For decades, former Boston Globe film critic and dabbling horse owner Michael Blowen lived a metropolitan lifestyle many would have called charmed. But it’s been in retirement, both his own and the four-legged kind, that Blowen has found his calling and his joy.
In 2003, Blowen moved from Massachusetts to the rolling pastures of Georgetown, Kentucky, with his wife, Diane White, herself a former Globe columnist, to establish the Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm, a special facility that offers a safe haven where former racing horses can enjoy their later years.
An initiative that started with a single horse in a leased paddock has now grown to include 240 horses, a 136-acre farm and two satellite locations — one in Franklin, Kentucky, and the other in Greenfield Center, New York.
Even now, after more than 16 years of operation, Blowen can hardly believe that he gets to wake up every day to enjoy the company of such famous neighbors.
“The idea that I would end up with Silver Charm in my yard is just totally crazy,” Blowen said. “He’s my favorite horse of all time.”
In addition to Silver Charm, the roughly 25,000 visitors who travel to Old Friends each year can enjoy meeting fellow Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion War Emblem, plus Belmont Stakes winners Sarava and Touch Gold, Santa Anita winner Game On Dude, Breeder’s Cup champions Amazombie, Little Mike and Alphabet Soup, as well as dozens of lesser-known but equally charming former racers.
“We have more stakes winners than any farm in the history of horse racing,” Blowen said. “Our horses have won virtually every important race in the sport. At my age, it’s hard to be astounded, but I’m literally astounded to be surrounded by these horses every day.”
Operating as a “living history museum of horse racing,” Old Friends lets visitors enjoy rare, up-close face time with some of the Thoroughbred industry’s biggest names and, sometimes even, get the chance to feed them a carrot or two.
“Many people see the horses’ value in their racing lives or in the breeding shed, but I think their true value doesn’t come out until they’re retired, when people can get to know their personalities and appreciate them as unique individuals,” Blowen said. “People come here and get to pet them and appreciate these great athletes. I get a thrill out of it every day.”
Kentucky Horse Park
Home to many different breeds of horses, the Kentucky Horse Park offers visitors a chance to explore a real working horse farm. From draft horses in the Big Barn to elite members of the Hall of Champions, including Belmont and Preakness winner Funny Cide, to working horses on the park’s popular horseback riding trails, there’s no shortage of equines to enjoy at the park’s 1,229 acres. While there, make time to enjoy the Parade of Breeds showcase, held daily April through November. Four on-site museums, including the International Museum of the Horse and the American Saddlebred Museum, offer unique lenses through which to appreciate all things equine.
Opened in 1936, Lexington’s Keeneland Race Course is revered for its picturesque stone clubhouse, immaculate grounds and stately saddling paddock, where racing fans enjoy gathering before the start of each live race to get a glimpse of the participating horses and their jockeys. Keeneland hosts racing meets each April and October but has become a must-visit attraction for locals and visitors year-round. Early-morning visitors can enjoy watching the horses warm up before race day, and they can grab a hearty country breakfast at the well-loved Keeneland track kitchen, where they might rub elbows with jockeys and trainers.
Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm
Guided, 90-minute walking tours of the Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm are available via reservation. Reservations can be made online, and tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for children. Tours typically include visits with 15 or more of the farm’s retired equine residents and include insights into their racing careers and unique personalities.
Horse Country makes it easier for visitors to reserve tours at many of Kentucky’s most famous horse farms, including Coolmore at Ashford Stud, seasonal home of Triple Crown winners Justify and American Pharoah, plus Claiborne Farm, Lane’s End Farm, WinStar Farm, Three Chimneys, Darby Dan and many others. In all, tours at more than 30 central Kentucky Thoroughbred industry locations are available, all through a single online reservation system. Through Horse Country, groups can set up experiences and tours at breeding facilities, equine clinics, equine nursery operations — homes to mares and their foals — Kentucky racetracks and more.
Home to “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” and the iconic Twin Spires, synonymous with horse racing in Kentucky since their completion in 1895, Churchill Downs is the site that draws horse racing fans’ full attention on the first Saturday in May. Though Kentucky Derby Day is the track’s marquee event, there’s plenty to see and enjoy on the grounds year-round, including frequent live racing and special events, and access to the Kentucky Derby Museum, which is open daily.
For a different horse racing experience, groups can visit Lexington’s Red Mile to witness harness racing, where horses pull their jockeys trailing two-wheeled carts. Founded in 1875, the Red Mile, named originally for its one-mile, red-clay track, is one of the oldest and most revered harness racing venues in the nation. Stakes races are typically held on select dates between July and October. On-site gaming, via slotlike historical racing machines, is available year-round.