11/24/2010 3:46PM

Q&A: Michael Blowen

Stan Grossfield

Founder and president of the equine retirement facility Old Friends in Georgetown, Ky., Blowen earlier this month received the Joe Palmer Award for meritorious service from the National Turf Writers Association.

Birthdate: Jan. 13, 1947, in Springfield, Mass.

Family: wife, Diane White; son, Dylan

Got into racing because . . . “When I was the film critic at the Boston Globe, I had an editor named Robert Taylor. He could do with a story what some people can do to a Rubik’s Cube − move things around and have it make sense. I wanted to hang around with him. He invited me in 1981 to go with his pals to Suffolk Downs. Almost from the moment I set foot in the clubhouse, I fell in love with it – the gambling, the people, the conversation.”

How did you make the switch from a fan, just gambling on horses, to an advocate for and caretaker of equine retirees? “One day in 1997 or 1998 I bet an 8-1 shot, keyed him in trifectas. He won, and a 40-1 shot I used was third. Then the horse I keyed got DQ’d to second. So instead of making thousands of dollars, I lost $25. I went into the bowels of Suffolk and ran into trainer Carlos Figueroa, who I had profiled years earlier for Spur Magazine. I said, ‘If I come to work for you, will you teach me?’ I felt like I was missing that. I hadn’t been around horses. I went to work in the mornings at 5:45 as a hot walker. I then owned a few bottom claimers. My first horse won at Great Barrington Fair. As time went on, I realized that some of the guys who came around the backside at the end of the day, saying they had good homes for horses, weren’t finding good homes. They were taking them to slaughter. I thought if I someday had a chance to do something, I’d take a shot at it.”

When did that time come? “In 2001, when The New York Times bought the Boston Globe, we were offered a buyout. Diane and I both agreed our time was up. As a present, I bought myself a trip to the Belmont when Point Given won. That week, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation was doing a fund-raiser in New York. I donated some movie memorabilia for their auction. I met a lot of people at the TRF, and out of the blue they offered me a job to be their operations director. I moved to Midway, Ky. After a year and a half, I left that job to write a book. But I couldn’t get horses out of my mind. The Horse Park did a great job with stars, like John Henry. They got visitors. I thought we could do the same thing with Old Friends, promote it as a tourist attraction. Right around then came the news that Ferdinand had died in a slaughterhouse in Japan. We’ve tried to have a relationship with overseas breeders, bring those horses home after their careers are over. We’ve brought five home so far.”

What does Old Friends now encompass, in terms of numbers of horses cared for, acreage, and farms? “We have 10 retirees at the farm in New York that is just outside of Saratoga and is named for Bobby Frankel. Zippy Chippy is there. His motto is, ‘Winners don’t always finish first.’ Thunder Rumble is there, Will’s Way, and we just got Crusader Sword. That’s 40 acres, and we lease that property. We have 97 additional retirees, 75 at the main farm in Georgetown, which is 92 acres, and 18 next door, at a farm we lease that is 40 acres. We also lease out a couple of smaller farms in the area for the other four horses. So it’s 107 horses all together. And we’re always working on more. Every quarter the Japanese give us a report on who is being bred to mares and who’s not. We’re looking at bringing Charismatic, War Emblem, Paradise Creek, and Silver Charm back from over there. Paradise Creek was only bred to one mare this year. It’s gone from a very embarrassing situation with Ferdinand to something very positive. We now have a way to deal with this.”

You’ve got several familiar names on the farm. Who are among your favorites? “Sunshine Forever is my favorite, and he doesn’t even like me that much. It’s totally unrequited. I love long grass races. He won three Grade 1 races in six weeks. When I was first setting things up, he and Creator were the first two we got from Japan in November of 2004.”

What are the primary sources of income and donations to care for these horses? “We’re like a baseball team that bunts to get on, steals second, moves the runner along to third, and hits a sacrifice fly to score. A lot of fans send us 10, 15, 20 dollars. And we also have some home-run hitters. Jerry and Ann Moss put us on the map when they sent Ruhlmann to us. They said, ‘We trust this guy with our horse.’ Angie Dickinson is a big contributor. Mary Sullivan, who owned Kiri’s Clown. We’re trying to prove we can generate income. We have a gift shop. We sell shares in the horses for $100. There’s a bed and breakfast here, with two rooms available. Some farms are donating stallion seasons to us. This year Adena Springs donated Einstein, Giacomo, and Ghostzapper. And Mike Repole, Uncle Mo’s owner, has been a big help.”

Has fund-raising been more difficult in recent years owing to the economy? “Yes. We had a big owner in California who was whacked by Bernie Madoff. But we’re able to pull it together. Dottie Ingordo is one of our greatest supporters. She handles the Mosses’ things and handled Frankel’s things. Bobby donated most of his trophies to us. He also left money in a trust to us and other horse organizations. I’m told it’s significant. Fasig-Tipton, through Rusty Arnold, just gave us $10,000.”

How well did you know Frankel? “At Saratoga in 2005, I saw him and said, ‘Sorry to bother you, but I want to introduce myself. I have a retirement horse farm in Kentucky, and Ruhlmann is there.’ He said, ‘So?’ I walked away. I thought, ‘He’s not even a good diplomat.’ The next day, he’s in the same spot. I walk past, and he stops me and says, ‘Aren’t you the guy with Ruhlmann? What a horse. He was great. Tough as nails. I can’t thank you enough. I’m glad he’s got a great home.’ He was effusive. Those are the only two conversations I ever had with him. But he must have kept track of what we were doing. I’m sure Dottie was influential in all this. She knew what the deal was. We’re planning to put up a museum for Bobby here, house his trophies. The same building will house the American Academy of Equine Art.”

I was at a recent fund-raiser at Old Friends the day after the Breeders’ Cup and was impressed not only with how well the horses looked, but by the size of the paddocks you have for them. Did you seek out an area where the retirees would have plenty of room to roam? “Yes. The idea was they earned a dignified retirement, so they should be able to run around and have fun. Our horses earned over $75 million on the track, not including what they made in the breeding shed. They have no Social Security, no 401K.”

Best horse seen? “Zenyatta. She’s the best I’ve ever seen. I may be prejudiced, but seeing Black Tie Affair win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and then years later having him in the barn here and being able to graze him, that was pretty unbelievable.”

Future ambitions? “If we can prove in the next year or two that Old Friends can be economically self-sustaining, then we can open up more farms. We’ve had requests in Pennsylvania, Texas, California, Illinois, and Louisiana. If properly placed near racetracks, you could put horses near where the local fan base would go nuts. We are in the tourism business. I think Old Friends’s impact on the local economy here in Georgetown has been phenomenal.”