Founder Michael Blowen with Kentucky Derby, Dubai World Cup and Preakness Stakes winner Silver Charm.
When we traveled to Midway, Kentucky, searching for a magical backdrop for our latest holiday collection, we knew one thing: We wanted to meet some horses. The Lexington area is known as the horse capital of the world, after all. And while we fulfilled our wish with a visit to Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm in nearby Georgetown, we had no idea it would leave such a lasting impression.
Michael Blowen was a film critic for the Boston Globe when he started attending horse races in Suffolk Downs in Boston, Massachusetts. Little did he know one day he would be taking some of those same horses into his care. Today well over 200 retired Thoroughbreds, including 11 stallions, two Kentucky Derby winners, and a handful of Breeders’ Cup champions, graze in their own private paddocks scattered across bluegrass hills, thanks to Michael and his team’s efforts.
When you plan your visit to Old Friends, consider requesting a private tour with Michael. Even if you don’t follow horse racing, you’ll find yourself thoroughly entertained during your entire visit. Michael’s unlimited trove of stories and masterful storytelling, along with the idiosyncrasies of each horse, will also keep you laughing. There’s the stubborn (and narcissistic, according to Michael) War Emblem who chases Michael up and down the fence line. And Popcorn Deelites, who is trying desperately to learn how to grin and bear his teeth like his paddock mate, Special Ring, with hopes of earning more treats. And of course, Michael’s favorite – Silver Charm, who doles out kisses for his carrots. You’ll leave your time on the farm with favorites of your own – and a sense of heartwarming gratitude that these hardworking horses are now being treated to a life of idle meandering at their leisure – and lots of carrots (nearly 300 pounds total every week!).
Michael on War Emblem:
It took me three and a half years to figure out what he wanted. He wants his carrots at a certain time, and he wants them in a bucket. The horses train you, you know – not the other way around. There’s all kinds of subtle things that they teach you. He’s a complete narcissist. He doesn’t like anything but himself. He doesn’t like other horses, he doesn’t like people. He likes grass, carrots and himself, not necessarily in that order. And that’s why he won the races.
Michael on Silver Charm:
He’s my favorite horse of all time. He’s in the Hall of Fame. And he’s very sweet. I get a kiss every day … and I’m starting to enjoy it. My wife doesn’t care if I come in with lipstick, but mud? Watch out!
Michael on Alphabet Soup:
Have you seen Alphabet Soup and his donkey Gorgeous George when they leave the barn? It’s hilarious. It’s better than the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. George follows right behind Alphabet, like his bodyguard.
FG: How did you become interested in horses?
MB: When I was a kid, Sports Illustrated put a horse on the cover and I thought, horses aren’t athletes. They can’t put it in a hoop, they can’t punt it … they just run around in circles. Big deal. So I never considered them athletes. Years later I got a job working at the Boston Globe as the movie critic. And my prose was … barely passable. And I had an editor there, he was very kind – he wasn’t like other editors. So, my review would go from a C- to a B+ with him – so I was like, I’m hanging around with this guy. One day he called me up and said he was going to Suffolk County to the local racetrack … this must have been in 1978 or 1979. And I had never been to the racetrack before, and I went. And I loved it. I loved the racing, I liked the conversation, I just liked it.
Years later I had done a profile of a trainer, and he had all these horses that were on their last legs. And he’d run them at the fairs and then at the end of the fairs, they always used to say that they found a home for this horse at a riding academy in Maine. That was the standard line and I’d go, now wait a minute, I’ve been to Maine a bunch of times, there must be 10,000 riding academies and I’ve never seen one. And it occurred to me that even the horses that won at the fairs weren’t going back to run against anything else. So, I decided I would like to learn about the horses. It wasn’t because I was in love with the animals, in fact I was terrified of them. And so when I first got there, I was scared. I mean, they’re big. They’re pent up thoroughbreds kept in stalls, and they have a lot of energy and you have to be careful. In the meantime, in the back of my mind, was just that it’s really unfair how all of these horses end up. And I thought if there was anything I could do about it some time, I would try.
FG: How did you transition from film critic to horse caretaker?
MB: A few years later, the New York Times bought the Globe and they offered a buyout. It was at a time when I was really sick of going to the movies and they weren’t making movies for people my age. I was losing interest, so I said ok, I’m going. And Diane, my wife, was a columnist and she took one … and that was in 2001. As a present for myself, I decided I would give myself a trip to the Belmont Stakes, and I ran into some friends that ran the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. I thought what they were doing was really terrific and what should happen for these horses. In the middle of all this we went to dinner and they said, we want you to be our Operations Director. And I knew nothing about operations but they knew I was enthusiastic and I really liked the idea. So, I called my wife and said let’s move to Kentucky! And she goes what? Midway, Kentucky? So we’re going to move from Boston to Midway, Kentucky. Population 1,400, I think? Something like that. And she waited about 20 minutes and got back to me and said OK, I’ll go with you but only under one condition. That when I leave you, you won’t come looking for me! I said OK, fine. So here we are.
