On a crisp sunny morning in January 2018, I cautiously stepped out of my friend’s car into an icy parking lot and pulled the collar of my faux sheepskin lined corduroy jacket more tightly closed over my yellow knit scarf. Three or four inches of snow had fallen some 24 hours before my own arrival in Lexington, Kentucky a day earlier, and the state seemed to be hoping that the offensive accumulation might just disappear on its own. But with temps hovering in the mid-thirties, so far this strategy had proven ineffective.
I had worried that the weather might interfere with today’s visit to Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm in Georgetown, Kentucky, home to nearly 200 pensioned former racehorses. I recruited my friend Rachel, a New England transplant to Lexington, to tag along with me on this frosty day; the cheerful voice on the phone had assured me that our reservations for the morning tour were still in play, but looking around the mostly empty parking lot I wondered if anyone else would be joining us.
Old Friends was founded in 2003 by former racetrack groom (and retired Boston Globe film critic) Michael Blowen. During his years working at tracks like Suffolk Downs in Boston and Rockingham Park in New Hampshire, Blowen had seen what often happened to racehorses at the end of their careers, especially at low end tracks and fairgrounds—a trip directly to the slaughterhouse. It was an accepted reality in a sport which often saw fortunes rise and fall with the clang of a starter’s bell.
“Everybody in racing says this—‘do what is best for the horse and everything else will fall into place’,” Blowen told me on the phone one day. “But people don’t follow this.”
During his years at the Globe, Blowen witnessed firsthand the magnetic effect that celebrities had on those around them— and it occurred to Blowen that he felt the same way when he witnessed a truly great race horse. And that gave him an idea.
“I thought others would feel that way, too, and thought people might be willing to pay money to see them,” says Blowen. “The idea was that these horses from Rockingham could mix with the celebrities.”
The concept was deceptively simple yet completely radical– take a big name horse that no one wanted anymore, and charge racing fans to come see them. The money raised would then offset the cost of lifetime care for racehorses with less illustrious backgrounds. Using this model, Old Friends has grown from one small leased paddock and a single horse to its current principal facility, the 236 acre Dream Chase Farm in Georgetown, and a satellite facility Old Friends at Cabin Creek in Greenfield Center, New York.
From April to October, nearly 1,000 visitors per week tour the Georgetown property hoping to see their favorite winners, including the farm’s undisputed marquee resident, Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Silver Charm. But lounging in paddocks across the sprawling property are Thoroughbreds of all types; those with no pedigree to speak of, those with old injuries or arthritis from their days on the track, those horses which time forgot. Archie’s Echo was one of these, a cheap claimer who earned just $32,000 during his track career; at 26 years old he was purchased by a sympathetic soul at the notorious New Holland auction in Pennsylvania, certainly bound for slaughter. Archie was blind in one eye and in rough shape at first, but enjoyed five years of care and attention at Old Friends before passing away in May 2020.
Old Friends is a member of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA), a non-profit arm of The Jockey Club that offers accreditation and grant funding for sixty four groups providing care and rehoming services for off track Thoroughbreds. While many of these programs have been overwhelmingly successful and certainly should be celebrated, most are geared towards placing OTTBs in a new career as a riding horse. For those animals that are not suitable for riding, homes are harder to come by.
I was researching options for these types of OTTBs— often young but permanently unrideable—when I first learned of Old Friends. I was intrigued by the model and impressed by Blowen’s charisma. In our interview, he told me that he “felt like the village idiot” when he first started the project, but that didn’t stop him from moving forward. And if I am honest, though I am no longer Thoroughbred racing’s biggest fan, I completely understood him when he talked about being starstruck in the presence of a great racehorse. I remember standing by the rail at Saratoga as a young girl, gripping the chain link fence while screaming my throat raw, urging Alysheba down the stretch of the 1987 Travers Stakes (he lost), or recognizing Crème Fraiche, the 1985 Belmont winner, running there in his later career. I will always admire the grit and heart of a Thoroughbred, and believe in the tangible thrill that comes with witnessing a powerful, purpose-bred animal do exactly what he is bred to—run.
The visitor’s center at Old Friends is a rather nondescript ranch, its pale yellow paint chosen no doubt to offset the bountiful black fencing and rolling fields that surround it. Two holiday wreaths still flanked the entrance door, and four woven sunchairs, in shades of green and yellow, lined the concrete porch. Upon entering, we are immediately greeted by a pair of thoroughly well-fed cats—a tortoiseshell named Lucy, who we later learn weighs 25 pounds, and an orange and white male named Buddy, who is the designated “official greeter.” They lounge on the hardwood floor, lying half in the gift shop, half in the reception area. They leave little doubt as to who is truly in charge of this office space.
Our guide’s name is Charlie Brown, and as he shrugs into a heavy down jacket and pulls a green knit cap with “Old Friends” embroidered in gold script over his snow white hair, he nonchalantly asks where we are from. We are, in fact, the only scheduled guests to actually arrive for the morning’s tour, and he looks dressed for an arctic expedition.
“New Hampshire,” I say brightly.
