I first became involved in racing through my work with off-the-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs), making sure our equine athletes had a place to go after their days on the racetrack were over. I started my nonprofit, Racing for Home, with the hope that I could help OTTBs find their calling, if you will, and transition them into a new career and eventually to a loving, forever home. Six years ago, when I began this endeavor, Thoroughbred aftercare was not nearly as much in the news as it is now, and we have made great strides.
There is, of course, still much work to be done, but one of the pioneers of this movement is Michael Blowen and his team at Old Friends Farm. I’m sure it’s no surprise that this is one of my favorite charitable organizations. They even have a satellite location just outside Saratoga, N.Y., and it’s there at Old Friends Cabin Creek that Zippy Chippy, famously 0-for-100, is living out his very well-earned retirement. It’s always important to acknowledge and appreciate the work that Old Friends does, but now even more so.
Recently, a barn on the property of Old Friends in Georgetown, Ky. burned down in the middle of the harsh winter storms. Thankfully, no horses were hurt or lost in the fire, but a firefighter was injured while fighting the blaze. Events like these make us realize even more how fragile everything is. This past weekend, I participated in the NHC Charity Challenge (and I finished third!) to benefit the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, as well as Old Friends Farm. I could not think of two better recipients.
When I was in Kentucky for the Keeneland January Sale, my little red rental car and I took a side trip to Old Friends, where I got to visit with some of my favorite residents, including the snuggly and carrot-loving Game On Dude, winner of the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap and Grade 1 Pacific Classic, among others, and the sweet and proud Silver Charm, winner of the 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. They also have some new paddock dwellers, like Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Alphabet Soup, and 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner War Emblem, who, at 17 years old, took my breath away. Still in semi-quarantine and double fenced in his own paddock, I watched the dark bay trot through the snow and then stop, looking down the hill with the bright sun behind him, and I felt my chest catch. “Majestic” was the only word I could think of.
The first time I visited Old Friends was after this year’s Kentucky Derby, during their “homecoming celebration.” Visitors are invited to tour the farm and give carrots to the horses, there’s a barbecue, face-painting, silent auctions and photo ops with Little Silver Charm, the farm’s resident miniature pony who is all sass. He has even authored his own book apparently. I’m going to have to start asking LSC for life tips.
BLOWEN, COURTNEY AND LITTLE SILVER CHARM IN MAY
Courtesy Acacia Courtney
The scene on a beautiful day in early May after the exciting festivities of the Derby is quite different than a random Wednesday on a cold January afternoon, but the feeling that you get is much the same.
This day I had chosen was a bright and sunny one, although the ground was still covered with snow and ice and I felt my hands start to go numb in short time if I took my gloves off. With a bucket of carrots on my arm, I approached one of the enclosures where Game On Dude was lying down, his eyes closed as he enjoyed the warmth of the sun. His paddock mate, Starspangled Heat, came over to see if I was edible, or at least if what I was carrying was. He was disappointed by the non-tasty fabric of my glove, but was quite satisfied with the carrots I had to offer. He was sassy and insistent, and I found myself continuing to feed him with one hand while saying hello to the now-awake Game On Dude with the other.
COURTNEY WITH STARSPANGLED HEAT
Courtesy Acacia Courtney
The Dude, as he’s affectionately called, is a 9-year-old gelding, and one of the sweetest horses I’ve met. I call him a muffin, as he puts his head over the side of the fence and will push his nose into your chest, asking for pats and treats, always gentle, and with the kindest eye. Two days after my visit to Old Friends, Bob Baffert was recognized at the ThoroFan Awards Brunch at Gulfstream Park for his commitment to Thoroughbred aftercare. He and his wife, Jill, told me how much they had loved having The Dude in the barn when he was racing, and all the joy he had brought them both on and off the track.
Old Friends is also the home of Sarava, the horse that upset War Emblem’s Triple Crown bid in 2002 by winning the Belmont Stakes as a 70-1 longshot. There’s 2011 Eclipse champion sprinter Amazombie, Rapid Redux, winner of a record 22 straight victories in his racing career, and so many others. Each horse you pass by has his or her own story. What they, and every racehorse, has in common, however, is that, regardless of number of wins or amount of earnings, their racing days eventually came to an end. For many horses, the breeding shed might not be an option. It is always such a treat to see the stars, and the participants, or our sport so well taken care of after they are no longer clocking in at the racetrack every morning.
That feeling, whether in May or January, is, for me, one of peace. Writing it now, it sounds like a strange word to describe an experience that is also fun and moving and yes, inspirational. But it’s the best way I can explain it. Winston Churchill’s famous quote (whether he actually said it first or not) could not be more fitting – “there’s something about the outside of a horse, that’s good for the inside of a man.” Or woman, in this case.
AN ALPHABET SOUP "SELFIE"
Courtesy Acacia Courtney