GEORGETOWN, Ky. — In their youthful prime, these Thoroughbreds dug in, exerting every ounce of energy in racing for the finish line and in the case of the Kentucky Derby winner the coveted blanket of red roses.
Now decades later, Thoroughbreds, including two Kentucky Derby winners, amble up to the fence where visitors come face to face with horse racing history with retired winners looking for a freshly chopped carrot or two.
Such is the life at Old Friends Farm west of Lexington in the heart of horse racing country.
A city boy who lived in Boston and who moved to horse country in Kentucky is the man who figured out how to establish retirement homes for Thoroughbreds.
A former movie critic for the Boston Globe, Michael Blowen, 71, admits he likes to play the horses. Many years ago hoping to refine his handicapping skills, he worked as a groom with a trainer in getting to know and understand the racing horse industry better.
“Eventually I fell in love with the horses and went from totally being afraid of them to falling in love with them,” Blowen said.
He realized that a celebrity horse lost that status when its racing and breeding days were over. Some became dinner in Japan and in European countries.
His thoughts crystallized about tapping into the value of a former racehorse. As a movie critic he routinely met celebrities. Why not set up a place where visitors could come and meet equine celebrities, he thought.
“If you are a horse racing fan, this is like going to Cooperstown or Canton for baseball’s and football’s halls of fame,” he said. “I can’t be the only one wanting to meet these grand old athletes.”
After all, today aging rock stars still draw sold-out audiences on their farewell tours. And there’s always a line-up of autograph seekers who pay big bucks for the signature of pensioned ball players.
“It’s much bigger than I ever dreamed of,” Blowen said. “I nudged it along.”
He noted there are people in the horse business who breed horses and those who race horses.
“We are in the retirement horse business,” Blowen said. “We are professional horse people. We finally figured out how to do it and we opened it up so other people who appreciate what horses have done can come and see us, too.”
Some 30,000 visitors annually come to the farm.
Starting with two horses and a leased paddock, his entrepreneurial efforts aimed to sell his idea to investors and bankers. Some thought the idea crazy.
Founding Old Friends Farm in 2003, Blowen has seen the concept of equine aftercare grow to an enterprise of about 300 acres — home to some 200 Thoroughbreds — at farms at Georgetown and Franklin, Ky., and at Cabin Creek, N.Y.
Old Friends is accredited by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance.
“Owners, trainers and breeders once they figured out what we were about support us in donations of money and in donations of horses,” he said.
“We take all the horses unconditionally so once we take the horse, previous owners are under no obligations,” he said.
Derby and Preakness winners have called Old Friends their final home. But racehorse losers such as Swan’s Way, who made 81 starts and finished first just eight times, are also welcome.
“They deserve a home too and we’re glad to have them here as well,” he said.
Famous names in the horse racing industry have roamed the paddocks at Old Friends.
While Secretariat, one of the notable Triple Crown winners, is not among them, his bloodline is evident in many horses at Old Friends Farm.
Over his lifetime Secretariat sired 600 foals. Volunteer Steve Pallardy told Old Friends visitors that an autopsy on Secretariat revealed his heart weighed 22 pounds “while a normal heart for a horse is 10 to 12 pounds.”
Beth Shannon, another Old Friends volunteer, delivers lunch to her equine friends.
“We get donated supplements and our main veterinarian is also the nutritionist,” she said. “We give out the exact supplement for each horse. It’s not haphazard. Supplements are specific for old age because there’s arthritis in some of their joints.”
Which is what you’ll find at an old folks place, she said.
“What we are about is quality of life. Once we take them our job is to make their life as happy and healthy and as long as it can be.”
There’s a waiting list for horses to come to Old Friends.
“It can sometimes take a year to place a horse,” said Cynthia Grisolia, chairwoman of the Old Friends board of directors. “We get calls almost every day.”
She said the average age of horses at the retirement home is about 18 years, although the oldest, Gulch, died at age 32.
“We’ve had much younger horses die from unforeseen illnesses or complications, but our horses stay with us for the remainder of their lives,” she said. “We give them the best care we can provide.”
While most Thoroughbreds arrive from horse farms in the U.S., Old Friends worked extra hard to bring back racing stallions such as War Emblem, one of two former Derby winners, along with Silver Charm, to greet visitors to Old Friends Farm after stud duty in Japan.
To bring back a horse from Japan or elsewhere involves health issues and quarantines at both the export and import stages, Grisolia said.
“Different countries have different protocols and it usually takes 30 days before they leave the country and 30 days once they arrive at the port of call which for us is usually Chicago,” she said.
She said horses come with passports and big ticket costs, which might include a private jet, trainer and groomsman.
“The horses we have repatriated from Japan usually run from $65,000 to $68,000 while from Europe it may be about $30,000,” Grisolia said.
Over the past 15 years, Blowen and his staff and board of directors of the nonprofit charitable organization have come up with a variety of ways to gain financial support on the farm where it’s estimated the cost to keep a horse for a year is $15,000.
While the farm receives money and donations of other sorts such as feed, supplements and medications, Blowen said ongoing efforts focus on ways to sustain the farm.
Activities around the annual Breeders’ Cup events are a big fundraiser, while the farm offers memberships to support the farm. You can show your love for a favorite horse by buying a share for $100.
Old Friends Farm also benefits from events such as those where a fashion designer organizes an online auction known as “Hats off to the Horse.” In the past 10 years it’s raised $30,000 for the farm.
Visitors to the farm provide another revenue stream. but the farm also appreciates donations. In its newsletter the farm notes that one bale of straw is worth a $5 donation while an equine dentist visit is a $40 donation. The farm recently built a hoop barn to store hay.
Blowen maintains the life of a Thoroughbred is more than two minutes of the Derby.
“At the end of the day, horses weren’t getting the treatment I thought they deserved,” he said about founding the farm.
The farm Blowen purchased was called Dream Chase Farm and housed a former tobacco barn.
“I don’t dream this big,” Blowen said. “In fact, my dreams are boring compared to my real life.”
Over the years Old Friends has been home to more than 50 Breeders’ Cup participants, which in the horse racing industry is the equine Olympics because horses from all over the world compete.
“We’ve had our ups and downs but these horses are celebrities. I never got that excited about movie stars,” he said.
Old Friends Farm is at 1841 Paynes Depot Road, Georgetown, KY 40324.
For more information, call 502-863-1775 or visit www.oldfriendsequine.org for tour times at each of the three farms.