At Old Friends, a farm embodying a cultural shift in horse racing, a 75-year-old finds joy and purpose
“The villain of them all,” deadpan Michael Blowen said.
They’re not bad guys here, of course. They are part of a tapestry that is part of a trend: retirement homes for racehorses. Just as animal lovers who want the races to go ahead and croak seem to have some momentum with horse deaths at the center of recent years, so too has a century-long cultural shift. thoughtless last to thoughtful present: the growing idea that slaughter is uncool.
This Derby week, the ten-year-old Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance accredited 82 organisations, including this 19-year-old Old Friends farm. Here’s where, somehow, a 75-year-old storyteller with a knack for repartee, who went from tenure teaching film at Emerson College to becoming a writer and film critic at Boston Globe, has come to know in his bones that the last mile of life can prove the most exhilarating.
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In a way, it’s this guy, Blowen, who grew up in Connecticut thinking horse racing was silly, except one day he accompanied a publisher to Suffolk Downs near Boston, where he immediately adored “the characters”, “the atmosphere”, the “game” and the “drink” and ended up saying: “Some people open the Bible; I opened the race form,” noting the “revelation.” He once went to Memphis in the 1980s to interview Jerry Lee Lewis, stopped at Kentucky Horse Park on his way back, saw 1970s greats Bold Forbes and Forego, and marveled. He once just got up and volunteered for a trainer in New England in the late 1990s. “The slaughter truck would show up every week and pick up the horses ‘that disappeared from the row’ of the shed”.
He convinced his wife, a former Boston Globe columnist, to move to Kentucky after complying with the condition that he would not pick her up once she left him. (She still hasn’t.) Now they and their staff have about 300 acres, about 240 retirees, and about 91 equine graves, with people hoping to have similar farms seeking advice from as far away as Japan. . Now Blowen knows things he didn’t know he would do, like that Silver Charm has to go into the barn at night because he hates headlights on the freeway.
From distraught beginnings in 2003, they have forged 19 years giving birth to countless stories.
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“That was 3 and a half years ago, around Halloween,” he said as Silver Charm nodded over the fence just behind. “I owed Woodford Feed $27,000. I owed Hilander Feed $23,000 for providing our hay. And then I owed about $90,000, and I had to pay it all by the end of the year, and I didn’t want to call, because I realized that if you still have the tin cup, you’re gonna lose. So I put it away. Everything I did was completely counter-intuitive.
He was sitting in an Adirondack chair in the yard one Friday evening, tired from four laps, studying the Daily Racing Form, when a car pulled up. He asked if they could come back on Saturday, and they said no, and they seemed nice, so he wearily drove the golf cart carrying the pair of North Dakotans. So you end up saying, “I want to donate but I forgot my checkbook,” of which Blowen says, “Let me put it this way: this isn’t the first time I’ve heard this. Then an email came a few weeks later saying “I haven’t forgotten” and “It’s a one-time donation” so Blowen figured that meant a good chunk like $200 or $500 or maybe -be even $1,000.
So, “So anyway, I don’t think about it much anymore, and then I still haven’t started calling people and bugging them about the money, and then on the Monday after Thanksgiving, I go clubbing. to letters, and there’s an envelope from Fargo, North Dakota. And there is no letter in it. And there is nothing. The only thing it contained was a check. And I opened, and it’s a handwritten check,” and it came from the tourist who happened to be a biotech pioneer and…
“And it was for half a million dollars.”
“I said, ‘Oh, that’s a Pick Six!’ ”
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He rode the adventure towards a rarefied consciousness. He can say that stallions have to have their own pastures because, as he said, “They like neighbors. They just don’t like roommates. Or so I’m told. He can recount those moments of waking up to learn that a horse is dead and waiting for a fate as other horses surround the fallen and try to push him on until they process reality. He dislikes the term “rescue” because he worries that it implies superiority, and he may suggest that the only reason people think horses can’t talk is because people, as usual, don’t listen.
To a Game On Dude asking for carrots, he’ll say, “I’m coming!” Good God ! You are so bossy! At Summer Attraction, which he bought one day in 1999 in Finger Lakes, he would say, “You’re still so cute. With Swain, who just arrived this spring among six retired stallions from Shadwell in nearby Lexington: “Swain, do you want to race?
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“For years we did not charge [visitors],” he said.
Then: “When we started loading, more people came.”
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About 15 tourists arrive near the barn that Silver Charm entered, leading to an impromptu question-and-answer session.
He recounts the visit of Sheikha Hissa from Dubai (“Five bodyguards!”), of green maskof the awkward gait (“He’s not that attractive; of course, neither am I”) and horses who give people so much they deserve both “Social Security” and “a 401(k)” .
A man mentions he’s from Washington state, and Blowen recounts how someone called after finding the late Taylor’s Special, who finished 13th in the 1984 Kentucky Derby, up there in northwest Peaceful, wandering abandoned in the woods. He recovered, lived and died here, and Blowen screamed. “You would think you would get used to it,” he said of the deaths, “but you never do.”
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Retirees understand failures, even though they sometimes have connections. Silver Charm’s daughter, Private Charm, was in “a slaughter situation” in Louisiana, Blowen said, so she resides where her father lives and where her paternal grandmother is buried. A gravestone honors Leave Seattle, an offspring of Seattle Slew whose racing record is: 3-0-0-0 (runs, wins, places, shows), for lifetime earnings of, stone grades, $0. The deceased who rest here include Derby winners Charismatic (1999) and War Emblem (2002) and the apparent winner of the Medina Spirit Derby (disqualified in 2021).
Supporters include the Stronach family, whose 1996 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Alphabet Soup lived and died here; A&M Records founder Jerry Moss, owner of 2005 Derby winner Giacomo; and the Bafferts, including Hall of Fame trainer Bob, suspended from the Derby after Medina Spirit tested positive for excess medication last spring.
the the cemetery in front is named after Nikki Bacharach, the late daughter of actress Angie Dickinson and composer Burt Bacharach, who supported and visited – including when Angie Dickinson came and stayed and met Little Silver Charm, a popular miniature horse in the field. “The third day she was here,” Blowen said, “I brought her into the house and left. So about 15 minutes later the phone rings. ‘Michael?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘It’s Angie.’ ‘Yeah.’ “There is a horse in your living room. I say, ‘I know. He goes in, he watches Al Roker do the weather, then he comes out. ”
Who knew? Who knew anything about it? No wonder many twilights will find a 75-year-old man taking a beer from a fridge in the garage, walking to a gazebo in the yard, gazing around the rolling Kentucky green duvet at the athletes he worships, now in the movements of life without “saddles, without jockeys, without anything”, and there he will again feel an uncontrollable wonder.