The Stars shine bright at “Old Friends”

Story filed by RICK CAPONE for OnMyNews International . Photograph of Creator also by © Rick Capone 2008.
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A deep love of horses led Michael Blown to create a retirement farm for thoroughbred stallions.

“You know what is amazing about this? You don’t even know where this is going to lead.”

Those words turned out to be prophetic for Michael Blown. They were spoken to him by his friend, Alan Berger, on a cold February day in 1997 when Blowen, a movie critic for the Boston Globe, told him that he was going to start working for thoroughbred horse trainer, Carlos Figueroa at Suffolk Downs to learn more about horses.

Now over 10 years later, the long and winding road that Blowen has taken since that day has led to the creation of Old Friends at Dream Chase Farms, a retirement farm for Thoroughbred race horses located in Georgetown, Ky.

The road began when Blowen’s editor at the Globe, Robert Taylor, asked him if he’d ever been to a race track before. At the time, Blown had never been to one and he just wasn’t interested.

“I loved sports, but I never liked horse racing, and whenever a horse came on the cover of Sports Illustrated, I threw it away.” he said on a sunny afternoon sitting at a picnic table at Old Friends. “I just wasn’t interested. I thought it was stupid.”

However, since it was his boss asking, he agreed to the trip to the track one Sunday afternoon, and “I fell in love with it immediately.” The journey for Blowen had begun.

He loved the horses and the tracks so much, he began going just about every Sunday or every other Sunday, whenever he could. He became pretty good at handicapping and had some success. Then came that fateful day in 1997 when he bet a horse called LinePro.

“It’s February at Suffolk Downs,” Blowen recalled. “It’s a miserable day. The rain is coming down, it’s snowing, it’s sleeting, it’s a mess. And, the poor horses are soaked. The trainers and everybody are soaked, and it’s cold and they’re running for no money. It was just awful.”

Then he made a bet — a big one for him at the time. It was $20 to win on the 8-1 LinePro. He keyed him in a trifecta with another horse and it cost him another $12, for a total of $32 on the one race.

The race went off and LinePro won. In addition, the two other horses Blowen bet on came in, which included a 40-1 shot and a third long shot, giving him the trifecta. He thought he’d hit it big, until… they disqualified LinePro and moved him to second.

Now, in situations like that, some folks scream, others jump up and down, and some throw their programs. Blowen, he just got up and took a walk. Well, his walk led him down into the lower levels of Suffolk Downs where he ran into Figueroa, who is a trainer he had written a profile on for Spur Magazine the year before.

The two began talking that day and “out of the blue,” Blowen said, “Carlos, if I came to work for you, will you teach me about horses.”

Carlos looked at him and said, “Yeah, you can. But, you’re going to have to pass a test. You have to come on Monday. You have to be there at 6 o’clock (in the morning) and you have to past the test.”

“Pass the test,” Blowen asked. “I didn’t even start yet.”

“You have to pass the test on what it takes to survive on the backside,” Figueroa said.

“Well, I don’t know about that,” Blowen replied.

Then Figueroa explained, “But, I’m going to tell you what the answer is now. You just have to remember it between now and Monday.”

“Ok, what is it,” Blowen asked.

“Lie, cheat and steal,” Figueroa replied. “Those are the three things you have to know.”

At the time, Blowen thought he was joking. But, Figueroa was serious and it is a lesson that Blown learned well and that he would use on his teacher one day in the future.

So that Monday, Blowen showed up at Figueroa’s barn at 6 a.m. His teacher was asleep in the car, so he opened up the barn and knocked on the tack room door and Jimmy Tuck, Figueroa’s groom, stuck his head out and looked at Blowen wondering what this guy was doing there, and just said, “Yeah?”

“I’ve come to work for Carlos,” Blowen replied.

Tuck shook his head and just said, “Oh no, oh no, not another one.”

And, that’s how it all started for Blowen. He’d come in to work with the horses until 8:15 a.m., then get on the subway and head to the Globe, change his clothes and be at his desk by 10 a.m. Since he was a movie critic, he had flexible hours, which worked to his advantage.

When he started working with the horses, he was a bit afraid of them. They were big animals, and he didn’t know what he was doing or where to get started. Basically, he quickly realized he would have to do like all the others who came before him, and watch what they would do and learn on the job.

On that first day, Figueroa told him to go take the bandages off of one of the horses, so Blowen walked up to the horse and wondered what to do next.

“Oh, this is unbelievable,” he thought to himself. “This is a big horse. He could kick me… and, it looks like he wants to.”

In addition, Figueroa didn’t use the easy to remove Velcro bandages. He did it the old fashioned way — with safety pins, which makes it even harder to get off, especially for a first timer like Blowen.

