It is difficult to tell the claimers from the Derby champions as they press against their paddock fences hoping to seduce the passing tour into parting with just a few more carrots. With all of mankind’s intellect and insight, we still do not completely understand the magnetic attraction between the horse and man. But we do see the gentle smiles as a thoroughbred allows some of us to stroke its sun-warmed muzzle and know that the timeless connection has been made once again.
Old Friends was founded in 2003 by Michael Blowen, a onetime movie critic for The Boston Globe. Blowen has been quoted as saying, “Thoroughbreds are born, they race, they breed and they come to Old Friends.” At Old Friends, the life cycle of a thoroughbred is completed.
Old Friends’ Georgetown, KY farm sits on 136 rolling acres and is home to 101 Thoroughbreds and one special mini, Little Silver Charm, who at more than 30 years of age follows Blowen around on a lead like a puppy. Additionally there are several horses kept at satellite locations near Saratoga, NY and Kentucky Downs racecourse.
Life is abundant and celebrated at Old Friends, but there are lives that slip away, such as Hall of Fame inductees Skip Away and Precisionist, as well as millionaires like Gulch and Creator. All are buried on the farm.
Silver Charm, once steel grey, is now nearly white. He still possesses the look of eagles—imperious and regal. Although years past his prime, Silver Charm is still devastatingly handsome. He takes carrots from his admirers in an almost gentlemanly way. The 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner is a bit fussy about his nighttime accommodations. He prefers sleeping indoors while the rest of his peers sleep outside or in a run-in shelter in their paddock.
There is irony in that Touch Gold, who defeated Silver Charm in the 1997 Belmont Stakes, lives in the paddock just next door. When the tour approached his fence line, Touch Gold made a breathless charge up a hill, ears pricked, his eyes alert, hard and focused. What a thrill it was to stand only yards away from a great thoroughbred as he closed the distance between us in explosions of sound and turf.
Now nearly 23, Touch Gold and Silver Charm are surprisingly youthful in appearance, loose jointed and agile. All of the geldings and stallions are as fit as their age or prior injuries allow, and without exception they are trim, obviously well fed and healthy. Stallions each have their own paddocks while two geldings share a paddock.
But the charm of Old Friends rests in the horses you may never have heard of or simply forgotten. Take, for example, Tinners Way, the final foal of the great Secretariat who is best known for the fillies and mares he sired. A golden chestnut foaled in 1990, Tinners Way traveled to England where he won the City of York and Milcars Temple Fortune Stakes and placed well in other English and French stakes races.
At four he won the G1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar, equaling the track record for 1-1/4 miles at 1:59 2/5. He won the race again the following year. At six he again matched a track record in winning the G1 Californian Stakes at Santa Anita.
Neither possessing his sire’s size nor stride, the muscular Tinners Way still carved a successful career of his own, winning more than $1.9 million and quietly stepping out of the great Secretariat’s shadow. He is not overly fond of people, possessing a bit of his sire’s brass, but the 26-year-old, pushing his nose between the rails of his paddock fence, gently took carrots from my hand.
And there is Genuine Reward, a son of Rahy and one of only two foals produced by Genuine Risk, the 1980 Kentucky Derby winner. While Reward never went to the post, he did find success as a sire of polo ponies in Wyoming. We found him in his paddock, lying in the November sun close to his pile of hay.
Or Popcorn Deelites, a smallish, gentle, low-level claimer whose only claim to fame aside from a five race win streak at Paradise Park, is his appearance as Seabiscuit in the Oscar-nominated film of the same name. His specialty was breaking from the gate and he is seen defeating War Admiral in their famed match race of 1938. Popcorn’s legacy: 58 starts, 11 wins, 5 seconds and 7 third place finishes.
Popcorn, a gelding, shares a paddock with the surprising Special Ring, who won nearly a million dollars. Special Ring began his career in France winning two races at the famed Longchamp Racecourse, but it was on the American turf that he made his mark winning 10 of 29 starts while setting two track records as he went. He raced in the Breeder’s Cup Mile in 2003 at Santa Anita and 2004 at Lone Star Park, finishing 8th and 13th after stumbling badly at the start. Special Ring has made the act of flehmen an art form, cocking his head to the side and “grinning” so broadly that you can see his lip tattoo, all for the sake of another carrot.
Few have heard of the remarkable Rapid Redux, claimed for $6,250 in 2010, with no graded stakes wins to his name. But he was certainly a winner. His connections raced him at tracks such as Laurel, Charles Town and Mountaineer, and in 2011, the chestnut gelding tied Citation’s record of 19 wins in a season and 19 consecutive races shared by Zenyatta and Pepper’s Pride. (There was a hint of chicanery surrounding his 18th win. However, nothing was ever proven and his record remains intact.)
His streak stopped at 22 wins in a row, a record which may never be eclipsed. In recognition he was given a special Eclipse Award and the Vox Populi award in 2011. An amazing record of achievement for a horse few have ever heard of, and even fewer had ever placed a bet.
I’m Charismatic is stone blind but stands regally alert, seeing with his remaining senses and waiting patiently for his carrots and for his famous sire Charismatic, who will soon call Old Friends home upon returning from a stallion career in Japan. After winning the Derby and the Preakness in 1999, Charismatic was the favorite in the Belmont. Leading in the stretch, Charismatic suddenly fell back to finish third, suffering multiple fractures of his left front leg. His jockey, the late Chris Antley, leapt from the saddle and cradled Charismatic’s broken foreleg in his arms until help arrived. Antley’s quick response saved Charismatic from further injury and perhaps even death. After extensive testing for disease and spending about three weeks in quarantine, Charismatic may well make his first public appearance in early 2017.
This is Old Friends Farm; a museum for the living, a quiet haven where the greats, near greats and horses that never were exchange the currency of their racing years for a life of rest and respect.
About the Author
Loren Schumacher is a small business/horse owner in Southwestern Ohio. He competes in competitive trail events and publishes the blog Nip & Duck, where he talks about almost anything horse.