Charlie nods grimly.
“Oh, that explains it then. This snow is nothing for you.”
Resignedly, he picks up a green two quart bucket filled with carrots, cubed and shredded, and leads us back out the door we had just entered. Neither cat makes a move.
We are clearly here in the off-season, in off weather, and have ended up with a particularly personal tour of the property. Most groups follow a fairly set route, stopping at specific paddocks in which the resident has become carrot-conditioned to come visit when guests arrive. Occasionally, guides will make detours by special request to allow guests to meet other residents. We quickly learn that today, Charlie will let us go (almost) anywhere we wish. Rachel and I follow him out into the snow.
Our first stop is Sarava, who is perhaps best known for his amazing upset win in the 2002 Belmont Stakes. Sarava was the biggest longshot winner in race history, going off at 70-1 odds and paying out $142.50 to win, spoiling his now neighbor War Emblem’s quest for the Triple Crown in the process. When Sarava arrived at Old Friends in 2012, he became their first resident winner of a Triple Crown race. Today, the stallion’s black mane is long and his dark bay coat fluffed out for winter; he looks more like someone’s backyard pet than a classic stakes winner. Sarava clearly knew the drill, overenthusiastically reaching for the treat bucket. Charlie affectionately scratched the aging campaigner on his forehead and popped a few carrots in his mouth.
In the next paddock lives the turf champion, Little Mike, whose rich bay coat gleams beneath his heavy blanket; his pasture mate, Game On Dude, is happily cribbing on the fence and ignoring us completely. Trained by Triple Crown winning trainer Bob Baffert (who has become one of Old Friend’s greatest supporters) and a favorite of Baffert’s wife Jill, Game on Dude is the only horse to ever win the Santa Anita Handicap three times during a career in which he brought home nearly $6.5 million. Little Mike is Game on Dude’s fourth pasture buddy, and farm managers hope the two are well matched in age and energy.
Sarava is eight years older than both Little Mike and Game On Dude; in racing years, they are almost two generations apart. As Charlie tells us about each horse, there is a sparkle in his eye, as if he remembers seeing their greatest races. But while I recognize the names of the races these three have won, I know none of the animals themselves. To me, they are just…horses. And at Old Friends, that is kind of the point.
The truth is that without a guide to tell you otherwise, the average visitor would no sooner be able to discern the elite champions from the workaday claimers. At Old Friends, horses are cared for with an egalitarian philosophy, and for the most part they are allowed to simply be horses. Most live outside with run in shelters, alone or in pairs or small groups. Their manes have grown shaggy, some are barefoot, and all have ample space to move or mingle as they choose. In better weather, they graze the Kentucky bluegrass and eat carrots several times a day. Really, these horses are living their best lives.
One pair of geldings we met seemed symbolic of the greater Old Friends mission. Arson Squad and I’m Charismatic were an unlikely duo– Arson is a stakes winner who earned $1.1 million; I’m Charismatic, a well-bred gelding who never lived up to his pedigree in 92 starts. In retirement, I’m Charismatic had become completely blind, but Arson stayed by his side constantly, leading his “brother” to water, to shelter, to the fence line to receive our carrots. The crew at the Lexington Fire Department Fire Station No 5 was so inspired by Arson’s “leave no brother behind” attitude that they became the gelding’s official sponsor. I’m Charismatic passed away just six months after my visit, but Arson remains a resident today. The celebrity helping the common man—what Old Friends is all about.
Charlie brings us to a large paddock with a double fence. Its sole occupant is a nearly black horse with a crooked blaze; even from a distance, he pins his ears and flips his head in our direction, the equine equivalent of “bugger off”. Charlie slips under the first perimeter and stands in the gap, so we follow him. As it turns out, we weren’t supposed to, but Charlie has apparently deemed us horse savvy enough to stay out of harm’s way. Suddenly the horse trots straight up to the fence line and arches his neck over the perimeter towards Charlie. It is hard to tell if it is a threat or a demand. Charlie reaches out a flat palm holding a carrot, but keeps his body well away.
War Emblem, whose quest for the 2002 Triple Crown was spoiled by his now-neighbor Sarava, has made his presence known.
Charlie tells us the horse’s grumpiness is nothing new; War Emblem’s difficult disposition was well known during his racing years. Once retired, the colt’s temperamental behavior continued, and he showed virtually no interest in breeding mares, despite extensive efforts to convince him otherwise. In 2015, his Japanese owners agreed to return War Emblem to the U.S. and donated him to Old Friends. Though War Emblem was gelded before arrival and his demeanor softened somewhat as a result, the double fenced paddock was constructed specifically to help ensure everyone’s safety.
With his challenging personality and lackluster stud career, War Emblem was lucky indeed to find a soft landing at Old Friends. Few other facilities would have been inclined to take on such a quirky and potentially dangerous charge, and in Japan, land is at a premium. Unwanted animals are shipped to slaughter.
