March was still a brand-new month as I drove to the fenced-in parking lot of Old Friends.  The forecast called for rain but also warmer temperatures, a welcome change from a record-setting snow fall and bone-chilling cold of the past two weeks.  The rain was right on cue, but the warmer temperatures were lagging behind.  No matter.  I was at one of my favorite horse farms, and ready to begin my visit.  I was the only visitor understandably, but what I did not expect was for Michael Blowen himself to conduct the tour around the farm and the visits to its residents.  I felt awed, really, just realizing that he would guide this tour.  I just have such an immense respect for the vision he had to launch Old Friends, and for all he does for its retirees and for continuing to reach out to bring more horses to the farm, to live out their days in a cornucopia of carrots, visits, and volunteer attention, and most of all the care and compassion of Michael Blowen.

We began with a visit to Sarava, followed by Silver Charm and Game on Dude.  I had specifically wanted to see Silver Charm the most.  It would be my first visit with him where I could actually have the chance to be hands-on with him for the first time. I’d seen him at Three Chimneys prior to exportation to Japan, and been at Old Friends the day in December he was publicly welcomed to his new home, but I wanted to touch him and feed him carrots and really get to know him in the way you can only by being able to get up close and personal.

Besides how amazing their roster of horses is, and all their accomplishments, it is this chance to really get acquainted with them that I love the most.  A lot of breeding farms in the area tend to let you get up close to a retired race horse you followed and appreciated, even if just for a brief photo with the horse, but very few let you linger over fence lines, and have time to develop an acquaintance.  It is wonderful to get to love on the horses at Old Friends, if they are the type who appreciate that, and to feed them carrots.  They seem to love those carrots more than words can say.

After a brief stop to feed Sarava carrots, we went up to Game On Dude’s paddock.  Blowen said he’s one of the sweetest horses they’ve had at Old Friends.  I hadn’t really gotten to know Game on Dude that well yet, either.  As with Silver Charm, I had only seen him twice prior to this day’s visit.

Game On Dude; it was a bit challenging to get a clear photo of him in the rain but I think this captured his kind eye.

 – Game On Dude; it was a bit challenging to get a clear photo of him in the rain but I think this captured his kind eye.

He really is a gentle soul, and seemed so well-mannered.  Just like that, a horse can endear themselves to you. I had been aware of Game On Dude’s race career and accomplishments, as I would have been with any headline-grabbing runner, but he’d not really been one I followed while he ran.

Just proves my point about what the difference getting the chance to know them, or at least get acquainted, makes. I mostly hung back and let Michael feed them carrots on this visit, but just seeing Game On Dude’s gentle nature boosted my soul.

I had been a bit captivated by Game On Dude, so much that I didn’t realize Silver Charm was in the paddock adjoining his.  Silver Charm was in a bit of a different mold from Game On Dude. Blowen had told me before we went up to him that he didn’t really like having his head touched.  I remembered that from one of my classes about horses, how to stallions (or I suppose, even colts), that is a sign of dominance and one they are not likely to tolerate or allow.  It was definitely that way with Silver Charm.  I wanted to pat him, to bridge the gap of all the years he’d been in Japan and the time that I’d not been able to get to touch him, but he just didn’t go for it, moving his head away. So I respected that and just watched him.  He has so much presence, and there was a bit of awe at being face-to-face with this horse I did follow throughout all of his racing days, from the Derby to the Preakness to the Dubai World Cup.

Silver Charm

Silver Charm

Silver Charm

Silver Charm

In fact, Blowen told me a story about Silver Charm in the Dubai World Cup I’d never heard before.  He said shortly before the race, Silver Charm was just laying down in his stall, and Baffert told his staff that they should be ready to get out of there quickly after the race, because Silver Charm just gave every impression he didn’t have a good race in him that day.  Of course, that turned out to be far from the truth.  Baffert and all of Silver Charm’s connections had every reason to linger after the race, in the glow of Dubai World Cup glory.  Silver Charm was tough, that’s for sure. I was so impressed that he not only won the Derby and Preakness at 3 (and nearly got the Belmont too), but that he also traveled all the way to Dubai and took their biggest race against competitors from around the world at the age of 4.

