A Year of Heroes #6: Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement, Lexington, KY

Old Friends thoroughbred retirement“Who would object to a race horse retirement sanctuary?” I ask during a tour of Old Friends, a thoroughbred retirement farm near Lexington, Kentucky.  (It’s not far from the Kentucky Horse Park.)

“No one thought it was possible,” the guide tells me. The idea of Old Friends – a farm where retired racehorses, famous or otherwise, could live out their golden years comfortably while visited by adoring fans – wasn’t initially embraced by the racing community.

Why?

“They knew how much things cost,” says the guide. “For instance, that fencing around Silver Charm costs between $3000 and $4000,” she says, pointing to a stunning grey thoroughbred inducted into the Derby Hall of Fame in 2007 after winning the Kentucky Derby in 1997.

Stallions need to be in paddocks by themselves so this farm needs a lot of fencing … and a lot of land. Geldings are housed in pairs, and the mares in a paddock together.

 

Old Friends thrives and attracts about 20,000 visitors annually to this non-profit venture designed to provide a quality life to 175 equine who earned millions in prize money racing and even more in stud fees. Tour fees support the running of the farm.

Old Friends is essentially a living history museum to the North American Thoroughbred Racing industry … history that eats carrots from visitor’s hands.

The attractions? Actual Race Horses, many with a dedicated fan base.

“Who are you interested in seeing?” is the first question guides ask the group who gather at the gift shop’s entrance three times a day in the summer ready to tour the farm.

Old Friends Cat LaunchAll I want to see are beautiful, well cared for horses. Any horses thrill me. Others on the tour have racing knowledge and they’re here to see specific famous residents up close and personal. Thanks to a bucket of carrots each guide carts along, horses learn to love the gang coming and head to the fences to meet us. Plus, guides develop one strong arm.

I’m here two weeks after the unfortunately and sudden death of Charismatic, brought here from Japan in 2006. He was horse of the year in 1999, after winning both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 1999. Tragically, Charismatic died of a pelvic injury months after arriving home to retire. However, I’m Charismatic, Charismatic’s son, has a place at the farm.

According to the guide, running an animal rescue is 80 percent heartache and 20 percent pure joy.

 

We meet Breeder’s Cup winners Amazombie and Alphabet Soup; Belmont Stakes winners Sarava and Touch of Gold; and Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm, who’s truly a crowd charmer. Popcorn Deelites has Hollywood cred: he sprinted out of the gate as Seabiscuit in the film.

Not all horses here are winners – “We don’t discriminate,” the guide says – though the celebrity names draw patrons and support. Collectively the horses here have earned approximately $98 million dollars on the track (not including stud fees later) and yet have no ‘social security’ of their own.

Many in the horse racing industry are working to change that – due in no small part to the efforts of Old Friends Founder and Executive Director Michael Blowen, a former Boston Globe film critic. He started this now 136-acre farm in 2003 with one horse and one leased paddock and a determination to change a sport he loved after learning about the death of Ferdinand. A Kentucky Derby winner, Ferdinand was killed in a slaughterhouse overseas after he was on longer ‘profitable.’

Old Friends Popcorn Deelites (played Seabiscuit)

That tragedy was Blowen’s impetus for starting a thoroughbred rescue, and he wasn’t even an industry insider. He was a reporter and film critic for the Boston Globe. Once retired, story has it that Blowen parlayed his charm, determination and natural “Pied Piper leadership skills,” into enthusiastic support for his sanctuary idea. As well, a few celebrity appearances from contacts made during decades in the film industry didn’t hurt either.

Does the industry still think it can’t be done?

Clearly, not all because some owners, trainers and corporations (like Tito’s Homemade Vodka who contributed to Charismatic’s transport from Japan) donate to Old Friends – it’s good business strategy for an industry that still has some cleaning up to do.

Old Friends war emblemOld Friends is about retiring, sometimes rescuing, and celebrating majestic creatures who’ve dedicated heart and soul to racing at our demand. Tours are one and a half hours long, at a steady walking pace over gravel pathways and into barns. Wear appropriate footwear. Unguided touring is not an option.

A favourite stop is at the pen of Little Silver Charm, an original resident and mascot of the farm. He’s one of two minis (Winston from Churchill Downs recently moved in) and a non-thoroughbred – he was acquired by the sanctuary’s founder in a ‘buy my thoroughbred, take the mini’ deal. A bargain, it turns out, because Little Silver Charm has earned his weight in public relations and attention for the farm.

Old Friends Little Silver CharmDid I mention I’m part owner of Little Silver Charm? That’s right, as part of a fundraising campaign, you can buy ‘shares’ in these races horse for $25 to $100 a piece. You get a certificate and photo to prove it. My money’s on the mini. What do you think? Good investment?

Checkout our Lexington Horse Park Travel guide here.

Old Friends is part of horsetrotting’s A Year of Heros: 12 Rescues in 12 Months series. Check out Rescue #1 Ontario Horse Sanctuary and Rescue #2 Whispering Hearts.

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