Equine retirement farm makes winners of aging horses

Michael Blowen prompted Special Ring to "show his tattoo," which the horse loves to do for visitors.
Michael Blowen prompted Special Ring to "show his tattoo," which the horse loves to do for visitors. ©2011

GEORGETOWN — If Santa's reindeer ever retire from the North Pole, they would be lucky to land at Old Friends, the Thoroughbred retirement farm outside Lexington.

Old Friends, now in a permanent home at Dream Chase Farm on Paynes Depot Road, is home to more than 100 former racehorses and stallions and was founded in 2003 to provide a home for horses when their careers are over. The farm opened just as news hit that Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup winner Ferdinand had been sold for meat in Japan.

That triggered a flood of outrage and prompted many fans to push for a better way to ensure a dignified end for champions and runners-up alike.

Old Friends founder Michael Blowen knows his farm can't save them all, but he also believes that isn't an excuse to save none, or even only famous horses. Old Friends takes winners and non-winners alike.

"The famous horses bring the people, and that helps the non-famous ones," Blowen said. The farm gets more than 20,000 visitors a year; it has famous patrons like the late trainer Bobby Frankel, and Jerry and Ann Moss, owners of Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo, but most of its funding comes in small donations from fans.

"We're Zenyatta's favorite charity, and that helps," Blowen said.

Blowen said that the Thoroughbred breeding and racing industry should do even more to provide aftercare for all horses — a kind of equine Social Security financed by the money they make on the track and in the breeding shed.

If this were a racing stable, it would have earned millions. Old Friends stablemates have won just about every big race except those of the Triple Crown.

There is Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Gulch, who was donated to the farm by Lane's End after he retired from stud duty (which included siring Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch). He is the last survivor of the 1988 championships, which were the first held at Churchill Downs in Louisville.

Now 27, Gulch still feels like kicking up his heels occasionally. When that happens, he can challenge to a sprint his next-door neighbor Commentator, who twice won the Whitney Handicap.

Nearby are others who have known the flash of the finish line and the winner's circle, such as Marquetry and Hidden Lake.

There are also those who have known the high hopes of the Kentucky Derby trail, like Danthebluegrassman, who started his career with the highest of aspirations only to end up at low-level claiming races.

He is hardly the only one to see the steep, rockier downhill side of Thoroughbred racing.

There is Clever Allemont, who won his first six races, including the prestigious Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Then his legs and his luck almost ran out. Now one-eyed and deaf, he was rescued in December 2008 from a kill pen in Kansas on the way to slaughter.

"We have horses here who never won anything," Blowen said.

Perhaps the most famous of them is Zippy Chippy, who raced 100 times and never won. He now headlines Old Friends' auxiliary facility outside Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

In spring, summer and fall, the Georgetown farm gets visitors who come to commune with their old equine friends.

Fans call every day about obscure horses who were special to somebody, said office manager Sylvia Stiller.

"We get thank-you notes from tourists," she said.

"The winter is the hard time for us," she said. Tour groups and donations slow to a stop between the Breeders' Cup in November and Valentine's Day, when Old Friends has its annual fund-raiser.

But the horses keep coming.

Every day, Old Friends gets calls about horses in need.

"We have a long, long waiting list of horses who want to come here and deserve to come here," Blowen said. "We just have to come up with more income so we can take them."

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