Before he moved to Kentucky, Michael Blowen wrote about movies for the Boston Globe. One person he befriended was legendary director John Huston, who shared with Blowen his key to a film’s success: “If you don’t have a star, you don’t have a movie.”
At the time, neither Huston nor Blowen would have guessed that advice for Hollywood would hold true in horse country. But at the time, neither Huston nor Blowen would have guessed that Michael would one day be directing his own unique production in the heart of the Bluegrass.
Old Friends, a racehorse retirement farm run by Blowen, is the happy-ending tale for dozens of former sprinters and routers. While Old Friends is not the nation’s only equine retirement facility, it’s the only one that takes stallions, and according to Blowen, those are the stars that people come to visit.
“These horses are celebrities,” he says. “This is the only place in the world you can see so many winners of different U.S. stakes races.”
Blowen’s boarders took different routes to get to this place situated just off Interstate 64, near Georgetown. “Each of these horses has such a great odyssey,” he says. “You could write a book about any one of them.”
Typically a male racehorse will retire to the breeding shed and live out his days whinnying sweet nothings to a series of mares. When the sun sets on their breeding career, many “pensioned” stallions remain on the farm. But if owners are unable to support them, stallions–which require specialized handling and more space than mares–often have no place to go.
Cue Michael Blowen. But how does a Boston-based film critic switch scenes so abruptly?
It all started with a day at the races (not the Marx Brothers movie, but an actual visit.) When an editor took Blowen to a local track in 1980, he was hooked. “I fell in love with the sport immediately,” Blowen says. “I liked the people at the track, the pari-mutuel clerks–and the laughter.”
The newspaper writer so completely caught the racing bug, he apprenticed himself to a trainer, reporting to the stables every morning at 6:15. “I started at the bottom and learned about horse racing. I’d walk hots, do the stalls, whatever,” he says. “Then I’d get on the subway, get to the Globe and shower, and get to my desk job.”
After Blowen learned all about Thoroughbred speedsters, he also found out about broken-down horses. “If they lost at Suffolk, they weren’t going home,” he says. “When we’d send a horse away, my boss would say the horse was going to a riding academy in Maine. I was naÃ¯ve at first, but it became clear to me these horses were going to slaughter. I mean, how many horses did they need at a Maine riding academy?”
Blowen was a broken-hearted witness to the last hours of horses with no place to go. He once saw an injured horse bound for the slaughterhouse being loaded onto a van, a broken leg held together with duct tape. “The worst part was putting them on the truck,” he says. “Those horses made a noise they didn’t ever make.”
As Blowen looked for an opportunity to help horses, life’s barn door swung wide open. The Globe was sold to the New York Times and Blowen accepted an early-retirement buyout. He and his wife (also a Globe journalist) moved to Midway, Kentucky, where Michael worked for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. TRF did not accept stallions, though, and Blowen created his own nonprofit organization that would.
In 2002, three weeks after Old Friends began operations, the racing world was stunned to learn that Ferdinand, the 1987 Derby winner, had died at a slaughterhouse in Japan. Interest in retired racers exploded. “We went from getting five e-mails a day to hundreds,” Blowen says.
Initially, Old Friends leased part of a farm but soon outgrew it. “I imagined myself walking through Midway with 15 stallions, but then we bought a 52-acre farm and added 40 more.”
Dream Chase Farm, a short jaunt from the Kentucky Horse Park, is now home to Old Friends, its 50 retirees–and plenty of visitors. Horse-lovers flock to Old Friends because of its stars, says volunteer Cindy Grisolia.
“American Thoroughbreds are some of the greatest athletes on earth,” she says. “Here, you can learn their history and keep the archive alive, like at baseball’s Hall of Fame.”
One of Old Friends’ most accomplished residents is Sunshine Forever, winner of the 1988 Eclipse Award for outstanding turf horse. As a 3-year-old running against older horses, Sunshine Forever won three Grade I stakes races in a six-week stretch. “He’s my favorite horse here,” Blowen says. “I like them all, but I’m in love with a couple of them.”
