New book celebrates Old Friends

jpatton1@herald-leader.comAugust 23, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    Rick Capone and Michael Blowen will talk horses and sign copies of History of Old Friends: A Home for Retired Thoroughbreds

    Where: Morris Book Shop on East High Street in Lexington

    When: 2 p.m. today.

    Book is $19.99; half of sales profit will go to Old Friends Retirement Farm.

More than a decade ago, love of horses brought former Boston Globe film critic Michael Blowen to Central Kentucky, where he set up a retirement home for stallions and Thoroughbred racehorses.

Blowen started Old Friends, a Thoroughbred retirement farm, just a few months before the world learned that Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup winner Ferdinand had been sold for meat in Japan after his stud career ended.

The outrage over that loss left many horse lovers looking for something — anything — they could do to make sure their favorites found a better ending.

Thanks to Blowen and Old Friends, many have.

The aptly named Narrow Escape was the first horse Old Friends got, Blowen said. She was part of a dispersal sale at Fasig-Tipton.

But she didn't get any bids, so when the sale ended she was left behind. A friend at the Lexington auction house asked if Blowen would take the daughter of the great Exceller — another stallion who had been sold for meat in Sweden.

"It was an omen, so we took her," Blowen said.

That was the beginning. Now Old Friends has two farms — one in Georgetown and another in New York — where 143 horses spend their remaining days basking in sunshine and the adoration of fans.

"About 20,000 people a year come here," Blowen said.

A new book, History of Old Friends: A Home for Retired Thoroughbreds, is likely to expand that fan base considerably. Written by Woodford Sun sports editor Rick Capone, who also took many of the photos, it tells the story of the farm and many of its most famous inhabitants.

There is Sunshine Forever, one of the first stallions that Blowen brought back from Japan, who was his favorite until his death in January.

"We had Sunshine Forever for nearly 10 years," Blowen said. "He wasn't lovey-dovey or cuddly, but he had dignity. He was affectionate without being cloying."

And there's Little Silver Charm, "the little star of the farm who thinks he owns the place," Capone said.

Not everyone at the farm or in the book had a great racing career, although there are many who did.

Capone's favorite is Miss Hooligan, a mare he helped Blowen and another partner buy.

"She had run some races, never won, her best race was second," Capone said. And now she was at River Downs. The next stop was likely the slaughterhouse.

The kicker: her grandsire was Sunshine Forever.

So Blowen started putting together buyers. Capone chipped in and they went to get her.

"Now she's on the back 40," at Old Friends, Capone said. "Every time I walk back there, I hear that old Smokey Robinson song, My Girl, in my head."

Capone's love affair with horses began in the 1970s, when he would take summer road trips with his father.

"Lexington would always be the first stop," he said. They took the back roads around the city. "It was just so quaint. Everybody had the white fences then. Horses would come over to the fences and say hello. That's when I really fell in love with racing. Riva Ridge was my first love and still my favorite."

So much so that he wrote Riva Ridge's owner, Penny Tweedy (now Chenery) and asked if he could one day meet her horses.

"My dad and I stopped at Claiborne, and I had this letter from Mrs. Tweedy ... saying I could see Secretariat, and it actually worked," Capone said. About 40 minutes later, he was ushered into the barn.

"We go in there, and there's Secretariat on one side, and in the next stall was Riva Ridge," Capone said. "That's the last thing I heard for the rest of the afternoon. ... That's when I was hooked."

In 2006, he moved to Lexington from South Florida. Eventually he found his way to Old Friends. He loved the spirit of the place and proposed a book, published this summer by History Press.

"That's the key to Old Friends," Capone said. "There's the stats, the stud career ... but what gets the people is the stories about each one of them. Each one has a cool story and that's what gets people to fall in love with the horses."

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.

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