12/12/2014 12:27PM

The return of a gray eminence


By Michael Blowen

More than a decade ago, back when Old Friends had just a couple of retirees at Afton Farm in Georgetown, Ky., Sandy Hatfield, stallion manager at Three Chimneys Farm, gave me a halter from my favorite horse of all time – Silver Charm.

The idea was to auction it off to raise money. After all, a few months after she donated it, this great Thoroughbred left to revive his breeding career in Japan, and the halter would have fetched a serious price. Over the years, no matter how desperate we were for money, and believe me, we’ve had some desperate times, I always resisted putting it up for grabs, and last week, I got to return it to its rightful owner – the thrill of a lifetime on the cusp of my 68th birthday.

One of our major goals at Old Friends is to return some of our great Thoroughbreds to the United States when their racing and breeding careers are over. So far, we’ve brought Creator, Sunshine Forever, Ogygian, Fraise, and Wallenda home from Japan and Geri home from Italy. It was always difficult raising the money. Not with Silver Charm.

His return was paid for by Beverly and Jeff Lewis through the Robert B. and Beverly Lewis Trust, beautifully expedited by the Japan Bloodhorse Breeders’ Association through Ever Union transport and IRT, and organized by Three Chimneys. We didn’t get involved until it was a done deal.

For several years, I made inquiries through several intermediaries about the chances of Silver Charm’s return. Each time, the answer was very cordial but firm. He was still breeding and doing very well. I began passing the information along to Jeff Lewis, who was always committed to honoring the special buyback clause that his father inserted into the contract before selling Silver Charm. Also, at the time of the sale, it was clear that Mr. Lewis was heartbroken. However, the undisclosed purchase price was astronomical, and he was assured that Silver Charm would receive care befitting his stature. Everyone kept their promises.

A few weeks ago, Sandy called. “How would you like an old, gray stallion at your farm?” she asked. I flipped out. Sworn to secrecy, I hopped on the golf cart, drove to the back of the farm, jumped off, and ran around in a crazed dance of pure, screaming joy. There was no doubt she was referring to the horse of my dreams. And he was coming on the heels of one of Bob Baffert’s other great horses – Game On Dude.

To a basketball fan, this duo is the equivalent of having Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in your yard.

Since then, the excitement generated by the retirements of Game On Dude and Silver Charm has invigorated everyone at Old Friends. I guess it’s like everyone says: A good horse or two takes everyone to a new level.

Just a few days after Game On Dude arrived, Dana and Jimmy Barnes came to see him. Dana is one of Baffert’s exercise riders and is absolutely in love with Game On Dude. Jimmy, Baffert’s assistant, was in town to run Hoppertunity in the Clark Handicap, and Dortmund, now one of the winter-book favorites for the Kentucky Derby. They took the time to drive from Louisville to Georgetown to feed Dude his favorite treats – Jolly Rancher candies – and for Dana to give him all the hugs she could muster.

In the middle of all this, a trailer from Central Equipment arrived with a brand-new, fully loaded Kubota. Heat and air conditioning. What will they think of next? It was a gift from Game On Dude’s owners: Bob and Jill Baffert, Joe Torre, Bernie Schiappa, Ernie Moody, and Debbie Lanni.

A few days later, at our open house for Silver Charm, dozens of his fans showed up in the wet and cold to pay tribute to his gray eminence. A guy named Jim drove all night from New York just to get a glimpse of Silver Charm.

All this provides so much joy for us and absolute proof that these great Thoroughbreds have great value beyond their racing and breeding careers. More than a decade ago, when I was sitting on a park bench in Midway, Ky., wondering where this idea was heading, Betty Sue Walters, a local businesswoman who owned Afton Farm, invited Old Friends to lease paddocks at her farm. We did.

A few days later, we retired our first Thoroughbred, a marvelous mare named Narrow Escape. Now, we take care of 152 retirees – Eclipse Award winners, a Derby and a Preakness winner, and our Belmont star, Sarava. And Zippy Chippy, who went 0 for 100. We attract almost 20,000 visitors a year who love feeding them carrots and having fun. But I don’t think any of them have as much fun as I do.