And what’s not to love? For some residents, Old Friends is old family, too. Fortunate Prospect lives here with his grandson Mighty Mecke. Wicked North calls Old Friends home, as does Flick, who won the Wicked North Handicap at Santa Anita. Neighbors Wallenda and Bull inthe Heather both ran in the 1993 Kentucky Derby.
Blowen is proud to show off a spreadsheet that shows the financial impact of Old Friends residents and their progeny: Their racetrack winnings alone total nearly a quarter of a billion dollars.
“But they didn’t have a 401(k),” Blowen says. “We’re not giving them anything they haven’t earned.”
The horses continue to earn the support and attention of humans. “Michael has aligned a group of interested people who truly want to help. We have amazing support,” says Grisolia, citing former jockeys Chris McCarron and Jean Cruget, along with Thoroughbred owner Jerry Moss (co-founder of A&M Records).
Grisolia, who, like Blowen, left a job as a big-city journalist to join the Kentucky equine world, pointed to a project with a local winery as an example of financial support for Old Friends. For the Artist Signature Series of Chrisman Mill Wines, celebrities such as Anjelica Huston, Jack Nicholson and Albert Brooks created drawings of horses that appear on the labels of wines dedicated to Old Friends.
And with each carload–or busload–of visitors, more people are becoming dedicated to Old Friends. “People can see that we’re doing something and not just talking about it,” Blowen says.
Of course, there are people talking about it: the volunteers who lead tours, introducing visitors to the stallion stars who pose, prance or graze in their paddocks. Who knows what a tour might lead to? Blowen tells about one group of visitors, none of whom had ever attended a race. Since their stop at Old Friends, three have bought horses and joined the game. “Show people how amazing these athletes are, and that’s how they get the bug,” says Blowen.
While many horses at Old Friends were racing stars, including Awad, Precisionist, Criminal Type and Fraise, one is a legitimate movie star, Blowen says. “Popcorn Deelights was a terrible racehorse, but he played Seabiscuit in the movie.”
Ah, the movies. Blowen, like any accomplished movie man, is always looking toward the next feature. Today, he’s raving about a stallion about to join the cast at Old Friends. “Lava Man, by Derby Time,” he says, already writing the bio in his mind. “Claimed for $50,000, earned $2.5 million two years later. He’ll be a big star for us.”
Join the crowd
Old Friends at Dream Chase Farm
1841 Paynes Depot Rd.
Georgetown, KY 40324
Free tours daily at 10 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. Call for reservation:
Michael Blowen, Old Friends president and founder, pounces on a stack of letters. “There’s nobody in America who enjoys getting the mail as much as I do,” he says. Blowen holds a handful of birthday cards for Clever Allemont, one of Old Friends resident retirees. Today’s cards come to Kentucky from all over: Montana, Maine, Canada, Mexico and China. Some are handmade, most have money inside.
People heard about Clever Allemont and Old Friends on AlexBrownRacing.com, where there was a challenge to send five bucks for the horse’s birthday. The donations help Blowen and his staff provide a comfortable life for dozens of former racehorses. “These horses are like magnets for really nice people,” Blowen says, reading through the cards.
If you’d like to send greetings of your own, mark your calendar for the birthdays of these Thoroughbreds, all living with Old Friends at Dream Chase Farm.
1/24/90 — Awad
2/3/89 — Swan’s Way
2/22/98 — Cappucino Kid
2/24/81 — Fortunate Prospect
3/8/90 — Williamstown
3/9/97 — Special Ring
3/11/88 — Cozy Miss
3/11/91 — Remmington
3/14/85 — Sunshine Forever
3/17/83 — Ogygian
3/22/90 — Bull inthe Heather
3/22/83 — Narrow Escape
3/22/01 — Easy Ellis
3/27/92 — Invigorate
3/30/82 — Bonnie’s Poker
3/31/99 — Danthebluegrassman
4/2/94 — Affirmed Success
4/11/89 — Kiri’s Clown
4/17/97 — Kudos
4/18/88 — Leave Seattle
4/19/98 — Popcorn Deelite (Seabiscuit)
4/22/93 — Will’s Way
4/24/98 — Riva Way
4/24/90 — Wallenda
4/28/99 — AP Slew
5/17/88 — Bingo
6/1/86 — Creator