A year after surviving a financial crisis that threatened the existence of Old Friends Kentucky, the Thoroughbred retirement facility has come roaring back, stronger than ever.
In the coming weeks, Old Friends is expected to sign a lease agreement on a 250-acre property in Kentucky, a windfall that will provide the growing horse charity with six additional barns, a veterinarian facility and exercise area—all for a dollar a year.
“I don’t want to jinx it by saying much more,” says Old Friends founder and president Michael Blowen. “But, we expect to lease a minimum of 250 acres for something like a dollar a year for 99 years.”
If all goes to plan, the retirement facility for ex-racehorse Thoroughbreds will be able to offer homes to many of the 70 horses currently on the Old Friends waiting list.
“Right now we’re caring for 120 horses who earned a total of nearly $90 million on the track, but they don’t have a Social Security plan,” Blowen says.
This is where the fans and industry supporters come in.
Increasingly, fans and racing officials have come out of the woodwork to support Blowen’s vision.
This week, the doors of the Oheka Castle will be swung open for a gala fundraiser benefitting Old Friends. The eye-popping New York hotel and estate, which has appeared in numerous films, including Citizen Kane, is being offered, free of charge, so that Old Friends can host its Belmont Ball fundraiser.
“It normally rents for” tens of thousands of dollars a night “but the use of the property is being donated to us,” Blowen says.
Fitting of the regal environment, an award will be given to an associate of Queen Zenyatta. Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, race manager for Jerry and Ann Moss, Zenyatta’s owners, will be presented with the first Old Friends Bobby Frankel Award.
“The award symbolizes someone who has made an extraordinary contribution to Old Friends,” Blowen says. “Dottie was responsible for sending us our first big-name stallion,” and she has remained an ardent supporter of the facility.
Other glamorous industry luminaries will attend the fundraiser this Wednesday night, from 6 to 10 p.m. They include trainer Nick Zito, Billy Turner, trainer of Seattle Slew, and Joe Torre, famed baseball player and former manager of the New York Yankees.
Tickets, which are $250, are still available and may be purchased through Old Friends.
And, if the star-studded gala, and promise of additional property, isn’t enough of a happy turn of events following last year’s near devastating financial crisis, there’s more:
Rapid Redux, holder of the North American record for most consecutive races won —he finished first in 22 starts— came to live at Old Friends on May 30, and reminds everyone involved why they’re all working so hard to help Thoroughbreds retire.
Of all subjects touched upon in a phone interview this week; Rapid Redux elicited a childlike glee in Blowen, a former Boston Globe entertainment reporter and volunteer hotwalker at Suffolk Downs.
Talk of the new horse was clearly the favorite subject.
“That horse,” Blowen says, “is so smart! He settled right in immediately. He even made friends with Gulch in the next paddock.
“It’s amazing to think that he holds the North American record for consecutive victories—he’s tied with Citation’s record!”
His arrival at Old Friends has brought a breath of fresh air, and new fans, to the Kentucky facility.
There is so much positive news coming out of a facility that, just a year ago, struggled with a surprise financial crisis. A banking error, which caused a miscalculation on loan payments, put Old Friends $200,000 in arrears last spring.
After a desperate appeal to fans and donors, Blowen was able to raise the money quickly, and right the financial situation.
And today, on the cusp of a property deal that will open up more homes for horses, things are looking up, and up.
“It’s our extremely generous fans and people like Ann and Jerry Moss” and other industry leaders “who keep us going,” Blowen says. “We have supporters who are so generous it’s like they can’t be generous enough. These are the ones who will write you a big check, and then apologize for not giving more.”
As Old Friends continues to bring in donations, and garner accreditation from groups like the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, Blowen chuckles as he considers how well this year is going.
“I think when we first started, people were skeptical about what we were trying to do,” he says. “But now, people come to the farm, and they like how the horses are looking, and how we’re taking care of them. And, now, things are really looking up!”