Silver Charm, 28, is now the oldest living Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner. He won the events in 1997.
The story of Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Facility begins over 50 years ago at Emmerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. Michael Blowen, then in his mid-20s, was teaching filmmaking while his best friend, John Ciccolo, taught psychology. Both eventually were denied tenure; a twist in fate that propelled each man away from higher education and into what would tee up their futures. Blowen moved into journalism and became the film critic for the famed Boston Globe. Ciccolo dove into the real estate business with his brother, rehabbing and flipping Boston's iconic brownstones for handsome profits. Throughout the various happenings in their lives, the men maintained a close friendship.
By 2001, after nearly 25 years at the Globe, Blowen made a decision to finally answer the call that had been percolating in his head and heart for years. His dream was to create a retirement facility for Thoroughbred racehorses. Blowen was a Boston guy to the core, yet didn't become a horseracing fan until his days at the Boston Globe when a friend introduced him to the world of racehorses and the track betting window. Blowen became enthralled with every nuance of racing and was captivated by the track atmosphere, so much so that he organized a group and together they bought a racehorse. Blowen began working with local trainer Carlos Figueroa and set out to overcome his fear of the horses that so fascinated him. His work in Figueroa's stable taught him two things above all else: to overcome his apprehension and reach a place of understanding with the horses; and that after their racing days were done, these animals he found to be so powerful were met with an unceremonious retirement. “Here I was falling in love with these horses, and I knew what was ahead of them,” says Blowen of what pushed him to build a better future for horses on their way out of racing.
When the owner of The Boston Globe offered a buyout to many of the staff, Blowen and his wife, Globe columnist Diane White, decided on their exit strategy: in a leap of faith, they took the cash and left the cosmopolitan environment of Boston for a “completely alien” setting 950 miles away in Georgetown, Kentucky. This was now a shared dream to provide racehorses with the retirement they deserved in a manner that wasn't being done anywhere else in the country. “I was never star-struck with movie stars in my work as a film critic, but I was most certainly star-struck by these horses,” Blowen says of the wonderment that has gripped him so tightly. “I thought, 'I can't be the only one who thinks these are great animals.' ” In 2001, the couple made the move to Kentucky where he was hired as the operations director for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. While he learned an invaluable amount, he also recognized that none of the existing retirement organizations accepted stallions, nor were any of the programs based on tourism; two things he had dreamed of incorporating into his own future farm.
His dream was a noble one, of course, but the reality was considerably more sobering. In 2003, the couple decided it was time to stop dreaming and begin building or be proved wrong. There were plenty of naysayers who didn't believe Blowen could make a Thoroughbred retirement farm work, especially without breeding or raising horses. And tourism? Why would people pay to simply just see and touch these pastured retirees? It was hard for most to understand, but Blowen, with White by his side, persisted. The plan was cast, and Blowen walked with purpose into the bank on a Monday morning to somehow convince the lender that the farm could make as much sense on paper as it did in his head. As luck would have it, the bank agreed to lend him $850,000 provided that he come up with $150,000 cash to secure the loan. He had two weeks to come up with the money. Overnight he worked up the courage to call his best friend — John Ciccolo. During that Tuesday morning conversation, Blowen explained the idea and the financial barricade to Ciccolo. He promised that he would pay the money back just as soon as he was able if Ciccolo would advance him the $150,000. Ciccolo didn't hesitate. He delivered a check in person two days later, and by Friday, when Blowen returned to the bank and handed over the promised cash, he was greeted by a room full of shocked lenders. The Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Facility was born.
