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A Charmed Life at Old Friends Farm

Old Friends Farm, where many famous racehorses spend the homestretch of their lives, mirrors the path of its founder, Michael Blowen, as he faces a similar journey toward retirement. 

Blowen, a movie critic at the Boston Globe, unexpectedly found his passion for horses through a simple visit to a racetrack initiated by his editor in 1979.

“When I started out with racing, I liked the drinking and gambling part of it,” Blowen said. “That day at the track, I was placing bets, winning some money and having a lot of fun and that's when it all changed.”

Blowen’s fascination with the horse industry led him to try out a trainer apprenticeship at Suffolk Downs racetrack in Boston to learn more about the thoroughbreds.

“I knew nothing about horses at first; actually, I was afraid of them and they knew that,” Blowen said.

Throughout his two-year apprenticeship, Blowen gradually overcame his fear and the horses started to shape his life.

“Once you fall in love with them, your life will change, and that’s exactly what happened,” Blowen said.

While continuing his journalism career and his training gig at Suffolk Downs, Blowen decided that he had to come to Kentucky to pursue his dream. 

After 24 years at the Globe, they offered him and his wife, Diane White, a columnist for the paper, a buyout and they accepted. Blowen convinced his wife to move to Kentucky and was offered a job as operations director of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation in Lexington.

Blowen decided he wanted to build his own thoroughbred retirement farm and started renting paddocks at the Hurstland Farm in Midway. 

“At first it was just me and Diane running everything from a golf cart,” Blowen said. “We had a couple of horses and it wasn’t a big deal, but then it started to grow.”

Blowen said once they reached 16 horses, they had to start looking for more space.

“We found Clay Neils Farm in Georgetown for sale but it was a million dollars and I had no money,” Blowen said.

Blowen said he went downtown to Whitaker Bank and told the bank officials his plan to buy the farm, even though he knew the idea sounded crazy. He asked the officials to tour the paddocks in Midway so they could see the vision he had for these horses.

CEO Elmer Whitaker and President Jim Calloway of Whitaker Bank decided to take Blowen up on the tour and called him two weeks later with their decision.

“He told me, ‘The bank’s decided to loan you ​​$850,000; however, you have two weeks to raise $150,000 cash,’” Blowen said.

Blowen decided to reach out to his closest friend back in Boston to seek the money, and two days later, his friend arrived in Kentucky with a check for $150,000 in hand.

After securing the farm in 2003, Blowen and his wife saw the potential to create a tourist attraction, as Old Friends was one of the few retirement facilities for horses in the world. However, opinions on this vision varied among people in the horse industry.

“Almost everyone thought it was a bad idea; they didn't believe that people would want to come and visit retired horses,” White said. “I always thought it was a great idea.” 

Blowen said they slowly started to receive support from owners of the horses, jockeys and even the community of Georgetown.

“After that, it just started to grow and it got huge,” Blowen said. “People now come from all over the world to see these horses.”

Old Friends quickly gained international popularity, leading to the establishment of multiple Old Friends farms extending from New York to Japan.

Blowen and White created the “Old Friends at Cabin Creek” farm in Greenfield Center, New York, featuring 15 retired thoroughbreds. The “Old Friends Japan” in Okayama, Japan, was started by Kiichi Harada, a former Japanese Olympic dressage rider who was inspired by Blowen’s work in aftercare.

“When it first started, we were bringing home all of the thoroughbreds from Japan,” Blowen said. “They started to visit and study our place, then they adopted the Old Friends motto and started one there.”

The original Georgetown farm, now named the “Dream Chase Farm” branch, is where Blowen and his wife spend most of their time as they live on the farm. 

Blowen’s past life as a movie critic for the Boston Globe allowed him to interview Hollywood stars, but he said his favorite celebrity “just happens to be a horse,” and this one lives in his backyard. 

Silver Charm, a Hall of Fame American Thoroughbred with career earnings of $6.9 million, is Blowen’s best friend and neighbor.

“I know I am the luckiest man in the world because no one has him in their backyard but me and Diane,” Blowen said.

He said that he has loved Silver Charm since his victory at the Kentucky Derby in 1997. Silver Charm followed the Derby with a Preakness Stakes and Dubai Cup win, establishing Blowen as his biggest fan.

