01/03/2014 4:23PM

Jay Hovdey: Old Friends strives for more space to save retired racehorses

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Michael Blowen awoke in the wee hours one morning last week, his sleep haunted by lingering details from the day, and switched on the television to quiet the voices in his head. There on the screen, a racing channel was airing the highlight reel from the 1989 Breeders’ Cup at Gulfstream Park, specifically the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Two names popped out as the field entered the gate – Sunshine Forever, the male turf champion of the previous year, and Prized, who was 2 1/2 minutes away from winning the race.

“Those guys,” Blowen thought as he watched the race unfold. “I know those guys.”

The next morning, as he went about his early morning chores at Old Friends Equine, Blowen made a point to visit the side-by-side paddocks occupied by Prized, age 28, and Sunshine Forever, newly 29. Prized came to Old Friends after a stud career in Kentucky and West Virginia, while Sunshine Forever was reclaimed from a stallion farm in Japan in 2004.

That puts Sunshine Forever among the original retirees at Old Friends, which celebrated its 10th year of operation in 2013. With 69 horses at the sprawling Lexington, Ky., farm and another dozen at the Bobby Frankel division of Old Friends near Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Blowen and his board of directors could be allowed to rest on their laurels. But instead it’s full speed ahead with vigorous plans for expansion and exposure, as the issue of racehorse retirement continues to creep steadily toward the front burners of concern.

“Clever Allemont just turned 32, Ogygian turned 31, and Gulch turned 30,” said Blowen, a retired journalist, ticking off the names of the farm’s three seniormost citizens. “It’s a good news, bad news thing. These old guys are happy and healthy and don’t look like they’re going anywhere soon, which means there’s a waiting list – a waiting list with Breeders’ Cup winners no less – and we need more room.”

To that end, Old Friends will be getting access this spring to an adjacent 40 acres leased from a supporter of the facility. This is a good thing, because very soon there will be three notable retirees on the way to Old Friends from California – including Samantha Siegel’s 2009 Hollywood Gold Cup winner Rail Trip – and soon after should be arriving Eldaafer, winner of the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Marathon.

A horse does not need to be the quality of Sunshine Forever, Prized, or Rail Trip to earn a place in an Old Friends paddock. There are plenty of retirees who were local favorites who labored beneath the radar, just as deserving of a safe haven now that they are no longer able to generate parimutuel action or purse income.

It is the headliners, however, who make up the foundation of the Old Friends philosophy. Commentator, Early Pioneer, Sarava, Thunder Rumble, Hidden Lake, Kiri’s Clown, Dinard, Futural, Affirmed Success – these are stars of the game who were on their way to being forgotten and who now provide a cast of characters at what could only be called, at least for racing fans, the world’s coolest interactive museum.

“When I first started Old Friends I spoke with Brereton Jones,” Blowen said, referring the to former Kentucky governor and master of Airdrie Stud. “He said, ‘Let me get this straight. You’re going to get these horses. You’re not going to sell them, race them, or breed them. You’re going to put them in your yard and hope people come and visit.’

“He looked at me for a long time,” Blowen said. “I said why not? People go to visit Cigar at the Kentucky Horse Park all the time. He still wasn’t convinced, but now he’s one of our biggest supporters.”

And the people have come to visit, by the busloads in the spring, when the racing world converges for the Keeneland season and Derby week in Louisville. Old Friends plays host to any number of events while providing casual visitors a rare chance to feed a champion a carrot.

Like everyone trying to provide a safe retirement option for Thoroughbred racehorses, Blowen has depended on the generosity of individuals. Institutional support has slowly grown, to the point now where Old Friends is one of the organizations qualified for some of the funds raised by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance.

Still, the battle to maintain a quality facility continues, and the demand for retirement facilities far outweighs the supply. As Old Friends enters its second decade, its immediate plans include:

◗ An Old Friends division at Kentucky Downs, where racing is conducted just five days a year over its vast, countryside turf course, and where an expansive infield could serve as a viable home for a dozen or so Old Friends horses who would be an off-season attraction.

◗ A traveling show of the trophy collection bequeathed to Old Friends by the late Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel. According to Blowen, interest already has been expressed to host the extensive collection at Santa Anita Park, Del Mar, and the Museum of Thoroughbred Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs.

“I try to look at the big picture most of the time, but then I stop before I let myself get discouraged,” Blowen said. “It’s like the story of the beach covered with stranded starfish, baking in the sun. Picking one of them up and throwing it back in the water doesn’t seem to make much difference. But it made a difference to that one.”