Blowen also said how smart Silver Charm is, and that he doesn’t miss anything, from being at his gate waiting when it’s time to be taken in to when the mares at a farm across the street are turned out.  To see him back in Kentucky and looking so well is wonderful, and I look forward to more visits especially as the weather gets better.  Perhaps he will even come to accept pats on the neck with time. Either way, I was just glad of the chance to visit.



Eldaafer found a way to get attention (and carrots)

Eldaafer found a way to get attention (and carrots)


We stopped to see a few other residents, and while I enjoyed the time to see them all, the next horse we saw that was especially notable to me was Yankee Fortune.  He was noteworthy for the same reason Game On Dude was, for being another kind soul.

Yankee Fortune; his kind eyes drew me in, and back for another moment with him before leaving.

Yankee Fourtune; his kind eyes drew me in, and back for another moment with him before leaving.

I don’t remember much of what was said about his story, just that he was a recent arrival to the farm.  What captivated me was that he did let me pet him and welcomed it, and in his eyes I saw almost a benevolence.  It did me a lot of good to have that one-on-one moment of communion with this light grey horse.  I needed that; I really did.  In fact, given his parallels to Game On Dude, when he gets out of quarantine in a few days, Blowen will try pairing him up with Game On Dude as a pasture buddy.

My visit to Old Friends came just a few days after Blowen and all the farm volunteers had bid goodbye to Creator, the fiery majestic stallion who had ruled over his pasture for so long in retirement there.  Blowen said Creator and Ogygian were similar in that  you could never tell them to do anything, but had to ask and they’d be perfectly willing to comply.  I had always loved seeing Creator on my visits. I knew I couldn’t get too close to him, but he had so much presence that every time I came to Old Friends I wanted to see him.  I can only imagine, after all the years he resided at the farm and seeing how his personality was so captivating, what a void that had to leave.

We went near his pasture, empty and with the gate open, with a wreath of flowers affixed to it in tribute.  There is something poignant about the space where a horse used to reside, or I suppose any animal that we loved, suddenly being empty of their presence. I know full well Blowen and the staff have a fond spot for all the horses that come through the gates at Old Friends, and also realize losses will come frequently, since most of their residents are in their senior years.

But I imagine the loss of a horse with such a strong and charismatic presence as Creator, one that almost loomed larger than life, would be even harder to suddenly find missing.

I could fully empathize, because one reason I had come to Old Friends that day was as a boost for my own aching heart. Horses just have this way of doing my soul a lot of good. If I’m already having a good day, they lift me up that much more. If I’m a little burned out on something, and have a chance to be around them, I find myself recharged with just a little time in their presence.

I knew how they must feel with Creator being gone, even if my acquaintances with him had been more fleeting than theirs.  I knew because it had only been a week since I had to say goodbye to the cat I’d had since he was a kitten, to the nearly ten years we shared together.  And my cat had a larger-than-life personality too.  He was bold, clever, ruled the house (and me, a little), and he and I had a deep bond that words can’t fully describe, and he was the sweetest cat I’ve ever known.  He was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer, a disease he hid that he was suffering from (in the way cats will) until he just couldn’t hide the suffering anymore.  The diagnosis and its terminal status left me reeling.  The fact that it was already terminal and that he was suffering and not completely himself meant less than a week later, I spent one good last day with him full of love and things he loved to do, before he was eased of his suffering in my arms.  This is my racing blog, and I attempt to maintain a professional tone, so I haven’t yet spoken of my cats on here or anything as personal as this.  But this is also snapshots in time of my life, and losing him and not having a lot of time left from the time of his diagnosis was a blow.  It stressed me more to know he was suffering than to say goodbye did, especially knowing I couldn’t really help him, beyond buying him a temporary reprieve from the inevitable with medication.