Slowly the dream formed into a tangible farm, fulfilling its mission to provide a safe, dignified and healthy environment for the Thoroughbred racehorses that gave their all on the track, regardless of their winnings or place in the record books. “They've done everything for us, without them there's nothing,” says Blowen with emotion in his voice. “At the end of the day, I thought they deserved a lot better than what they were getting.” He loves these animals, that's clear to see, but he also has an affection for their age, experience and the stories they've lived. To Blowen, they all matter, and it's his pleasure to provide them with a bucolic setting, endless pasture time and the absolute best in veterinary care available. The man who heads that work is board-certified internal medicine specialist, Dr. Bryan Waldridge, now of Mississippi State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, but who previously was located right down the road from the Old Friends farm in Lexington. Dr. Waldridge has been the lead veterinarian at Old Friends for over a decade and the farm truly has a place in his soul. To aid these high-caliber racehorses with love and top-rate care through their senior years is a passion project and a way to give back to the horses he admires. The farm and the horses there have become a permanent fixture in Dr. Waldridge's life. Together with a team of veterinarians, including a skilled surgeon and equine dental specialist, Dr. Waldridge provides exceptional care for the horses at Old Friends. “All of these horses need a home, they need a place to go,” says Dr. Waldridge of the animals who bring him so much joy. “There are horses on the farm that nobody's heard of, then there are big names like Silver Charm (who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 1997, made 24 starts and earned $6.9 million dollars) and Game On Dude (the only three-time winner of the Santa Anita Handicap who made 34 starts to the tune of $6.5 million in earnings),” he says. “They're all just as important at the farm, and they have a great life.” That great life is thanks to the generosity of donors and the tickets purchased by the nearly 20,000 people who visit the farm annually to see, feed and touch these horses.
PHOTO BY LAURA BATTLES
The horses at Old Friends live out their days as horses should: that is, they're outside grazing on the Kentucky bluegrass in tranquil surroundings while receiving the utmost in love and veterinary support as they progress into their later years. “We see our fair share of ankle problems, as well as osteoarthritis and some Cushing's disease,” says Dr. Waldridge of the conditions that come as no surprise for aging equine athletes. The horses, however, live long and comfortable lives while bringing joy to the thousands of guests who travel to see them. “One of the things I'm proudest of is the health care these horses are provided,” Blowen says. “They're treated as if they're getting ready for the Kentucky Derby,” he affirms. Dr. Waldridge would agree. “Alphabet Soup lived to be 31-years-old at Old Friends,” he points out of the Breeders' Cup Classic winner (1991-2022) who, despite a long career on the track, led a happy and well-nurtured retirement at Old Friends. Meanwhile there are plenty of others who haven't spent as much time in the limelight as their big-name counterparts, but that still captivate visitors nonetheless.
With more than 200 horses living on the farm, providing top-rate care is no small endeavor. Old Friends looks to nurture these senior former athletes not only for longevity but for health and comfort. Long lives are one thing, but long and healthy lives can be an entirely different story. While the herd enjoys the fresh Kentucky bluegrass, special attention is also paid to providing a well-rounded and nutrient dense diet. “We have a fiber based custom mix that everyone gets twice a day,” says Dr. Waldridge of their thoughtful approach in the feed room. “Platinum Performance® has also been really important to us. We feed them as a herd but we treat them as individuals, and Platinum allows us to make sure the herd is getting what they need while we can also meet the special needs of certain individual horses,” he explains of the long relationship between Old Friends and Platinum Performance®.
Dr. Bryan Waldridge is the lead veterinarian at Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Facility. At right, Old Friends founder Michael Blowen plays with a retired horse.
Birdstone, the spoiler of Smarty Jones’ bid for the Triple Crown, won the Belmont Stakes in 2004.
PHOTO BY LAURA BATTLES
“I was never starstruck with movie stars in my work as a film critic, but I was most certainly star struck by these horses.”