“I’ve always wanted to meet Silver Charm, and the day he came here was the best day of my life,” Blowen said. “Just think of your favorite person, whether it's LeBron James or Patrick Mahomes, and then you figure out they are moving in with you. It's amazing.”

Since Silver Charm has resided at Old Friends since 2012, Blowen said that people come from all over the world to see him, with over 20,000 people a year coming to visit the “living-history museum of horse racing.”

The unofficial "spokes-horse" of both the farm and Georgetown Tourism is a miniature horse named after Silver Charm to carry on the legendary name.

“I named one of them Little Silver Charm because Silver Charm was my favorite horse,” he said.

As Silver Charm celebrated his 30th birthday on Feb. 22, he holds the honor of being the oldest surviving Kentucky Derby champion, and his teeth are evidence of his age. 

“His favorite thing is Mr. Pasture's cookies, and he only has four teeth now so I have to crush them up for him,” Blowen said. 

Silver Charm isn't the only 30-year-old resident on the premises, as Touch Gold shares the adjacent paddock. He defeated Silver Charm in the Belmont Stakes and prevented him from securing the Triple Crown victory.

Though Silver Charm is Blowen's favorite, 5-year-old Bold and Bossy is a close second.

“Her story is my favorite. That's the amazing thing about the horses here — every horse has their own story,” Blowen said. 

When Bold and Bossy was 2 years old, during her first start at Ellis Park in Henderson, Kentucky, she bucked off her jockey and started running. After hopping over the fence and escaping the track, Bold and Bossy was spotted on ​​the interstate, US-41, and ran for 10 miles into incoming traffic.

She was later found in a public mall parking lot, brought home to Ellis Park and placed in a receiving barn. Later that night, the barn caught fire and Bold and Bossy was the only horse to suffer burns with 40 percent of her body injured. 

A year later in 2022, she made a full recovery, bearing only a few scars, and went on to win two races, earning $21,784 throughout her career. In 2023, she was relocated to Old Friends.

Bold and Bossy is among 160 other horses on the farm with unique stories ranging from 2015 Hall of Famer Lava Man to Breeder’s Cup winner Little Mike.

With 236 acres, each horse gets to benefit from the space and get to connect and bond with other retired racehorses. 

“They have been doing whatever people tell them to do before they get here,” Blowen said. “Now we do what they tell us to do.”

Blowen and White said that Old Friends is possible due to all the volunteers who share the same mentality of putting the horses first.

“We owe so much to our volunteers; they are what have made this place what it is,” White said.

Old Friends has evolved into a well-known nonprofit and earned prestigious accolades such as the Special Ellipse award, recognizing their valuable contributions to the thoroughbred industry.

“The award really showed the importance of thoroughbred aftercare,” Blowen said. “There is now a group called the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and they advocate for places like ours.”

With the 20th anniversary of Old Friends, a significant change happened this February as Blowen handed over the reins of his role as president and CEO. 

Blowen asked his close friend, John Nicholson, to take on the role and continue the legacy of Old Friends. 

Nicholson was the former executive director of the Kentucky Horse Park from 1997 to 2014 and has been friends with Blowen for over 20 years.

“I was at a stage in my life where I wanted my next chapter to be meaningful, purposeful and useful,” Nicholson said. “I think it was divine intervention when Michael and I had lunch one day and this offer came up.”

For Blowen, stepping down and retiring was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. 

“When the sliding door is open, you either go through it or you don't because it won’t stay open forever,” Blowen said. “I knew when John said he would do it, it was a sliding door I had to step through.”

Blowen said he has been looking for someone to take over Old Friends for years, and Nicholson’s commitment to the horses made him the perfect choice. 

“Throughout my professional career, I have always said that we can never give back to the horse what the horse has given to us, and there's no better expression of that than Old Friends,” Nicholson said. 

He said that the friendship between him and Blowen makes it easier during this transition, and he is eager to learn and listen from everyone at Old Friends.

“I think he trusts me because he knows how determined I am to preserve the vision, philosophy and values that Michael has,” Nicholson said. “I think big and I hope to do big things here at Old Friends.”

Blowen will still be around, as he plans to continue leading tours and will still be able to bond with all his best horse friends. He notes the privilege of being the horses’ “designated treat man.”

“Now that John is doing all of the hard work with the people, I get to spend more time with the horses,” Blowen said.


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