I mention all this because it fully reaches me how it must have felt to lose Creator. From what I saw myself and from written tributes, he had that same larger-than-life personality as my cat had.  And they do have other horses, of course, but none of them fill that void because none of them are quite who Creator was.  If they feel like me, when such a life force leaves, there’s a big hole that can only be filled gradually and by time. It does really make you even more aware how much vitality that life brought to the world and your life.

A photo I took and a piece  I wrote after a visit with Creator in 2007

A photo I took and a piece I wrote after a visit with Creator in 2007

I know Creator had a name that was well-known in the racing world, and that he became known to even more people through Old Friends.  My cat was known to only a smattering of people, but in both these cases, their lives were so meaningful because of the way they touched others’ lives while they they were here.  And that is why my heart goes out even more to Blowen and everyone who loved Creator, and why I appreciate even more the work they do.  Creator needed a home, and so many of these horses would fall through the cracks if not for Old Friends.  But then, instead of that happening, they fall into almost a sort of equine nirvana, with full retirement and surrounded by love, respect and compassion, and with frequent visitors and carrot treats.

My cat too came from a rescue situation, from homelessness in the animal shelter to being sheltered and surrounded by love every day of his life after that, until the time it ended.  Because then, too, sometimes the most loving thing we can do for the animals that we’re entrusted to care for, is give them a peaceful dignified relief from their suffering.  It was what Creator needed that day, as much as it must have hurt to let him go, and it was what my cat needed nearly a week before Creator’s passing.  It hurts that he’s no longer here with me, but it also brings peace that he is not suffering.  I do miss his presence, but I know that will lessen with time.  Like with all the horses Old Friends has seen come and go, what matters is that they were given loving homes and good lives, and fully knew they were loved and cared for.  That is why Old Friends means so much to me personally, as much of an animal lover as I am, and it is why I support them financially whenever I can.  Their mission is just so close to my heart, and every visit there and hearing the stories of the horses that needed rescued, and seeing with my own eyes what a great place they’re in always lifts me up.

And too, I can see why having all these horses practically in his back yard, and being able to see them every day, keeps Blowen going.  It is his dream manifested in every kind eye, every horse that has a guaranteed retirement, every eager mouth reaching for carrots, and every visitor that leaves inspired by time in these horses’ presences.

He told me he plans to expand his farm to the stop sign in one direction, which was nearly as far as the eye can see, and why not? The breadth of Blowen’s dream is deep and selfless.  Let it spread to eternity,  to the lives of all these horses and those yet to retire and to the people who visit too.  Let them walk away as inspired by his dreams, the horses he introduced and the flow of energy they emit.

We walked into a barn where they were building a hospital stall, to continue to provide top-notch care on site for the equine residents, and during the course of my visit it became evident how much Blowen’s compassion and kindness for these horses extends to people too.  He gave me a glass that had been especially made to honor Silver Charm, and even gave me an Old Friends magazine before I left.  I was so grateful for those gifts, on top of getting the personal tour and hearing all his stories about the retirees we visited.  Like he said, there are many good stories in racing too, but they don’t get told or heard as often as the more negative ones, because a lot of people in racing are too humble to tell them.  That too is why this farm is a wonderful asset to the racing world, even as these horses’ racing days are over.  Blowen does tell those good stories to anyone who visits.  It was great to hear of all the people, whether they are the horses’ former connections or just people who loved the horses for one reason or another, that continuously donate to their care or have set up funds for some of the horses, and the former connections that will come and visit the horses they either trained, owned, or rode.

It’s been said from time to time, when explaining why a farm like this is necessary, that racehorses don’t have retirement plans, but for those fortunate few, that is no longer true once they find their way to Old Friends.  At that point, the deep roots of Blowen’s dream, the “to-the-stop-sign/as far as the eye can see” expansion, ripples through their lives, with all the loving care and carrots they could want.

I walked away from my visit, once more renewed in spirit.  Old Friends is a treasure, not just for its horses, but for the people who walk through the gates too.  If you’ve ever had the love of horses take root until it’s like another vital part of you,  you know exactly why.