01/03/2014 4:23PM

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


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.”

jaime More than 1 year ago
I love Old Friends. I visited the farm last April and it definitely exceeded expectations. My favorite horses were Arson Squad and Popcorn Deelites. They acted like two big old friendly dogs.
Walter More than 1 year ago
I'm asking because I don't know... Would the owners of Prized have to pay for his care at Old Friends? Or, do they just drop him off and hope others donate to the care of these horses? If anyone knows how this works please inform me.
martha More than 1 year ago
Keep up the wonderful work you are doing for our beloved "retirees". I will definitely come visit and also make a donation. Signed Martha, a horse lover
Debbie Pofelski More than 1 year ago
One of the best men to walk this earth is Michael Blowen !! All It takes is one visit and your in love for life!!! He asks nothing from the horses and gives then everything he has!! My only regret is that I live in the Chicago area cause if I lived anywhere near Old Friends, I'd be there every day!!!
Bellwether4U More than 1 year ago
Great Man & a Great Article...ty...
Frederick Jones More than 1 year ago
Wayne Gunter More than 1 year ago
Thanks Jay for this article and thanks to Mr. Blowen for having the insight to start this place. There are a lot of racing fans that are horse lovers.
Wayne Gunter More than 1 year ago
I had the pleasure of ,going on a heritage horse tour 2 yrs ago and we visited old friends.I got to feed carrots to a couple of old timers. It was the high lite of the tour for me
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Michael Blowen is a saint. One small step at a time, he has raised the public's awareness of the plight of racehorses after they leave the track. And he took in old stallions when nobody wanted them after their breeding days were done. He had the determination and foresight to believe there were others like him: fans who cherished these remarkable athletes and would support them in their twilight years. His mission has touched many, including the late Bobby Frankel. His endeavor and the resulting support for it validate my belief in the goodness of mankind - casting aside the rotten apples - but nonetheless, believing that Mr. Blowen's spirit toward our equine racehorse friends will prevail.
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Steve More than 1 year ago
Not the Classified Ads DRF - Please moderate