Hanging out at Old Friends

I can’t remember where I first heard about Old Friends; it was within the last year or so, though, and it’s risen in prominence for me over the last six months. Part of being a member of the Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance is a $50 per blogger donation that we send to Patrick, who then sends the donations en masse to Old Friends each winter.

When planning my trip to Lexington, I heard over and over: “You must go to Old Friends!” (almost as frequently as I heard that I had to have breakfast at the Keeneland track kitchen). And when I heard over the winter that Williamstown had found a new home at Old Friends, I called and scheduled a tour.

I got incredibly lucky: when we showed up for our scheduled tour, we were the only people there and Michael Blowen, president of Old Friends, spent nearly two and a half hours with us, touring the facilities, introducing us to the horses, and hopping in the car to go see Danthebluegrassman, currently living at Hurstland Farm.

Armed with a bucket of horse treats, Michael brought us to each of the many paddocks, talking about the horses as though they are family members; he knows all of their stories, on the racetracks and off, and he greets each horse as (don’t cringe) an old friend. “Hey, Willie!” he calls out, approaching Williamstown’s paddock. “Dan! How you doing today?” he greets Danthebluegrassman. Most of the horses come running when they see him or hear his voice, nuzzling him (and occasionally attempting to bite). I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a person enjoy his work so thoroughly.

There are too many horses at Old Friends to detail here; you can see a partial list here, but the ones who stood out to me:

Williamstown: a friend in Saratoga bred his mare to this son of Seattle Slew several years ago. The filly bowed a tendon and didn’t make it to the races, but I met her when she was only two weeks old and have followed the fortunes of Williamstown since then. He sired a colt named Will Flirt, who raced at Saratoga; Will Flirt was in my watch list and raced regularly for a long time; over the last year, he’s gone down the ladder, racing at Mountaineer or Charles Town and not doing very well. I haven’t heard anything about him in a while, which is something I don’t like to think about it.

Williamstown himself was an impressive New York runner, winning the Withers in 1993 and setting a new track record; running second in the Jerome and the King’s Bishop; and venturing westward to run second in the Arlington Classic. His career as a sire wasn’t exactly a booming success, and when he was discovered to be infertile recently, the order to euthanize him was signed by the company insuring him. Fortunately, some wonderful soul at the insurance company called Old Friends, and Williamstown has found a third career, one that he seems to be enjoying very much.

Another horse with a Saratoga connection is Will’s Way, who won the 1996 Travers, beating Preakness winner Louis Quatorze and Belmont winner Editor’s Note, along with the favorite, Skip Away. Will’s Way’s sire, Saratoga favorite Easy Goer, had won the race seven years earlier. Each Travers morning, after all the backyard tables have been secured and the coffee poured, NYRA begins showing on the monitors all through the track replays of the Travers. So every August, I see Will’s Way beating the horses who won two legs of the Triple Crown, and his name is as familiar to me as those of the friends with whom I spend every Travers day. The New York Times story of his victory is here.

Will’s Way was trained by James Bond, the same man who trained the Williamstown filly mentioned above and who has a farm not far from Saratoga, so I was thrilled to meet this exemplary Saratoga horse. He’s incredibly friendly, more so than Williamstown, who seems to still think he’s a hotshot stallion; Will’s Way came right up to us at the paddock fence, and contentedly hung out with us, posing perfectly for this shot.

Swan’s Way: This poor guy was saved from Suffolk Downs and was in pretty bad shape when he arrived at Old Friends, fearful of humans and terribly injured. He’s now a healed and happy horse, one who has learned some good manners but who does not, I think, want people to think that he’s gone soft. Following our visit with him, we walked away from him along his paddock rail; after a moment, Swan’s Day trotted up the rail to follow us. Hearing him, I looked back, just in time to see his neck outstretched, mouth wide open, with dead aim on my right shoulder. Another second or two and my jacket—and my shoulder—would have had a gaping hole in it.

Ogygian: Ogygian came to Old Friends from Japan. You can’t tell in these photos, but his left eye is gone, the result of an accident at some point in his career. He still had his eye when he arrived at Old Friends, but he was blind, so the choice was made to remove the eye. It doesn’t seem to bother him much, and he’s an incredibly social guy; he literally cantered over to Michael across his paddock when he saw Michael coming.

Ogygian is a multiple Grade I winner: the Belmont Futurity, the Dwyer, and the Jerome. According to Pedigree Query, Ogygian sired 23 stakes winner; Madeleine Paulson, his former owner, played a significant role in bringing him to Old Friends.

