Old Friends at Kentucky Downs

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Article & photos by Grace Clark

     “People everywhere associate Kentucky with horses,” said Simpson County Tourism Commission Director Dan Ware. "For years, our tourism log cabin has had people turning up on our doorstep asking, ‘Now that I am in Kentucky, where can I see a horse?’ It's great to finally be able to tell them, ‘The horses are just a mile and a half down the road at Old Friends at Kentucky Downs.’ There is no other tourist attraction like it anywhere along the I-65 corridor in Kentucky.

Franklin, Kentucky, located on the Kentucky-Tennessee border, is one of the most visited entrances into Kentucky. Located just 45 minutes north of Nashville, off I-65, the small town is a great place to stop during a road trip, or a quick trip to Music City. Except for Kentucky Downs, which hosts simulcasting, and live racing five days each September, Franklin has little else to show for the state’s most famous residents, horses.

Further north in Georgetown, Kentucky reside some of Thoroughbred horse racing’s most famed, and also forgotten, athletes. Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Facility provides a “dignified retirement to race horses off the track, unknowns and champions alike.” The organization was founded in 2003 by former Boston Globe film critic, Michael Blowen. Blowen often bet on the races while living in Boston, and he began to work with the horses in the hopes it would help his handicapping skills. It did not, but in the end, like so many racing fans, he fell in love with the animals. The death of Ferdinand, the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner, in a Japanese slaughterhouse was the shot heard ‘round the Thoroughbred racing world. Attention to Thoroughbred aftercare shot through the roof, and as did the motivation to start Old Friends.

Beginning as a small, leased farm with two horses, the facility is now a 136-acre farm that is home to over 150 retired thoroughbreds. The first horses to be brought back to the United States after stud duty in Japan, Creator and Sunshine Forever, were able to return home thanks to the efforts of Michael Blowen, Old Friends, and their many supporters. Now, the farm is home to horses ranging from 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner, Silver Charm and 1988 Eclipse Champion Sprinter, Gulch, to I’m Charismatic, a son of 1999 Kentucky Derby winner, Charismatic, who never lived up to his father’s legacy, but continues to win the hearts of visitors to the farm.

Now, two of Kentucky’s Thoroughbred racing establishments have come together to form a satellite location of the well-known Thoroughbred retirement home, Old Friends at Kentucky Downs. The facility is located on the backstretch of the Franklin racetrack, and is currently home to five horses, including some with a history of racing at Kentucky Downs. The facility includes a gift shop featuring Old Friends and racing memorabilia, and stabling and paddocks for the horses, all with a beautiful view of America’s only European-style racecourse. In the near future, ten or more residents are expected on the farm. Current residents include:

BALL FOUR: The gutsy son of Grand Slam is the holder of track records at two of America’s most historic racetracks, Turfway Park and Belmont Park. In his maiden victory, Ball Four set a new track record at Belmont Park, going 7.5 furlongs in 1:29:38. In the 2006 G2 Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park, he set another track record for 1 â…› miles in 1:48.29. His other victories include the G3 Fayette Stakes, Tejano Run Stakes, and the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap. Ball Four retired from racing in 2011 with 9 wins, 3 places, and 4 shows in 31 career starts, earning $730,470.

THORNFIELD: Canadian Horse of the Year and Champion Turf Horse, Thornfield is revered among his fans in both the U.S. and Canada. The Sky Classic gelding won 50% of his races in 1998 and 1999. Included in his six victories are the prestigious Canadian International Stakes (CAN-G1) and the Niagara Breeders’ Cup (CAN-G2). Thornfield is the only Canadian Horse of the Year to be sired by another Horse of the Year. He retired in 1999 with earnings of over a million dollars, and six victories in nineteen starts.

RUMOR HAS IT: “Rumor” is the first horse at Old Friends at Kentucky Downs who raced on the turf course during his career. The 2001 son of Awesome Again won the 2008 Kentucky Turf Cup at Kentucky Downs at odds of 59-1. In his thirty-eight start career, Rumor earned over $300,000, and hit the board eleven times.

SGT. BERT: Sgt. Bert’s career highlights came in the Woodford Stakes at Keeneland, which he won in 2005 and 2006, and set a track record for 5 ½ furlongs. He is a 2001 gelding by Confide, and raced at tracks all around Kentucky from age 3-8, and earned nearly $360,000 in his career.

TOUR OF THE CAT: Tour of the Cat was the winner of ten Florida stakes including the G2 Richter Scale Handicap at Gulfstream Park and the G3 Spend a Buck at Calder Racecourse. Tour had a well earned retirement in his sights when he ran in a claiming race in 2008. But, this was not his last time at the track. After being claimed out of that race, he was shipped to New York to compete in low level claiming races, before being claimed by Maggi Moss and then retired to Old Friends. Tour of the Cat retired at the age of eleven with over $1.1 million in earnings after a whopping 79 starts.

This new destination in Simpson Co. provides a well-deserved retirement home to some of the world’s finest athletes, as well as an opportunity for people to learn more about the animals that work for Kentucky.

“The plan is to have a continuing and thriving retirement center for retired racehorses,” Kentucky Downs Racing Development Manager Rick Albright said. “This is the first time ever that race horses have been retired at a racetrack.”

Tours are held every day except Monday at 11am and 4pm. Tour reservations can be made by calling Simpson County Tourism Office at 270-586-3040 or toll free at 866-531-2040. Tours are $5 a person, with children 12 and under free. Group tours are welcomed, and can be accommodated by appointment. 

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