during a blistering winter storm. It didn’t take long for the flames to reduce the seven-stall tobacco barn to a smoldering pile of ashes and twisted tin, but volunteers James and Tammy Crump were able to evacuate its two residents – Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Alphabet Soup and elderly auction rescue horse Archie’s Echo – without incident.

“The barn went up in about 20 minutes,” said Old Friends founder and president Michael Blowen. “I couldn’t believe it. I’d never been around a fire [of that magnitude]. When I went out there, there was just smoke coming out of the roof, and I thought I’d just go hit it with a fire extinguisher. By the time I got from my house to the barn, about 100 yards, it was totally engulfed in flames.”

Two days later, the farm’s volunteers rolled out from the feed shed for the day’s chores, giving a wide berth to the nearby black pile. A lone water pump stood tall in the middle of the charred rubble and concrete foundation, still spraying and surrounded by a buildup of ice.

Though modest by the standards of many Kentucky farms, a long list of prominent horses called that barn home as they first acclimated to Old Friends. As Old Friends’s medical outpost, it also was where many took their last breath. Recently, the ceiling of the barn had been decorated with the pasture signs of deceased Old Friends residents, serving as a reminder not only of the great horses who had lived there but of the time spent by their side in their final hours.

“You don’t think about that stuff right away,” Blowen said. “Late last night, I started thinking about all the time we’d spent in that barn and how everyone had worked so hard over the last six months to fix it up and paint it and make it really nice – all the effort that went into it, and it just went up in 20 minutes. It doesn’t take long when the enemy is bigger and stronger than you are.”

The outpouring of support was almost immediate when news of the fire hit the public sphere. Before the end of the day, Old Friends board member Barbara Fossum said she was contacted by a broad spectrum of industry members offering quarantine stalls, transportation, supplies, and fundraising efforts. Blowen’s voice-mail box was still full Monday morning from callers offering assistance or condolences.

Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron helped spearhead a GoFundMe.com account to rebuild the barn, which raised more than $13,000 in the first 24 hours.

“It’s the Thoroughbred community, but it’s also the Georgetown community that always rallies around us so strongly and so immediately whenever we’ve had things happen to us,” Fossum said. “It’s, ‘Whatever you need, whatever we can do.’ It’s just amazing.”

Now, Old Friends begins the process of rebuilding the critical structure. Blowen said he wasn’t sure when the new quarantine building will be finished.

“We’re going to build a cinderblock barn, and it’s going to have sprinklers in it,” Blowen said. “It’s going to be a showcase for anybody that wants to come see a barn that’s as fireproof as you can possibly make it, because this is not going to happen again.”