Danthebluegrassman: I didn’t know anything about this horse until I read Valerie’s recent posts (here and here) about him, both the worrying news about his race career and the good news that he was moving to Kentucky. Michael was eager to check on him and show him off, so he guided us through the Kentucky countryside to Hurstland Farm, Dan’s temporary home. On the way, we passed these adorable mares and foals; no idea who they are or even what farm it is, but I couldn’t resist stopping to check them out.

When we arrived at Hurstland, Dan was standing regally in his paddock, lord of all he surveyed, barely deigning to acknowledge us for several minutes as Michael tried to coax him over. Once he relented, all pretense of superiority fell away, and he was more than happy to remain with us at the rail, nibbling treats and carrots, clearly fond of the man who saved him. I experienced something of a rite of initiation, as with a mouthful of carrots, Dan looked me straight in the eye and spewed his masticated vegetables all over me: in hair, on face, on coat. Nice guy, that Dan.

Michael Blowen is not only a horse fan; he’s also a racing fan, with an encyclopediac knowledge of racing history. Walking with him was like walking through generations of racing, of breeding, of pedigree. The visit was satisfying on every level, and exceeded my expectations: who knew that we’d get a multi-hour, private, guided tour?

In the gift shop I picked up a book I’d been wanting to read for some time, John Eisenberg’s Native Dancer: The Gray Ghost, and browsed the clothing, calendars, notecards, and gift items on sale. Somehow, splurging in the gift shop doesn’t seem quite so bad when you know that part of your expenditure is helping horses.

Blowen spoke openly about the cooperation—and lack thereof—of various personages in the racing industry as he worked to save the horses they used to own. Once again calling on the offices of our would-be commissioner, wouldn’t it be nice if there were some nationally-recognized body that oversaw the lives of horses after they left the track? Owners and breeders could make mandatory deposits that would be held until the horse no longer earned its keep, at which point this national organization would step in to distribute the money to whatever organization would take on the care of the horse. Foolish thinking, I know, regarding an industry that resists standardization and oversight at nearly every level.

While at Old Friends, it’s easy to be heartened about how the horses we love—and the horses we disregard—can live happy, safe lives after the race track. Leaving Old Friends, one can’t help but think of all the horses we lost track of (where are you, Will Flirt?), and wonder how to ensure for them a comfortable life—or at the very least, a painless death. Though it doesn’t happen enough, whenever I win $50 or more at the races, I donate half to a Thoroughbred retirement organization, whether it’s the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation or Old Friends. Links to both organizations are at the left; here’s hoping that a little of your extra change can make it to the coffers of the organizations that work to save the horses that bring us so much pleasure.

11 thoughts on “Hanging out at Old Friends

  1. Old Friends is a lovely place. I only hope someone is around to take such good care of me when I retire. Would that there were more places like this for those who give their all on the track, whether a champion or just a guy who tried really hard.

  2. What an amazing trip.Such a cute photo of Will’s Way.I can’t believe how generous you are with your winnings. If you’re alive in a P6, I’m calling all your horsey friends so they can tune in!

  3. Don’t give me too much credit, Ernie; it’s been an awfully long time since I’ve made one of those winnings-based donations!

  4. Thank you for sharing your wonderful trip report. This is almost better than actually going on the trip ourselves. In the most vivid way we are realizing the beautiful imagery of your journey. However we do not share the costs or inconveniences, in fact some of us are paid to read this stuff.

  5. Teresa – what an awesome blog entry – you rock! I am so glad you got to see everyone…and spend time. May you journey back be soon. Thank you for your kindess and concern toward these wonderful old warriors. Dan looks like a million bucks and we can’t wait to meet him.

  6. TeresaI haven’t seen Wiliamstown since all those purple and yellow ties (Willians College)were struting around the paddock — 15 years ago ??? Surprised the Wilmotts didn’t keep him. Peter also had a very nice store in Saratoga (House of Walsh) and the family was/is for Glens Falls, NYDo you know why a short ‘musical interlude’ plays when I click on your blog ?

  7. It’s wonderful to hear that true race fans like yourself still exist. I’m tired of reading so many negative comments about the great sport of thoroughbred racing. Yes, there are many problems that need to be resolved. Nevertheless, the real stars of this sport are the horses themselves, and all racing fans should follow your example and honor their glory.

  8. I think the short musical interlude is from the video of the “First Saturday in May”. I get it sometimes too and I finally figured out that’s where it’s coming from.

  9. Another reason to support and promote ‘Old Friends’ is that they are the only retirement organization, I believe, that takes stallions. TRF won’t take stallions, only fillies and I believe geldings, so the olde stallions are left for you know what. I give a year end donation every year, normally to TRF, but this year it was to Old Friends, as it will be in the future. Got a nice picture of Williamstown and nice certificate as well.Michael – keep up the great work and continue to enjoy life.

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