— Michael Blowen, Founder and President of Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farms
As it turns out, Michael Blowen had a winning idea for Old Friends all those years ago. Starting from a leased paddock and a single horse, the facility has grown in size and scope with hundreds of horses as residents. To accommodate the growth, Old Friends has acquired neighboring acreage, and in 2020, Blowen also made a deal with Ashton Grove Senior Living, a neighboring senior living facility, to create a blended community of happy horses and happy people. Several Old Friends horses now roam the fields of Ashton Grove and provide a sense of beauty and joy for the seniors living there. “Ashton Grove had this land leftover,” explains Blowen of their special arrangement. “We put horses up there, and it's been a fabulous thing for both the horses and the residents. I had one guy come down to me when we first brought the horses up there and he said, 'You know, my wife died 11 months ago, and I haven't had one moment of joy since. Today when I came down here, and I saw these horses and I got to feed them carrots — that changed my whole life.' ” That comment stuck with Blowen and reaffirmed that, really, one never knows the magnitude of their impact. “Horses can do an awful lot for people,” Blowen adds. “Once they're retired they still have tremendous value.” It's not just senior horses who have Blowen's heart, he's always been a staunch supporter and willing student of his elders and believes with conviction that senior people deserve our very best in attention and care as do the horses under his management.
Old Friends' expansion has gone significantly farther than the fields next door in Georgetown, Kentucky, with a sister facility in Greenfield Center, New York, near Saratoga Springs and a facility in Japan that has emulated the Old Friends model and received Blowen's blessing to use the Old Friends name. Despite the expansion, the waitlist remains long for owners looking to retire their horses at Old Friends. Blowen is adamant that no horses will ever be adopted out, they will be allowed to live out their days in bliss at the farm. That is why tourism has been part of his business philosophy from the get-go. The demand is there from horse owners, but equally so, it's there from the thousands of visitors that visit the farm to see, touch and simply be around the horses. “There's a guy from Mississippi who drove up to the farm for his birthday party to see one horse,” says Dr. Waldridge in amazement at the powerful draw of these horses. “It's really incredible that somebody would drive that far and take a few days out of their life to see one horse,” He understands the appeal, of course, feeling that same draw as he regularly travels from Mississippi to provide veterinary care for the Old Friends herd. “You can't go to the Football Hall of Fame and sit down to have tacos with Dick Butkus, but you can come out here and feed carrots to whatever horse you want. You can touch a Derby winner, and it means the world to people that they can see and rub on Silver Charm or any of the others.” So many of these animals have experienced the height of glory on the track and in the winner's circle. A few have even worn that famed garland of red roses following a coveted win at the Kentucky Derby, but all have value and the deep respect of Blowen, Dr. Waldridge and all of the staff and visitors. “They're tough,” assures Dr. Waldridge of these animals he loves. “Zenyatta (Horse of the Year in 2010, with $7.3 million in total earnings) won 19 in a row. There's a horse at Old Friends named Rapid Redux who has won more than that (and established a North American record with 22 consecutive wins). It doesn't matter if you're at Santa Anita or some cheap track. It's hard to win that many in a row. These horses made something amazing happen.”
At the end of the day, the horses are such an incredible draw that men like Michael Blowen and Dr. Bryan Waldridge will give immensely to ensure the animals are content, at peace and living the lives they deserve. “I think everybody's got to give back,” says Dr. Waldridge earnestly. “For me, I love racehorses. I see horses out there at Old Friends that I've seen run the Derby. There they are right in front of me, and I get to touch them. Those horses who made $10,000 work just as hard as the ones that made $7 million, probably harder because of their circumstances. They all have a story and, to me, they're all incredible.” For his part, Blowen shakes his head at the notion that he's the one saving these horses. As he figures it, it's the opposite. “This farm is like life support for me,” he says. “I mean, I really enjoyed living in Boston, my wife and I had a great time, but at this stage of my life, being able to do this — let me put it this way — if I thought 15 years ago that this farm would turn into what it's become, I would have been too afraid to start it. It's evolved over the years, and with each evolution and each new horse, it rejuvenates me, not the other way around.”
Old Friends is much more than a retirement farm for aging racehorses. It's a respite for the soul and a place that gives horses who have seen and lived so much the opportunity to let go of competition and calm their minds while delivering joy to the people who come to appreciate them. Think of the old friends in your life. They're like solid gold for the heart and, as the saying goes, you can't make new old friends.
“Those horses who made $10,000 work just as hard as the ones that made $7 million, probably harder because of their circumstances. They all have a story and to me they're all incredible.”
— Dr. Bryan Waldridge, Lead Veterinarian at Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Facility
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