Michael Blowen glanced at the 1977 Sports Illustrated cover of Triple Crown champion Seattle Slew when it arrived in the mail and immediately discarded it. A horse on the cover of such a prominent magazine?
“I thought thinking of them as athletes was absurd,” he said.
Blowen, then a writer for the Boston Globe, accompanied Bob Taylor, one of his editors, to Suffolk Downs seven years later. The visit to the Massachusetts track was life-changing.
“I never saw any human athlete give as much as these horses give,” Blowen said. “My affection for the sport just started to grow and grow and grow.”
So much so that he volunteered to muck stalls for Carlos Figueroa, a prominent trainer at Suffolk, so that he could learn as much as possible about the animals he cared for. Although he describes that work as invaluable, it left him with a nagging question.
What happened to the horses when they could no longer run?
“He used to tell me they find homes for these horses in Maine,” Blowen said. “I bought into it because I didn’t want to know anything else.”
He dreaded what the real answer might be. Over time, he became increasingly concerned about the aftercare issue. After he and his wife, Diane White, a Boston Globe columnist, took buyouts from the newspaper in 2001, they moved to Central Kentucky, and he became operations director for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation for the next year and a half.
Still, he wanted to do more. He wanted to be more hands on. He gradually developed an idea that would not leave him. He took his plan to Brereton Jones, the former Kentucky governor and a prominent breeder who owns Airdrie Stud, near Midway, Ky.
Jones looked quizzically at Blowen as he outlined his thoughts on how he would care for retired horses.
“I’m going to put them in my yard,” Blowen told him, “and hope people come visit.”
Jones wrote a check for $5,000 as one of many generous donors who helped Blowen’s concept blossom into Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farms. Old Friends houses more than 100 retirees in Georgetown, Ky., and includes a satellite location. Old Friends at Cabin Creek, named the Bobby Frankel division for the late Hall of Fame trainer, is located near Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Old Friends also operated an outpost near Kentucky Downs in Franklin, Ky., for several years before closing it in 2019.
Fans flock to all of the locations for tours that provide an up-close look at those that were once breathtakingly fast and those that struggled to keep up. The Georgetown site, for instance, boasts Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Silver Charm as well as Touch Gold, who denied Silver Charm’s Triple Crown bid in the 1997 Belmont Stakes. It also houses Sarava, who pulled a mighty upset when Triple Crown threat War Emblem (a former Old Friends resident who died in 2020) stumbled out of the gate in the 2002 Belmont. Zippy Chippy, who lost more than 100 starts, received the same level of attention and care in upstate New York until his passing in April 2022.
JoAnn Pepper, who oversees Old Friend at Cabin Creek, said of Blowen, “He does love his stars, but he loves them all.”
Blowen, 75, worked tirelessly to build Old Friends and continues working hard now to maintain it. He said the annual budget stands at over $1 million, with much of that currently invested in infrastructure. He is working on a plan for succession and intends for the operation to endure long after he is gone.
Blowen receives immense help from Hagyard Equine and Park Equine. Both provide complimentary veterinary care. So many others contributed generously since it all began in 2003, from corporations to the child offering loose change after feeding carrots to an appreciative retiree.
Pepper said of the aftercare being provided, “I think Old Friends is kind of leading the way. We’ll keep doing what we’re doing because it works. Some horses can’t be re-trained and we need sanctuaries for them to go and live out their lives. Having all these new friends that go and visit them and fall in love with them, it’s just an amazing thing.”
Editor’s Note: This story originally was written in 2017 and has been updated.
- Maker’s Mark announced a plan in 2015 to raise $1 million in three years through a series of special edition bottles that honor selected Breeders’ Cup champions.
- Old Friends received a Special Eclipse Award for its extraordinary service to racing in 2014.
- Old Friends’ monthly feed bill was approximately $60,000 in 2017.
- Before starting Old Friends, Blowen and his wife briefly operated a store in Midway, Ky., that offered antiques and horse memorabilia.
- According to Blowen, retirees often race one another with the horses that were pace-setters during their careers taking the early lead and the closers closing. He describes the impromptu races as “very formful.”