FG: How did the idea for Old Friends start to take shape?
MB: I worked for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation for a year and a half and I was getting really kind of anxiety-ridden because it was basically a desk job. So, I came up with this idea that first of all, I didn’t want to start an organization that would just do what everybody else is doing, because why would you do that? And I thought well, nobody’s taking stallions. And nobody is open for tourists and visitors to come see. And I was around a lot of celebrities in my life and I never got a thrill like I did when I saw these great racehorses. I decided to retire and start thinking about starting this thing. And that’s really how it started.
FG: What was the inspiration for the name?
MB: Barbara Livingston is this great photographer, and she had a book called Old Friends: Visits with My Favorite Thoroughbreds. So, I called her up and I told her I wanted to call it Old Friends and she gave me permission and the publisher gave me permission and that’s how we got the name.
FG: What was your vision for the farm?
MB: You know, the horse is everything. Without these horses, there’s nothing. This bluegrass doesn’t look this way. People can’t write books about them. People can’t take pictures of them. People can’t ride them. People can’t own them and run these big races. What’s Saratoga look like without the race track? What’s Louisville like without Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby? And those are just the obvious examples. You’ve got veterinarians that these horses support. Blacksmiths that they support. They support us. You know, they do everything. And at the end of the day they’ve got no Social Security and no 401(k). And that is really unfair; there should be a regulated Social Security program for every thoroughbred that steps on the track. Because if you don’t have them, on that first Saturday in May you’ve just got a bunch of jockeys jumping out of the gate, and you know nobody’s going to go see that, right? I wouldn’t have the greatest time of my life without these horses. They’re the center of the whole thing.
FG: So, now you have a vision and a name. How did things come together after that?
MB: Well, then I had to figure out what are we going to do next. And as I was thinking about that I got a call from a local horse auction outlet and they asked if I had Old Friends started up? And I said yeah, I guess! And she said well we have this mare over here and the people that owned her just left her. I said oh yeah, well we’re specializing in stallions but what’s the deal? And she said well she has a really great name for you. Narrow Escape. And I thought OK, it’s an omen. So that was our first horse. Then I had to find a place to put her. So, we leased some paddocks until we got too big for them and moved to a bigger farm. We had started bringing horses back home from Japan at that point. And it just started to grow from there. It went from just a couple of horses and me begging for horses and trying to get famous horses while also raising the money to provide opportunities for the ones I used to take care of at Suffolk and then it just evolved. We take all of the horses unconditionally. Even the horses that made millions of dollars for their owners, they can just hand over ownership and we’ll take them.
Gradually things got better and better and trainers like Bob Baffert became major supporters and now it’s considered a status symbol to come here. And my only job is to get more space, because we have a waiting list, and I really want to have those horses here badly. So, the only thing that stops us is support, donation and space. And we’ve shown that we can handle it because our staff is so good. You know, people come here and they’re amazed that the horses look so good at the ages they are. There’s not a horse on this farm that doesn’t look better now than when it got here. And that’s the thing I’m proudest of.
Personally, the most wonderful thing to me is that it’s been a magnet for the best people in racing. We have a little utopia here. And the people that really like racing and really love these horses are really supportive.
What is your favorite part of welcoming visitors to the farm?
I just love getting up in the morning and seeing people come here and getting to brag about these horses. Saying, can you believe it? I mean, I’m still astounded and we’ve been doing this for 15 years. And I’m still astounded that we have Silver Charm and War Emblem and all these horses in our yard. I knew that I couldn’t be the only one whose heart beat faster when they were around these horses.
How would you hope a visitor to the farm describes their visit?
That they had fun and they want to come back. I don’t care if they’re racing fans, well, I care – it would be great if they’re racing fans or become a fan. Because the more people that start with a foundation of love for the horse that get into racing, the better chances are that racing will improve as a sport for the horses.
Do you have any holiday traditions at Old Friends?
Little Silver Charm [a miniature horse named in honor of Silver Charm], we always decorate for him. That’s his Christmas tree. And we give the horses extra carrots. We have a Christmas party at a local winery. It’s nice. All the volunteers come, the ones that give the tours come. They give great tours – they’re passionate about the horses.
This year we have a Giving Tree in our gift shop. It’s a Christmas tree decorated with handmade ornaments, and each ornament represents a much-needed farm item—everything from $1.89 roll of 3M VetRap to a $42 heated water bucket, to an $18,000 new Kubota. Folks can come in or visit our virtual tree on our website and choose an ornament to make that donation. So far, no one has chosen the Kubota, but we’re hoping for a last-minute Christmas miracle.
What does a life well lived mean to you?
At my age, it means having fun. If I wake up every day and I’m standing up and my wife is standing up and Silver Charm is standing up, that’s pretty good. I tell people now, I’m not doing it if it’s not fun. Seventy-two years old, my clock’s about gone and I’m not going to waste too much time.
Speaking from experience, Michael and team can count on these visitors coming back – we can’t wait to see our old friends and meet the newly retired horses joining the family.
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