Luckily for Blowen, there was a guy in the barn nicknamed “Mud Buck” who showed up and helped him out. Mud Buck was a jockey from Louisiana and knew his way around horses.

“Hey, what are you doing,” Mud Buck asked Blowen.

“I’m trying to get the bandages off this horse, but I’m not sure where to start. It’s my first day,” Blowen replied.

“Well, here, let me give you a hint,” Mud Buck said, and he leaned over, lifted up one of the horse legs and said, “Horse can’t kick you on three legs.”

And, so Blowen had learned his first lesson about horses.

Some years later, Blowen got the chance to go down to Kentucky for the first time to write a story about a horse named Saratoga Character. He had taken care of the horse at Suffolk Downs and after he was done racing, he ended up in the Throughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) program, and was retired in Kentucky. It was an organization that Blowen began to really admire for the work they were doing rescuing thoroughbred horses.

When the New York Times bought out the Globe, he and his wife Diane, who was a columnist at the Globe, took the buyout, and as an early “retirement” present to himself, he gave himself a trip to the Belmont Stakes, where he saw Point Given win.

However, during the weekend, he also had dinner with Elinor Penna, who was working on an auction for the TRF. During the dinner, she mentioned that the TRF needed an operations manager and offered him the position.

“Well, I had never done anything like that before, but what have I got to lose now,” he thought to himself. “I’ll give it a shot.”

So, the next day he called his wife and told her about it. He took the job and soon after they moved to Kentucky and began working for the organization. Interestingly enough, the job led him to cross paths with his mentor once again.

One day at his new job with the TRF, he was authorized to go to Rockingham Park and spend $250 to get as many horses as he could that were destined for slaughter. He went there with the TRF treasurer, Ray Roy, who had the check book. They got a couple horses from Carlos, and a couple horses from a couple other guys and filled up the truck.

However, there was one other horse that Blowen really, really loved, and her name was Wedding Punch. She was a beautiful young gray horse, who had broken her knee. However, for some reason, Blowen really wanted to get her because she wasn’t going to race and she wasn’t going to turn out to be anything. Ultimately, she was destined for the slaughter house. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any room left on the truck and, besides, Carlos wanted $2,000 for her.

Then at the last minute, one of the other trainers decided he wasn’t going to give them a horse and so a space opened up on the trailer. So, there they all stood. There’s the truck with its engine running, there’s the trailer and Wedding Punch is standing right next to them.

So, Blowen looks at Figueroa and said, “Carlos, I’ll tell you what we’ll do. I’ll get you the $250 from the TRF, and then I’ll give you $500 in cash of my own money for Wedding Punch. You’ll get $750, which is more than you’ll get from the slaughter house. Besides, you know she’s not going to run anymore.”

Figueroa just looked at him and said, “You’re terrible.”

To which Blowen replied, “Come on, let’s do it.”

Finally, the trainer said, “Alright.”

Quickly, Blowen got Wedding Punch loaded onto the trailer, got the check for $250 from Roy and gave it to Figueroa. The truck pulled out taking the young horse to a nice retirement in Kentucky, and then Figueroa turned to Blowen and asked, “Ok, where’s the $500?”

Blown just smiled, looked at his former teacher and said, ‘Lie, Cheat and Steal.’

Figueroa kind of laughed and was appalled at the same time, and then said, “Oh my God, you learned too well at Figueroa University.”

“It was a wonderful moment I have to say as a proud graduate of Figueroa University,” Blowen says with a chuckle of that transaction today. And, in case you are wondering, he and Figueroa are still very good friends today.

While the work at the TRF was rewarding, the idea of starting up Old Friends, his own thoroughbred retirement farm, began to form in Blowen’s mind. One of the things he noticed working at the TRF was that most places would not take stallions. They are harder to handle, require their own separate paddocks, which means more space, and, as a result, many people would not take them in.

Then in 2001 came word about Ferdinand, the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner who had been slaughtered in Japan when he had outlived his usefulness as a stud horse.

In an article in the Bloodhorse magazine, a highly-regarded thoroughbred racing magazine, they also mentioned two other horses that were in Japan and destined to the same fate – Sunshine Forever and Criminal Type. Those were the two horses that Blowen set his sights on getting to Old Friends.

It took a lot of work, some help of a go-between, a lot of persistence and finding a way to raise enough money, but, finally, Blowen was able to get the Japanese owners of the horses to send them home to America.

Sadly, Criminal Type died before he could make the trip, though Blowen has a headstone in his honor in the memorial garden at the farm, because he was one of the horses that was donated to Old Friends and it would have been his home if he had made it.

Creator eagerly waits to greet visitors (Photo by Rick CaponeHowever, Sunshine Forever, and Creator (right), another horse that was part of the original deal, did come home to America and now reside with Blowen at his farm. In fact, they were the first two thoroughbred race horses to come home to American soil from Asia for retirement.