When I later heard news of this great horse’s unexpected death on March 11, 2020 at the age of 21, I flipped through the photos I had taken on this snowy January day. In several, his ears are flat back but in one, they are pricked forward as he looks into the distance, the clear blue sky a vibrant backdrop, the rays of the sun shining above him like a spotlight. In his five years at Old Friends, this enigmatic horse seemed to have found some sort of comfort.
In a statement released by Old Friends on the day of War Emblem’s death, Blowen said:
“I know we’re supposed to appreciate all of our retirees the same but he was one of the very special ones. He was tough, narcissistic, bold, and handsome. I adored him. I proudly count among a very meager number of accomplishments the day he allowed me to put his halter on without biting me. What more could I ask for? The farm will recover from his loss over time, but it’ll never be the same.”
Over the next forty-five minutes, we visit perhaps another dozen or so horses, mostly stallions and geldings (Old Friends also provides a home to a small but mighty mare herd, who are not included on the typical tour route). We meet Alphabet Soup, a wizened gray whose resume includes winning the 1996 Breeder’s Cup Classic, surviving a barn fire and contributing to science through participation in cutting edge treatments for equine melanoma. Popcorn Deelites, who played Seabiscuit in the movie of the same name. The aging Silver Ray, purchased from a livestock auction in 2013 for just $30, was a successful sire and graded stakes winner in his younger years. In 2019, he passed away at the age of 30, but during our visit he enjoyed the shredded carrots Charlie scooped from the bottom of his pail.
Charlie takes us through an elegant, airy ten stall barn. There is an office and storage and wash stall; each stall has a large outside window, and one row of stalls is connected to paddocks that allow residents to come and go at will. Not quite two years earlier, a fire had swept through a smaller medical barn located on this site, destroying it in minutes. Thankfully, only two horses were inside, and staff were able to coax them out in time, but the barn was a total loss.
It turned out that after thirteen years of providing lifetime sanctuary to hundreds of former racehorses, Old Friends had acquired a few friends of their own, and the John Hettinger Memorial Barn (where we now stood) was christened just barely six months after the fire. Fasig-Tipton’s Blue Horse Charities donated $50,000 towards its construction, along with several other generous contributions from industry supporters and fans. It was built with state-of-the-art materials and high attention to fire safety.
As we strolled through the sliding barn doors at the end of the aisle, I start to understand the depth of the connections which make Old Friends possible, and the utter enormity yet absolute necessity of its mission. The early endorsement of top trainers like Baffert helped to earn Old Friends the support of other leaders across the racing industry, enabling Blowen’s “crazy idea” to come to fruition. The successful repatriation of nine retired stallions from overseas has forged networks that may help ensure the successful return of other beloved champions in the future. Finally, many of the horses with celebrity status come with endowments or generous annual contributions from their former connections that more than sustain their upkeep. These funds, plus donations and visitor fees, help to ensure the safety and well-being of all the others, those horses whose previous work left them unfit, unsound or otherwise unsuitable for life as anything other than “just a horse”.
On a raw, damp day in late 2014, a flea-bitten grey stallion unloaded from a horse van to the reception of a crowd of nearly 100. Despite the weather, the energy was palpable; by all accounts Blowen himself was grinning like a kid in a candy store, eager to welcome the legendary Silver Charm to his new home at Old Friends. The stallion was installed in a place of prominence on the property, within view from the back porch of the main horse, where Blowen now lives. Like War Emblem, Silver Charm captured the first two legs of the Triple Crown before losing in the Belmont; unlike War Emblem, the stallion is calm and personable, and seems to take his role as farm ambassador to heart.
Charlie brings us right up to the fence, where Silver Charm is already waiting. He is bundled in a cozy Rambo rug, eyes half closed as he absorbs what little warmth might come from the day’s rays. But as soon as he perceives our approach, he snaps to attention, eye calm, ears pricked forward. He possessed the calm dignity worthy of an elder statesman, one who appreciates the responsibility that comes with fame and success.
It is easy to see why Silver Charm is a favorite of nearly everyone affiliated with Old Friends. But he had been special to Blowen for over twenty years; in an interview with Rick Capone, Blowen credits Silver Charm with being the “salvation of racing the late 1990s”. Silver Charm’s striking grey color and dramatic wins at the wire in both the Derby and Preakness made him not just a fan favorite, but wrote a story that drew new people to the sport. His quest to capture the Triple Crown nearly tripled Belmont attendance that year, and though he lost by three quarters of a length to Touch Gold (also an Old Friends resident) after a dramatic run down the stretch, Silver Charm’s grit and determination left an indelible mark upon the sport. In many ways, the horse and Blowen have much in common.
“Racing is a great sport,” Blowen told me on the phone before my visit. “People would be more into it if they know that the horses were better taken care of.”
As our visit drew to a close, I took one last look across the miles of fence line and the horses contentedly resting in their paddocks, and it occurred to me that taking care of unsound retired racehorses isn’t that hard. They can live outside, go barefoot and grow heavy coats in winter. What is hard is convincing the entire racing industry that everyone involved with the sport has a lifelong obligation to the athlete—not just for the duration of their track years.
Thanks to the efforts of programs like Old Friends, we are starting to see evidence of that change.