Posted on Mon, Nov. 01, 2004

HORSE RACING
Into the sunset
When it comes to horse racing fans' favorites, their old acquaintances are not being forgotten

Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Caring for the elderly isn't just a growing concern for the human race.

Growing old isn't always a roll in the hay for retired thoroughbreds either.

Many, in fact, never get to see greener pastures.

When they no longer generate income on the track or in the breeding shed, they become a burden to their owners -- a financial drain.

They are often discarded like worn horseshoes.

"It's a great metaphor for the way we're treating human beings," Michael Blowen said.

It's even worse for horses than people. Many thoroughbreds are routinely sent to slaughter when their economic value is exhausted. And they're not just used-up claimers and old gray mares, but champions, too.

It's happened before.

So it might be difficult to believe, but any of the winners of the Breeders' Cup races Saturday at Lone Star Park could end up making a return trip to North Texas someday, to a slaughterhouse in Fort Worth.

Blowen is trying to put an end to this practice.

He has opened a retirement home for thoroughbreds called Old Friends. Champions, as well as those who regularly finished out of the money, are welcomed to this equine version of an assisted living facility.

"I look at this as we're dealing with movie stars," Blowen said. "And all these other horses are the supporting cast. Without them, there are no stars."

Old Friends encompasses 20 acres on Afton Farm in Midway, Ky. It is essentially a gift from farm owners Phil and Betty Sue Walters, who are leasing the land to Blowen's Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation for $1 a year.

Blowen, who is a former reporter at The Boston Globe and owner of several claiming horses, says that the nonprofit venture is being underwritten with charitable donations from racing fans.

And he is astounded at the response. The typical fan is often depicted as a $2 bettor, whose only appreciation of horses comes from cashing a winning ticket.

"But there are so many fans who don't think of horse racing as gambling," Blowen said. "About 99.9 percent of our support comes from fans. It's really a grassroots organization supported by $100 and $150 contributions. They hold these stallions in high regard."

Blowen is offering fans "shares" of retired champions for $100 a share. In return, fans receive a certificate of ownership, a photo of the horse and a video compilation of the horse's biggest races.

The thoroughbreds, much like a players association, are even pitching in. Through a program called "Stallions Helping Stallions," farms are donating halters, saddles and racing silks worn by champions, which are then auctioned.

The proceeds are then reinvested in efforts to reacquire former champions, many who were shipped to breeders overseas. These horses are not always treated regally when their days standing at stud end.

"So many Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup winners are outside the country," Blowen said. "We need to bring these stallions home and put them in a place where they can be a tourist attraction.

"We know how to take care of them here."

The bottom line

Horse racing is known as the sport of kings, but it is mostly a business and the bottom line comes before sentimentality.

So for every Seabiscuit or Seattle Slew, who is treated like part of the family, there is a Ferdinand, who was passed around like an unwanted orphan.

Remember Ferdinand?

He won the 1986 Kentucky Derby and was Horse of the Year in '87 when he defeated Alysheba in the Breeders' Cup Classic. His trainer was Charlie Whittingham; his jockey, the legendary Bill Shoemaker.

"He had a fabulous disposition," Blowen said. "He was like a big pet."

He was also sent to a slaughterhouse in Japan, probably sometime in 2002.

He fell through the cracks, and his demise was an embarrassment to the horse racing industry.

It wasn't supposed to happen. Ferdinand was retired to stud in 1989 at Claiborne Farm Kentucky, then was sold several years later to interests in Japan, where horse racing is booming and well-heeled breeders have cash to burn.

But according to a story in The Blood-Horse magazine in July 2003, the breeders who bought Ferdinand from Claiborne eventually sold him after six so-so years at stud. Efforts to send him to a riding club failed, the article said, and Ferdinand was eventually "disposed of."

You don't have to be Tony Soprano to know what that means.

The Japanese apparently made no effort to contact Claiborne to see whether it wanted to buy back its champion.

