I recently had the opportunity to sit with Michael Blowen, founder of Old Friends Farm in Georgetown. He is an icon in Lexington and a man that has been on my bucket list to meet for years. It was only appropriate that he be our inaugural “Humans of Lexington” feature.
From the moment he walked through the door, his eyes glistened and his smile radiated the warmth of the sun even on though it was cold, windy and raining outside in the early part of December.
We sat in the back offices and immediately started chatting, getting the particulars out of the way before the stories started flowing. I learned about his family, wife Diane who had been a columnist at the Boston Globe and who he says has been his better half for more than 35 years. Then there is his son Dylan who makes documentaries in Australia and his grandson Daschiell.
We continued to talk about how he is fortunate enough to visit Saratoga in the summer but he quickly gets homesick for Kentucky. He moved here in 2001 and started Old Friends just two years later in 2003.
HoL: What is your proudest accomplishment?
Besides getting married to Diane, it’s of course Old Friends. He lovingly gives all of the credit to Diane whom he says gave him confidence when he married her. They met at the Boston Globe where they were both writers. While at the Globe he said his first thought of horses was that they never should be athletes. Editor and mentor, Robert Taylor changed his mind however. Robert was an amazing editor that would take a ho-hum piece that started as a C-, change a few words and with a few edits it was suddenly a B+. Robert invited Michael to the track one day and that’s where he fell in love with the atmosphere of horse racing. It wasn’t until years later however that he would learn about the horses.
He ran into trainer Carlos Figueroa and asked him to share his knowledge of horses. Michael started by cleaning stalls and being a hot walker at Suffolk Downs and Rockingham Park. He recounts that when a horse would “disappear” they would tell him it had gone to a riding academy in Maine – it wasn’t too long until he realized the horses were actually going to slaughter and he was inspired to do something.
He fell in love with Saratoga Character and convinced them at the farm to donate him to a retirement program. He found his way after a while to Kentucky, being a therapy horse in a prison program in Lexington. Michael came to Kentucky to do a story on the horse and the program which was thriving.
A few years later, he gave himself a retirement gift and went to Belmont. While there he had dinner with the leadership of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. While at that dinner, and maybe after a few to many drinks, TRF asked him to be the operations manager at their Midway, Ky office. He said he really didn’t believe the offer was real and it must have been the wine talking.
The next day, they called him and asked again for him to come to TRF. He talked it over with Diane who said she’d move with him on one condition, “when I leave you, you don’t come after me.” That sealed the deal and Michael and Diane moved to Kentucky. While telling me this story, Diane had arrived in the office and interjected here and there backing up Michael’s story or chuckling ever so slightly.
While working at TRF Michael and Diane thought about having their own place. They noticed no one was talking about the stallions and after all, they are the star of the show. Michael saw how excited people got visiting the Horse Park and he thought these superior athletes should have a place of their own to retire after all horse racing is the best sport ever created and there should be a tribute to the horses.
And so became, Old Friends.
HoL: What motivates you to work hard?
“I’m motivated by the horses, but it’s everyone else that does the work. Diane and I started out doing it all and now we have an amazing team and I get to play every day!” He beams with excitement when he talks about bringing his mini out every day and getting to see Silver Charm. He really is living the life.
HoL: What’s your favorite thing about your “job”?
“I like getting up every morning and knowing that Silver Charm is in the backyard.” He went on to tell me how Silver Charm was his favorite horse of all time. He had won the 1997 Derby and Preakness but Michael never got to see him race. After he retired, he went to Three Chimneys farm and in 2004 was shipped off to Japan for stud duty where he lived for 10 or 11 years. 5 years ago on December 1st, he came to retire at Old Friends. He remembers vividly the day Sandy Hatfield called and asked him if he’d like an old grey stallion at the farm. He couldn’t believe it when that stallion was Silver Charm! Michael had never seen Silver Charm before he came to the farm. What a day that must have been!
HoL: Tell me a great story about the farm.
While he said there are so many, two immediately came to mind. Recently a couple came from Fargo, North Dakota. They were really nice and smart but had never been to a horse race. They loved their visit, getting close with the horses and feeding them carrots. When the tour was over, they told Michael they wanted to make a donation but didn’t have their checkbook with. In the back of his mind he thought, “I’ve heard this before.” A few days later he received an email again mentioning the donation and saying that it would be significant but it would be a one time donation. Then a couple weeks ago, the check arrived and “in one swoop we went from being in the negative to being in the positive.” This large donation came not from horse people, but from people who enjoyed their time at Old Friends.
He went on to tell me about Sarava, who won the 2002 Belmont stakes. He was the biggest spoiler of all time and paid $142.50 for $2. He said he often saw a man jogging in the morning and he always stopped at Sarava’s paddock and fed him carrots. One day he stopped the man and asked what his fascination was with this particular horse. The runner said, “The day this horse won was the best day of my life, I won $14,000. So I’m just thanking him.” That man died two years ago and his wife had his ashes spread in Sarava’s paddock and donated a bench that sits right across from the paddock. This way, “he can sit every day and see the horse that changed his life.”
I could have sat for several more hours or even days and listened to Michael tell me about the farm and the horses as well as the interesting people he meets that tell him stories and how they are connected to the horses. Hopefully one day he will pen a book about his amazing life – there are so many great stories.
This amazing man is right here in our own back yard. Head over to Old Friends, take a tour, better yet spend the money (it’s a donation to the organization anyway) and take a private tour with him. You’ll leave feeling like you’ve spent the day with an Old Friend!
To see who else has been featured in our Humans of Lexington (#HumansofLexington) series click here.