A Kentucky home for retired racehorses
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It’s not often a grown man goes all goo-goo eyed over a horse, but that’s just the effect Silver Charm has on Michael Blowen. “Silver Charm is without a doubt my favorite,” he said.
Blowen’s infatuation dates back to 1997, when he watched Silver Charm win the Kentucky Derby. But it wasn’t until the stallion retired 17 years later that Blowen finally met his equine idol.
“I can’t imagine a happier person on the planet Earth because I get to wake up every morning and see Silver Charm every day, every day,” he told correspondent Mo Rocca.
In 2003 Blowen started Old Friends, a retirement home for thoroughbred race horses. Most of the more than 240 horses are donated and live on this sprawling, 275-acre Georgetown, Kentucky farm. It’s a place where, Blowen says, they can return to being themselves.
Rocca asked, “What do the horses do all day?”
“Whatever they want,” Blowen replied.
All residents are treated equally here, from those that never made it inside the winner’s circle, to some of racing’s most celebrated steeds.
Breeders’ Cup-winner Alphabet Soup spends all his time with a donkey named Gorgeous George.
Former star sprinter Green Mask now likes to nip at people!
Little Silver Charm likes to hang out with Blowen. He’s Old Friends’ unofficial mascot.
Old Friends draws human champions, too. Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron has ridden several of the horses here, but he’s got a soft spot for Touch Gold. McCarron rode Touch Gold in the 1997 Belmont Stakes – spoiling Silver Charm’s shot at the Triple Crown.
“I just get the biggest kick out of the fact that Touch Gold and Silver Charm are just a paddock away from each other,” McCarron laughed.
“I wonder if they ever reminisce here?” asked Rocca.
“I think the only competition now is going after Michael’s carrots!”
In all, residents here have earned more than $241 million on the track, plus, Blowen said, “hundreds of millions” more from stud duties.
“The monetary value of a horse disappears the last time it crosses a finish line, right?” Rocca asked.
“That’s right, or the last time he walks out of the breeding shed,” said Blowen.
“But not for you?”
“No. In fact, to me, that’s where life begins.”
But the 74-year-old wasn’t always this doting. When asked if he’s always loved horses, Blowen replied, “No. I was afraid of ’em. I only liked horses ’cause I liked to drink and gamble!”
Blowen was a movie critic for the Boston Globe when a colleague invited him to a local track. Eventually he started moonlighting there: “I never got paid. I did stalls and I took care of the horses.”
“Were you leading a double life?” asked Rocca.
“Yes. I would get to the track around quarter of 6:00. I’d get to the Globe by 9:30. I’d change my clothes and took a shower. And it was like Clark Kent and Superman.”
After more than two decades at the paper, it was time for Blowen’s second act. He and his wife, Diane White, a celebrated Globe columnist, took buyouts and headed South.
Blowen said, “By this time I’d fallen in love with the horses at the track. Because, you know, they try so hard, even the ones that aren’t very successful. And sometimes at the end of their lives they’re not treated as well they should be.”
The dark side of racing made headlines around the time Old Friends was starting. In 2002 Ferdinand – the winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby – was reportedly sent to slaughter.
“The idea that you could just toss him away like that was really grotesque,” said Blowen.
Ferdinand’s story brought attention to Old Friends’ mission, but Blowen said it was still a rough start
Rocca asked, “Do you think in the beginning a lot of people that you went to with this idea looked at you like, ‘Oh, poor guy doesn’t know what he’s doing’?”
“Yeah. I would hear people. I would walk away and I could hear ’em in the background making fun of me.”
These days, no one’s laughing. About twenty thousand pay to visit Old Friends each year.
One guest told Rocca, “I want to see the horses! I’ve seen them run, they’re my idols!”
Volunteers help the staff with everything from leading tours to providing medical care.
For the past eight years, veterinarian Bryan Waldridge has helped take care of these elderly equines.
Rocca asked about Alphabet Soup, who had just turned 30. “How’s he doing?”
“He’s doing good,” said Dr. Waldridge. “You know, these older horses, they lose body condition, and you know, there’s a kind of, a little bit of loss of their energy, but I’m really happy with him.”
“I have it on good authority you’ve never presented this place with a bill. Why not?”
“I just don’t think you should,” Waldridge replied. “You know, I think it’s Muhammad Ali that said, ‘The price for living on this Earth is doing good deeds.’ And, you know, I just owe it to these horses.”
Michael Blowen said he owes these horses, too, even after they’re gone: “There’s 112 graves here. I remember each horse individually and what made each of them unique.”
When asked if he still gambles, Blowen laughed: “Oh, yeah. Can’t wait! Sundays I tell people I’m going to the chapel, don’t bother me!”
But for Blowen, Old Friends has paid-out in more ways than he could have imagined.
“You are doing what you love,” Rocca said.
“How many people in the United States of America can wake up every morning and say, ‘This is great!’?” Blowen said. “The horses tell ya’ to relax, just take it easy, don’t worry about it, things will work out. And so far, so good.”
“And you can still drink and gamble.”
“Yes! And on Sundays he rested.”
“On Sunday he rested, and hopefully came out ahead,” said Rocca.
“Yeah, right! That’s exactly right!”
For more info:
- Old Friends Farm, Georgetown, Ky. | Public tour information
- Old Friends at Cabin Creek, Greenfield Center, N.Y.
- Bryan Waldridge, DVM
- Chris McCarron on Twitter and Facebook
Story produced by Michelle Kessel. Editor: Emanuele Secci.