- Associated Press - Friday, December 26, 2014

GEORGETOWN, Ky. (AP) - GEORGETOWN, Ky. - At the Old Friends equine retirement facility, Arson Squad played seeing-eye horse for his blind buddy I’m Charismatic.

Special Ring raised his lip, upon command, to show off his tattoo. His paddock pal Popcorn Deelites - one of eight stand-ins for Seabiscuit in the movie - tried futilely to do the same.

“Here’s another great story,” said Michael Blowen, a former Boston Globe movie critic, before launching into another tale about one of the horses he cares for at the facility.

But it is Blowen’s story that may be the most remarkable: He has brought together more than 100 horses at Old Friends, providing dignified retirement for some of racing’s biggest names as well as obscure horses at risk of abandonment or the slaughterhouse. In the process, he has given people the chance to get up close and personal with the animals.

For its efforts, Old Friends on Friday was named recipient of the industry’s 2014 Special Eclipse Award for outstanding contributions to racing. That capped a huge month in which Blowen landed his biggest prize yet: Silver Charm, whose 1997 Triple Crown bid was narrowly thwarted in the Belmont Stakes.

The nearly white Kentucky Derby winner arrived at the 137-acre Scott County farm on Dec. 1 from Japan, where he’d been in stud since 2005.

“He’s a tremendous tourist attraction,” Blowen said of Silver Charm. “I had a guy come on a tour one time who said, ‘You know, I just came back from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. It was fun, I learned a lot of stuff. But I didn’t see one football player. I come here, and I get to see them.’ I thought that was a great way to put it.”

Beverly Lewis, who campaigned Silver Charm with her late husband, and son Jeff picked up the $60,000 tab to transport the Derby winner from Japan, and set up an endowment for his care. They plan to do the same for their 1999 Derby winner Charismatic, a former Horse of the Year, when his career as a stallion ends in Japan.

Silver Charm came two months after another horse trained by Bob Baffert, $6.5 million-earner Game On Dude, arrived. Baffert and his wife Jill wanted the 7-year-old gelding to “just be a horse” in retirement.

“If you’re loving on him, he’s happy,” Baffert said. “He’s getting so much attention now.”

Blowen said he’s been blown away by the horses. “It’s like all of a sudden Jack Nicholson is going to make your movie. Holy cow! And Beyonce is going to do the soundtrack,” he said. “I never got star-struck around movie stars, but I’m really star-struck around these horses.”

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, 67, said he talked to former Kentucky Gov. Brereton Jones, who owns Airdrie Stud, about his plan. “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.”

Despite his skepticism, Jones 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.

“It’s expensive to take care of a horse - even one,” Jones said. “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.”

The property that Old Friends ultimately purchased came with the name Dream Chase Farm.

Its first horse was the fittingly named mare Narrow Escape, who didn’t get a single bid at a Fasig-Tipton auction and was abandoned by the would-be seller.

Blowen said Fasig-Tipton called to ask, “‘Do you have a retirement home?’ I said, ‘I think I do.’ I didn’t have one at the time; I just had this idea. … Two days later we leased a paddock.

“Listen, I wouldn’t have gotten into this if I wasn’t a gambler. No person in their right mind who likes money would do anything like this.”

Old Friends landed its first Triple Crown race winner in 2012 with Sarava, who took the 2002 Belmont Stakes at a record 70-1 odds.

“Michael probably missed his life’s calling being a journalist, because he is a super salesman,” said Sarava co-owner Gary Drake, a Louisville businessman. “After talking to him just a few minutes, I was very convinced Sarava would be well-treated. He told me he’d make him a rock star.”

Old Friends, which doesn’t charge to take in a horse, is funded by donations, giving tours of the farm and through sales at its gift shop.

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.

“I go to the mailbox every day and hope donations exceed the bills,” Blowen said. “The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance grants have given us a foundation that is really, really something.”

Blowen estimates his operating costs are about $1 million a year - 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.

With five employees at Dream Chase, Old Friends also relies on a score of volunteers who help take care of the horses, provide maintenance and give tours. Behind it all is the magnetic force of Blowen.

“We need to clone Michael,” said owner Samantha Siegel, who sent Old Friends multiple graded-stakes winner Arson Squad and $1.5 million-earner Rail Trip. “He actually loves running up and down with those horses.”

Drake, Sarava’s co-owner, said, “Michael has filled a nice niche. He’s using some famous racehorse stallions as a foundation. But he’s expanded well beyond that and is taking care of other horses. His goal to take care of as many horses as he possibly can.”

Blowen said his initial interest in horses was simply a passion for betting on them. He decided that if he knew more about the animals, he’d become more savvy at handicapping.

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.”

Blowen apprenticed himself out to trainer Carlos Figueroa. Dubbed the King of the Fairs on Massachusetts’ one-time infamous fair circuit, Figueroa ran Shannon’s Hope five times in a week in 1963, winning four.

When the Massachusetts SPCA complained, “he told them, ‘This horse is going to run only a little bit every day. Paul Revere rode his horse 20 miles over the woods and stones. You build a statue to him and you want to put me in jail,’” Blowen recalled. “I never earned a penny, but learned everything graduating from Figueroa University.”

But while at Figueroa U., Blowen 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. A year later, he got serious about starting a facility where people could feed carrots to retired thoroughbreds.

Old Friends was the first major retirement facility to accept stallions, which tend to be more excitable, territorial and sometimes dangerous than geldings or mares. The stallions are in their own paddocks - the geldings have bunkmates - but morph into “the best pets you could ever have,” Blowen said.

“When they come here, they are the boss,” he said. “We try to let them know right away that they can do pretty much what they want. We’re just there to wait on them.

“We’ve had stallions here take a long time to adjust because they were so competitive, like Ruhlman. He was a really tough horse. But eventually even he got to the point where he’d roll over and let you rub his stomach. … We’ve been doing this almost 11 years and nobody has ever been injured or bitten.”

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