The farm in Georgetown where Old Friends is located is the third iteration of the retirement farm. The first one in 2003 was a small farm located in Scott County, Ky. called Afton Farms. They quickly outgrew that farm, so Old Friends moved to a larger facility in late 2004/early 2005 called Hurstland Farm in Midway, Ky. They stayed there for two years before outgrowing the land there, and in 2007 moved to the current location in Georgetown at Dream Chase Farms.

There on 52 acres, Blowen gets to look out over the beautiful rolling landscape at the 30 horses he has rescued so far. And, there are some “big time” horses to watch grazing on the Kentucky bluegrass at the farm.

Besides Sunshine Forever, who was the 1988 Eclipse Award winner as the outstanding Turf horse, and who also won the Budweiser International, one of the all-time great races in history, and Creator, a “European superstar,” who won 7 of 16 starts, including The Prix Ganey, the same race his sire won in 1972, you can also see, among others:

Narrow Escape, the appropriately named first horse rescued by Blowen for Old Friends, who as a decent allowance horse, but also the daughter of Exceller, another great thoroughbred that was put to slaughter before he could be rescued.

  • Ruhlmann, winner of eight stakes races, including the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap.
  • Awad, who finished in the money in 50 percent of his 70 starts, including the Arlington Million.
  • Bull In The Heather, the son of Ferdinand, whose death in 2001 helped drive the creation of Old Friends.
  • Ogygian, the last son of Damascus, who is listed as the 16th greatest Thoroughbred of the 20th century.
  • Popcorn Deelites, one of the horses who played Seabiscuit in the movie.
  • Riva Way, a descendant of both great Meadow Stables champions, Secretariat and Riva Ridge, and
  • Williamstown, a son of Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew.

These are just a few of the great champion Thoroughbred horses that Blowen and visitors get to see every day at the farm.

Then for the kids, there’s Little Silver Charm, a miniature horse-Shetland pony mix who greets Blowen with a kiss each time he enters his paddock, and who can kick a soccer ball as good as anyone playing the game today. He not only brings smiles to the faces of the kids, but to the adult visitors as well.

In addition, there is a little memorial garden for some horses that came to Old Friends and have passed away. One of those memorials is for Precisionist, the 1985 Breeder’s Cup Sprint Winner and ’85 Eclipse Award Winner as champion sprinter. In his short time at Old Friends, he touched a lot of hearts and his passing was tough on everyone at the farm.

However, as in all things, life goes on and Blowen keeps watching for other horses in need of rescue. To that end, he is his hoping to be able to bring home some other great thoroughbreds in the future. With a great working relationship with the Japanese horse people today, he hopes to one day bring home Silver Charm, the 1997 Kentucky Derby winner, Charismatic, the 1999 Derby winner and War Emblem, the 2002 Derby winner.

In addition, Strike the Gold, the 1991 Derby winner, and Sea Hero, the 1993 Derby winner, who are in Turkey at this time, are two other horses he hopes to bring to Old Friends someday, too.

For Blowen, the creation of Old Friends, has been a very rewarding and fulfilling experience for himself, his wife and for all of the volunteers who help out around the farm. It is a labor of love for all of them, and every one of them feels privileged to work around such wonderful and amazing horses.

“I am in awe of these animals,” Blowen said. “I’m thrilled that these owners trust us enough to take care of them. That we have them here. And, as you can see, people come from all over the country, in fact, from all over the world, to see them. These horses are the stars.”

Yes, people come to visit these “stars” everyday, and Blowen or one of his staff take them for a walking tour around the farm three times each day, and introduce them to all of these great horses. The horses all come up to the fences to greet the visitors, and then while the visitors take pictures, the tour guides tell each horse’s story while feeding them some carrots – one of their favorite treats!

It’s fun to watch the horses, as they enjoy all of the attention the visitors give them, and they preen, pose and perform, bringing smiles and laughter to all who visit. It’s hard not to smile really once you see the beauty and grace of these great animals.

“All of the year’s that I was doing the movie critic job at the Globe, all those years of interviewing all those movie stars — Jimmy Stewart, Billy Wilder, Jack Nicholson — everybody, I was never as star-struck as I am around these horses,” Blowen says. “I’m totally star-struck. I just think these horses are incredible. It’s just unbelievable.”

Unbelievable? Well, not really. With all his hard work, dedication and absolute love of horses, it was inevitable that Blowen would be successful in creating this retirement paradise for these horses. He says he’s lucky to be able to “hang around with them.”

However, if you ask many of these horses’ previous owners and trainers, the many visitors to the farm each day, and, if it was possible to ask the horses themselves, you can bet that every single one of them would say that they are lucky to be able to hang around with Blowen at Old Friends.

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2008/07/14 © 2008 OhMyNews International

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