07/26/2012 11:17AM

At Old Friends, retired racehorses have become tourist attractions

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Barbara D. Livingston
Rapid Redux, best known for his 22-race winning streak, retired to Old Friends this spring and is one of many famous names at the farm.

Breeders and stud farm owners in Kentucky looked at Michael Blowen like he was crazy when he first pitched his idea to them a decade ago: Open a retirement farm for pensioned stallions and make the most famous of those retirees a tourist attraction for racing fans and horse lovers.

The response wasn’t encouraging. Most people didn’t think a retired film critic for the Boston Globe was qualified to handle stallions, and many considered him overly sentimental about breeding stock.

Ten years later, with 117 retirees in his care and about 15,000 to 18,000 annual visitors to the 90-acre Old Friends headquarters at Dream Chase Farm in Georgetown, Ky., Blowen is proving that his idea does work. And he’s still unapologetically sentimental about the animals he considers heroes and celebrities.

“I never got excited about meeting a movie star the way I got excited about Cigar coming to the Mass Cap again,” Blowen said. “I knew when I came down here to Kentucky as a visitor, the first thing I wanted to do was to go to the Kentucky Horse Park and see Forego and John Henry and all the great horses. They had a marvelous idea because people come from all over the world to see those horses. The second thing was, I knew the only time these horses run into real problems is when they can’t generate income. So I thought if we could make something like the horse park, open it to visitors, and generate income, maybe it could be a model for other places around other racetracks. It’s taken a lot longer than I thought it would, but, finally, it’s happening.”

Blowen’s instinct – that other racing fans shared his deep affection for the horses and want to see them cared for into their old age – has proved correct. Blowen, 65, said he understands the initial skepticism when he talked about combining the allure of the Kentucky Horse Park’s Hall of Champions with the mission of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. But a series of scandals and public relations crises, including prominent news reports about slaughter, drugs, and breakdowns, have pushed equine welfare and aftercare issues toward the top of the industry’s agenda. In particular, the deaths of 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand and Hall of Fame member Exceller in foreign slaughterhouses after their stud careers had ended raised concerns about sending stallions overseas. Old Friends has responded by opening communications with stud farms around the world and bringing back such stallions as 1992 Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Fraise and multiple Grade 1 winner Ogygian after their retirement from stud careers. Increasingly, the operation has converted skeptics in the Thoroughbred industry into strong supporters.

All but one of Old Friends’s horses – the farm’s miniature mascot, Little Silver Charm – are Thoroughbreds. Not all of them reside in Kentucky. In recent years, Old Friends has opened a branch at Cabin Creek Farm in Greenfield Center, N.Y., called the Bobby Frankel Division, after the Hall of Fame trainer who was one of Old Friends’s major benefactors. Old Friends also has some of its horses at private boarding farms in Kentucky and at one in New Jersey.

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Most of the Old Friends horses are stallions or geldings. Many are famous. Rapid Redux, who won 22 consecutive races, retired there in the spring of 2012. One of his boon companions is 1988 turf champion Sunshine Forever, and not far across the farm is another 1988 champion, the sprinter Gulch. Commentator, a two-time Whitney winner and $2 million earner, also resides there. Precisionist, 1985’s sprint champion, was a popular fixture until his death in 2006; he is now buried in the flower-laden Old Friends graveyard. Tinners Way, a Grade 1-winning millionaire, also is one of the last surviving sons of Secretariat. Some horses at Old Friends have modest race records but are famous for other reasons. Take Popcorn Deelites. A low-rung claimer for most of his career, he was one of the geldings to play Seabiscuit in the 2003 film about the horse.

The program’s focus has long been on stallions and geldings, but Old Friends also has quite a few mares. Hidden Lake, the champion older female in 1997, and world record-setter Klassy Briefcase are both at Old Friends in Kentucky. Such mares as Bonnie’s Poker, who was Silver Charm’s dam, and 1986 champion grass mare Estrapade lived out their final years there, quietly thriving on a relaxing regimen of turnout and affection from farm volunteers and visitors.

