Rescuing Champion Racehorses

Hometown Heroes, People
on July 16, 2007
Photos by Tim Webb Popcorn Deelites, one of the horses who played Seabiscuit in the 2001 movie, enjoys the life of a star at Old Friends, a horse rescue and retirement facility in Kentucky.

“Just look at this boy,” says Michael Blowen, gazing with pride across a Kentucky pasture at Ogygian, a champion 24-year-old stallion. “What a wonderful horse he is—won a 9 ½-length victory in the Belmont Futurity in 1985.”

Ogygian is one of some two dozen equine residents at Old Friends, Blowen’s nonprofit horse rescue and retirement facility on Dream Chase Farm in Georgetown, Ky. (pop. 18,080). Old Friends provides a stately retirement for once-superstar racehorses and thoroughbreds when they no longer can compete or breed.

“These horses deserve some dignity and some respect,” says Blowen, 60, a former film critic for the Boston Globe who left his newspaper job to pursue his passion and love of horses.

At Old Friends, horse-racing fans and other visitors can observe some of the sport’s former superstars living out their sunset years in comfort. Among the farm’s royalty is Popcorn Deelites, one of the horses who played Seabiscuit in the 2003 movie of the same name. Though the former champion continued to win races at 7 years old, he was beginning to develop health problems.

“I wanted to stop racing him, because I don’t believe in hurting a horse,” explains Popcorn Deelites’ former owner, Las Vegas businessman David Hoffman. “When I investigated this program, I liked it that people were going to be coming to see him all the time, so he wasn’t going to just be turned out in a field and forgotten.”

Other popular horses at Old Friends once were the prides of the Kentucky Derby and other equestrian events around the world, setting and breaking records and winning millions of dollars. Now past their racing prime, some were donated by their owners or sold to Old Friends to become part of its living history farm of international equine stars.

“These are such amazing athletes,” Blowen says. “It’s like having Michael Jordan and Larry Bird in your front yard.”

Blowen wasn’t much of a horse fan growing up in Connecticut. But in 1981, his Boston Globe editor invited him to the track, and he was bitten by the racing bug. He became a part-time groomer and eventually went to work full-time for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, which encourages adoption of championship horses that have been rescued from situations that threaten their health or longevity. In 2002, he moved to central Kentucky, the heart of horse country, and established Old Friends.

“Michael adores every one of these horses,” says Cynthia Grisolia, a former Old Friends volunteer who now directs a public relations firm in Harrodsburg, Ky. “It’s not hard to see that he was born to do this.”

Open year-round, Old Friends is staffed mostly by volunteers and is supported by admission fees, fund-raisers and donations from horse lovers across the nation. Visitors can tour the stables, touch the horses and contribute to a former champion’s retirement fund. “For $100, you get a certificate of ownership, a retirement picture of the horse and his breeding record,” Blowen says. “You can say you own a share of a Breeder’s Cup winner.”

One day, Blowen received a letter from a young girl who had just visited the farm. She had enclosed a $1 bill and a note of apology that she couldn’t afford to send more. “I wrote her back and said, ‘A dollar might not seem like much, but a dollar buys 13 or 14 carrots—so it means a lot to the horse.’”

Even though his days writing about film are behind him, Blowen will never forget something he once was told by legendary movie director John Huston. “He said, ‘You can have the greatest script and the greatest music, but if you don’t have a star and a story, you don’t have a movie,’” Blowen recalls. “That’s the way we feel about these horses—these horses are stars, and every one of them has a story.”