But Blowen doesn't let Claiborne off the hook.

"It's completely unacceptable," he said. "If they didn't know where Ferdinand was, they should be ashamed of themselves."

Horse meat is used mostly as pet food, but in some cultures, it is also consumed by people. That's the case in Japan, although horses used for human consumption are raised specifically for that purpose.

No one suggests that Ferdinand was on someone's dinner plate.

But it could be that eating horseflesh contributes to a lack of sensitivity regarding champion racehorses.

In Japan, Ferdinand's fate is the rule, not the exception.

Blowen said that it would be unfair, however, to point a finger solely at the Japanese. Thoroughbreds are regularly sent to slaughterhouses in the United States, Sweden, China and other countries.

And it is unrealistic, he said, to expect Old Friends to save every thoroughbred.

Part of the problem, Blowen said, is overpopulation; even average stallions are being bred because that's where the money is.

Breeders are trying to catch lightning, or the next Kentucky Derby winner, in a bottle.

"There's probably 35,000 thoroughbred foals born every year, and only one wins the Kentucky Derby," Blowen said. "The vast majority of these foals are not going anywhere."

Although the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup are contested in the United States, champion thoroughbreds are being bought by interests in Middle East countries such as Saudi Arabia, and in Turkey, Ireland, Australia and Asia, where wealthy businessmen or syndicates have the financial resources.

Strike the Gold is in Turkey; Alysheba in Saudi Arabia; and Charismatic in Japan. Some countries, among them Germany and Turkey, Blowen said, take excellent care of horses.

He said that not everyone in the Japanese racing establishment is calloused. Some were equally horrified to learn about Ferdinand's fate.

Thus, Japanese racing officials are now working with Blowen to send champions home. The most prominent is Criminal Type, the 1990 Horse of the Year. He is being donated to Old Friends and will be shipped by Japan Air Lines for a discounted fare.

"It's never been done before but we've cut through the brush and the bramble and created this little road [home]," Blowen said.

Every gesture helps, because buying back and shipping horses is expensive, sometimes reaching $50,000. All of it is funded through donations.

Blowen has created a database to track past champions and where they are sent to breed. With the money from contributions, he keeps in touch with foreign breeders to eventually buy back these horses.

Criminal Type will be Old Friends' most illustrious resident when he arrives next year. After Criminal Type takes one more turn in the breeding shed, Blowen is hopeful of having him back in time for the 2005 Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May.

The first lady

Her name is Narrow Escape. That is fitting, Blowen said. She is the daughter of Excellor, whose claim to fame was that he defeated Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Affirmed in the 1978 Jockey Gold Cup at Santa Anita.

Excellor was sent to a slaughterhouse in Sweden.

His daughter is the first lady of Old Friends.

But Narrow Escape will have company pretty soon. Thursday, a Japan Air Lines flight landed in New York with two VIPs on board -- Creator and Sunshine Forever.

After they are processed and spend a month in quarantine, they will be put on a van and sent to Old Friends.

"Sunshine Forever won the Eclipse Award as Turf champion in 1988," Blowen said. His jockey was Angel Cordero.

"When Angel found out Sunshine Forever was coming back, he was so excited, he said, 'I'll come back to see him,' " Blowen said.

Eventually, Blowen hopes there will be a number of Old Friends sanctuaries around the country where racing fans can visit some of their favorite horses.

As Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones proved last spring, thoroughbreds can have a lot of human fans. Blowen said that even some of the winners of the Breeders' Cup races at Lone Star Park might endear themselves to fans.

"For a couple of horses who win, Texas fans will become attached to them for life," Blowen said.

"Wouldn't it be nice to have them retire some day near Lone Star Park?"

IN THE KNOW

How to help

To make a donation or make a purchase that benefits Old Friends, go to the organization's Web site, www.oldfriendsequine.com.

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Pete Alfano, (817) 390-7985 palfano@star-telegram.com




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