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
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
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
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
The bottom line
Horse racing is known as the sport of kings,
but it is mostly a business and the bottom line comes before
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.
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
The Japanese apparently made no effort to
contact Claiborne to see whether it wanted to buy back its
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
In Japan, Ferdinand's fate is the rule, not
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
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
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
"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.
on the performances and performers, this Breeders' Cup was one
of the best ever. 15D
winner Ghostzapper's handlers are confident four races are
enough to clinch Horse of the Year. 15D