|Michael Blowen and Sandy Hatfield with new arrival, 1997|
Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm (Old Friends photo)
Blowen began his interest in horse racing the way many people do—by betting on the sport, racing writer Jennie Rees reports for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. "While still working for the Globe, he went to work as a groom at Boston's blue-collar Suffolk Downs, saying, "as soon as I fell in love with them, the dye was cast."
He "apprenticed himself out to trainer Carlos Figueroa," where he was educated in horses at what he calls "Figueroa University," Rees writes. But while working for Figueroa "he said he became concerned that a bottom-level claimer could 'meet a dubious end.' He got the horse retired to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and subsequently wrote a story about the foundation's program that teaches inmates to care for horses at Lexington's Blackburn Correctional Complex."
"After he and his wife, columnist Diane White, took buyouts from the Globe in 2001, Blowen wound up as the foundation's operations director in Kentucky," Rees writes. "A year later, he got serious about starting a facility where people could feed carrots to retired thoroughbreds. . . . The sense of urgency to get Old Friends operational escalated when news broke in 2002 that 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand had perished in a slaughter house after his usefulness as a stallion in Japan ended."
"Blowen said he talked to former Kentucky Gov. Brereton Jones, who owns Airdrie Stud, about his plan," Rees writes. Blowen told her, "He goes, 'Let me get this straight: You're going to get these horses, right?' Yeah. 'You're not going to breed them?' No. 'You're not going to sell them?' No. 'You're not going to race them?' No. He says, 'What are you going to do with them?' I said, 'Put them in my yard and hope people come visit them.' He looked at me like I was from outer space, and now he's one of our biggest supporters."
Jones was skeptical, but he said "their mutual love of horses sparked him to help Blowen, first with his checkbook and then by sending him retired stallions such as Patton, You and I and Afternoon Deelites," Rees writes. Jones told her, "It's expensive to take care of a horse—even one. Somebody starting a group of horses that will never have the ability to win another race or to put money into the pockets of the people feeding them, it was a different approach. ... But most really important happenings in the world come about because some people are determined to make them come about."
Old Friends earns its money on donations, tours of the farm and money earned at the gift shop, Rees writes. It operates on a $1 million per year budget, "and that's after the many discounted and donated services and products afforded Old Friends, including veterinary work, medication, feed supplements, shoeing and shipping. Supporters sponsoring paddocks, run-in sheds, barns, barn stalls, fencing or horses have their names sprinkled throughout on plaques."
"Last year it was part of the first group of racehorse retirement and retraining programs to be accredited by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, an industry collaboration that also raises money to help fund the facilities it certifies." On Friday Old Friends was named recipient of the industry's 2014 Special Eclipse Award for outstanding contributions to racing. (Read more)