GEORGETOWN, Ky. (AP) — It's been more than 20 years since Michael Blowen sat down to chat it up with Hollywood A-listers like actor Jack Nicholson, but the effect celebrities have on their fans is still fresh on his mind.
"I know how excited people get when they see a movie star," said Blowen, remembering his time as an entertainment reporter at The Boston Globe. "It's the same way I feel when I see a famous racehorse and I figured I can't be the only person who feels this way."
Concerned about the welfare of ex-racehorses, Blowen figured he could use "celebrity" to provide a dignified retirement not only for well-known thoroughbreds like the winners of Breeders' Cup, Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, but also for their less popular competitors.
That's how Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm, located in the idyllic Georgetown, Kentucky, was born.
"For every famous horse we get — like Silver Charm, War Emblem or Alphabet Soup — we try to retire another one who isn't as well known," said Blowen, president of Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm. "I think the key to this whole place is making sure these animals can still generate income once their racing and breeding careers are over."
Old Friends provides a "dignified retirement to thoroughbreds whose racing and breeding careers have come to an end," according to Blowen. By promoting "these one-time celebrated horses through a campaign of education and tourism, we hope to raise awareness of all equines in need," Old Friends' website states.
So far, the farm has been a success. It's easy for horse fans to become starstruck when greeted at a pasture fence by Amazombie, the winner of the Breeders' Cup sprint in 2011 or when they catch a glimpse of 2012 Breeders' Cup Turf winner Little Mike galloping around a lush field.
"He was arguably the best horse in the world at longer distances on the turf in 2012," Blowen said of Little Mike.
Visitors pay $10 apiece to meet these heroes of the horse world. Just a few steps from Blowen's back door, Alphabet Soup, the winner of the $6 million winner Breeders' Cup Classic in 1996, scratches his back by rolling in a patch of dirt. In the next pasture, feisty War Emblem — a Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner — races along the fence hoping to attract enough attention to win a fist full of carrots.
In 2003, the equine elder care facility was still just an idea and consisted of a leased paddock with one lone horse. Today, Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farms has grown into a 136-acre farm with a herd of 126 rescued and retired horses, and two satellite facilities: Old Friends at Cabin Creek in Greenfield Center, New York and Old Friends at Kentucky Downs in Franklin, Kentucky.
The main farm is staffed by eight employees and dozens of volunteers. From veterinarian care to fencing, donations keep the farm and its mission afloat. Blowen and his wife Diane White, also a former Boston Globe columnist, generate donations through fundraising events and some from private donors, including a few of Blowen's former interview subjects like actors Angie Dickinson and Jack Nicholson.
Blowen has built a benevolent reputation in the equine world. Horse owners reach out to Old Friends when they are ready to retire a beloved racehorse. Jockeys like Chris McCarron, who rode Alphabet Soup in a stunning victory over favorite Cigar in the 1996 Breeders' Cup Classic, stops by on occasion to visit his famous ride.
And he's not alone. Each year, more than 20,000 visitors make the trip to the living history museum to feed a few carrots to some of the most successful racehorses of all time.
"When they are working (as racehorses) their lives are stressful, they're kept in stalls and trained like athletes," Blowen said as he walks along a gravel driveway carrying a black plastic bucket filled with carrots.
"Here, they get to be horses again. They hang out with (other racehorses) in wide-open pastures and sometimes we see them take off through the field and race each other with no jockey, no betting, no pressures," he said. "Just living like horses."
The relaxed lifestyle agrees with the aging residents. Alphabet Soup, who is now 27 years old, is a gentle stallion who spends his days with his favorite companion, a 9-year-old donkey named Gorgeous George.
"They are never apart," Blowen said. "When we take Alfie (nickname for Alphabet Soup) out of his stall to the pasture, George trots right along behind him. They keep each other company and are the best of friends."
The former newspaperman currently has five Breeders' Cup winners living at his farm — Little Mike, Amazombie, Eldaafer, Alphabet Soup and Cajun Beat. Each horse has his own distinct personality but the winners all share a common trait.
They're all incredibly smart.
"The ones that raced the Breeders' Cup are all smarter than everybody else. They know more about how to be racehorses, they know that it's more than just running around in a circle — there is strategy involved," Blowen said. "The good ones are playing chess while the others are playing checkers."
Once lightning-fast superstars, these four-legged athletes may be past their prime but they have found their 'Old Kentucky Home' and a dignified retirement thanks to this former reporter and equine fan.
With only a few carrots remaining at the bottom of his bucket, Blowen steps up to the pasture occupied by War Emblem. Suddenly like a couple of school-age kids, Blowen breaks into a sprint next to the former Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner.
Laughing as he runs, Blowen taunts the handsome, nearly black racehorse. "Come on, come on! Catch me, catch me!"
Which of course, War Emblem does. He then bucks his hind legs as if to say, "hey old man, this game is done."