The dignity of the thoroughbred
Retired thoroughbreds, geldings and those whose worth in the issues of earning money for their owners was diminished or completely over had little help from benefactors until the fate of one-time Kentucky Derby champion, Ferdinand, was made public not too many years ago.
Ferdinand was in Japan. He had been sold to thoroughbred breeders there. When his value as a stud was negligible, he went to an auction where buyers for slaughterhouses frequently bought most of the horses.
Ferdinand was bought by a slaughterhouse and his remains were used to feed somebody in a restaurant that routinely served horse meat.
The details of the awful end of life for a Kentucky Derby winner finally reached the shores of the United State.
People were appalled. What could be done to prevent the same shameful end happening to other thoroughbreds?
In Georgetown, Kentucky the news of Ferdinand’s demise came to Michael Blowen, a retired newspaper writer who recognized the indignity being fastened to the lives of thoroughbreds who were no longer of commercial value to their owners.
With a bare bones beginning, Blowen started “Old Friends”, where he would give thoroughbreds a life line and a pleasurable last few years to their lives.
He began his saving-grace program with one leased paddock and two thoroughbreds. That was in 2003.
With much work, untiring ways to attract positive publicity and contributions and with contacts across the globe, Blowen gradually acquired more land and more thoroughbreds to live out their golden years, or as he says, “their dignified retirement”.
His is a non-profit organization. But with donations, private support, grants and sales from a gift shop on his grounds, “Old Friends” has grown significantly to be a 136-acre home for 150 horses, all but one being thoroughbreds.
“Old Friends” receives no government funds.
In 2014, there were 20,000 visitors/tourists that came to see Game on Dude, Gulch, Commentator, Dinard, Silver Charm and the other less famous residents at their Georgetown home.
Now dubbed “Horse Racing’s Living History Museum”, the facility is open to the public year-round and conducts three guided tours every day from March 15 through November 3. During the winter there is one tour a day.
Blowen and his group of aides now have similar operations in two other locales, including Cabin Creek, New York which is just outside Saratoga and that famous old-line racing community.
Children and adults can feed the thoroughbreds carrots and apples when being led on the guided tours.
Commentator once raced at Charles Town; as did Black Tie Affair, who passed away in 2010. Game on Dude is a Charles Town Classic champion in the not too distant past and was trained by Bob Baffert.
The tours are conducted along the fence rows of the now-roomy paddocks and many of the thoroughbreds will come over to greet the visitors . . . and, of course, look longingly for handouts of fresh vegetables or fruit.
Celebrities, politicians and those connected with the thoroughbred racing industry have gradually gravitated toward “Old Friends” and have become unpaid spokesmen for the life-saving work being done. Recently retired jockey Rosie Napravnik is on Blowen’s Board of Directors.
Ferdinand couldn’t be saved . . . but the resounding fury stirred by his fate has meant the saving of many others whose lives could have ended with a similar sadness.