In Kentucky, A Refuge for Race Horses and Their Admirers
Sunday, July 12, 2009
At Old Friends Bed & Breakfast, home is where the horse is.
Inside this farmhouse in Kentucky bluegrass country, the halters of famed racehorses lie in a jumble on the stone hearth. The living room TV is permanently set to the racing channel. And the walls are covered with horse paintings, horse photographs and "Moneighs" -- original works of art created by equine smudges of the nose and flicks of the tail.
Upstairs, the two guest rooms honor racing greats Creator and Sunshine Forever, now elderly stallions living out their days at Old Friends at Dream Chase Farm, a 92-acre "retirement home" for thoroughbred champions near Lexington.
The farm's 45 retirees (14 are being kept off-site until the farm expands) might have been destined for the dinner plate if it not for Michael Blowen, a racing enthusiast whose betting was "ruined . . . completely because I fell in love with the horses."
He founded Old Friends in 2002 to give refuge to former racers that often end up neglected or headed for the slaughterhouse. Killing horses for meat is illegal in the United States, but many animals are trucked to Mexico or Canada for butchering.
Blowen and his wife, Diane White, both former journalists, turned part of their farmhouse into the B&B in 2007. But Blowen said he has been able to run the sanctuary, which he calls his "dream in 3-D," chiefly thanks to the kindness of strangers.
As a lifelong horse lover who spent my formative years bouncing on the backs of ponies, I'd always wanted to visit America's horse capital. When I learned of Blowen's work saving retired racers, I decided that his farm would be the perfect place to experience bluegrass country. And so I found myself waking up inhumanely early -- the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, no less -- to tag along with Blowen as he made his morning rounds on the farm.
I got up and peered out my window in Sunshine's room and saw the champ himself, outlined in silhouette in the early morning sun, grazing serenely down the hill. I ran out to the barn and jumped on Blowen's golf cart just as he set off to dole out breakfast. Hungry horses head-butted their empty grain buckets and pawed the ground as we moved along the fence of the area where the geldings, or neutered males, are kept.
"Hi there, handsome," said Blowen, flashing his winning smile at Kudos, a $1.2 million career earner. "Wally, look at you," he murmured affectionately to Wallace Station, the almost-black grandson of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew.
We skipped the mares, which were getting so chubby that Blowen had had to put them on a diet. Cozy Miss even wore a muzzle so she wouldn't binge on the 24-hour grass buffet. "That's real attractive," Blowen chuckled as he slipped her a carrot. "You look like Hannibal Lecter's sister."
Old Friends is the only U.S. rescue farm that also houses stallions, which are territorial and require more land than geldings.
"There he is, 25 years of explosive racing dynamite," Blowen said as we pulled up to Ogygian's pasture. The one-eyed stallion (he was unbeaten in three starts as a 2-year-old, among other feats) was B&B guest Kenneth Stablein's "first love" in horse racing and the sole reason he had made the trip to the farm from Cleveland with his wife, Candra.
Ogygian is "the horse I can remember after going to the track with my dad and watching racing on TV," Stablein said at the kitchen table as White served us a breakfast of scrambled eggs, fresh strawberries and homemade mixed-berry muffins. The Stableins plan to return to Old Friends B&B every Memorial Day weekend.
Overnight guests can take a private farm tour or join one of three daily group tours. After breakfast, I tagged along with a group led by volunteer Beth Shannon, who introduced us to the farm's resident movie star, Popcorn Deelites. The shiny red-brown horse was one of eight to play Seabiscuit in the 2003 film about the famous racer, though he's "slightly shrimpier" than the real Seabiscuit, Shannon said.
Visitors are also free to grab some carrots (Old Friends horses munch their way through 250 pounds a week) and commune with the animals. It didn't take me long to scout out my favorite: Escapedfromnewyork (nicknamed Snake, after the Kurt Russell character in the 1981 movie "Escape From New York"), a lovable little colt with a bum leg that always limped over for a scratch. A grandson of Fortunate Prospect, a prolific sire of 775 offspring that also lives on the farm, Snake was seized from a criminally negligent owner in New York state earlier this year.
Even Blowen has his pet: Sunshine Forever, a horse he saw compete at Belmont Park in 1988. That year the stallion won an Eclipse Award, considered the Oscars of horse racing.
At Sunshine Forever's pasture, Blowen stopped to talk to the sleek 24-year-old. "This is funny, watch this," he said. "Sunshine, I have a question. Are you the greatest horse we have here?"
The old stallion shook his head vigorously up and down -- a nod to greatness, straight from the horse's mouth.