The farm’s first retiree, in fact, was the aptly named broodmare Narrow Escape, who had failed to attract a bid at her last auction back in 2004. Her name and the fact that she was by Exceller made her a poignant starting point for Blowen. A longtime racing fan, he had become aware of the tragic fate for many horses while working in the mornings for a trainer at Suffolk Downs in East Boston.

“We were running horses for $3,500,” he said. “They were running out of conditions, and they’re old, you know. They were these old, classy horses. People would come by, and they’d go, ‘We’re buying this horse for $500, and it’s going to go to a riding academy in Maine.’ It took me a while to figure out that there just weren’t that many riding academies in Maine and what was really going on. I thought if I ever had a chance to do something about it, I would.”

The chance came after Blowen and his wife, Diane White, also a Boston Globe contributor, took buyouts that essentially left them retired. After a stint as the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s operations manager, they spent a year of fruitlessly promoting the Old Friends idea to central Kentucky breeders and farm owners. Blowen’s dream finally became a reality in 2003, when Scott County Thoroughbred owner Betty Sue Walters invited him to use part of her farm for his retirement program. As Old Friends has grown, it has relocated to larger facilities, finally buying Dream Chase Farm in 2006.

“One of the important and really simple things here is that when they come here, they are literally the boss,” Blowen said of the horses. “We leave them out and don’t fool with them any more than they need, so they’re really in charge. They know there’s their water, there’s their shelter, and they’re going to get fed every day. We feed them, take care of their hooves, and look out for problems. They exercise themselves. They race against each other.”

Sometimes they race Blowen. On a recent summer day, You and I, the 1995 Metropolitan Handicap winner and a track record-setter, approached his paddock fence, where Blowen had stopped his battered golf cart. Blowen whistled the call to the post, then accelerated his cart into a gentle jogging speed. As is his custom, You and I trotted gamely along the fence to the end of his paddock as Blowen trundled by.

“He almost never lets me get the lead,” Blowen said.

“The good thing about having visitors here is that we’re around the horses all the time,” he said. “They’re never not watched.”

Blowen stopped his golf cart between paddocks and watched as a clutch of racing fans, a span of three generations, braved 100-degree temperatures to get pictures of Ferdinand’s nearly white son Bull Inthe Heather and feed carrots to Creator, Mill Reef’s last foal and one of the first two horses (with Sunshine Forever) to return from stud duty in Asia. A few paddocks away, a couple of families with small children wandered down the fence lines, pausing to talk to Clever Allemont and Gulch. On Ogygian’s pasture, a weathered plaque noted that Mrs. Prather’s fourth-grade class at Anne Mason Elementary School had “adopted” the former Claiborne Farm stallion. These are all scenes to warm a racing marketer’s heart, and that message isn’t lost on Blowen, either.

“Rapid Redux’s arrival in 2012 was a big deal, and it was a turning point,” Blowen said. “People going racing right now might not remember Sunshine Forever or Gulch. The younger people who come here saw him run or have read about his win streak, so he’s more contemporary to them. It’s so important that people who come here are attracted to these horses because they saw them race.”

Attracting income isn’t easy, Blowen said, but he says the program is on healthy financial footing.
“We survived a three-day audit by the IRS, and we’ve been verified by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries,” Blowen said.

Old Friends benefits from many special relationships that cut costs. The Kentucky Horseshoeing School takes care of the horses’ hooves at a good discount, for example. Sallee has shipped horses to the facilities for free. Dr. Doug Byars has donated his time and expertise for years. A local farm owner donated dewormer, halters, and other supplies when she sold her property. And many people volunteer to do everything from publicity to leading tours.

The income, Blowen said, comes from many places, including industry players, breeders, owners, and racing fans.

“I’m just grateful,” Blowen said. “I’m grateful to everybody because I can’t imagine having more fun at my age than I’m having. Maybe if people thought I was nuts, that doesn’t preclude the fact that I am nuts. Maybe it took a nut.”