When 2004 Belmont and Travers Stakes winner Birdstone arrived at Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Facility in Georgetown, Ky., after 15 years as a stallion at Gainesway Farm, it took him longer than most retirees to the farm to get acclimated.
Old Friends founder Michael Blowen said most stallions run the fence a few times in their new paddock, settle in, and get used to the good life of a steady stream of carrots. But Birdstone, a 19-year-old by Grindstone, was plagued by anxiety during his first week at Old Friends.
Turns out, Birdstone needed a little help from an old friend.
New retirees to Old Friends often buddy up. Geldings will share a paddock at Old Friends, and so, too will mares. For safety reasons, stallions get a paddock of their own, but they do take comfort and make friends with their neighbors.
Blowen rattled off a list of examples of retirees who became best buds at Old Friends.
He said Stormy Liberal and Patch bonded in “like 10 seconds,” while Game On Dude and Little Mike have developed a such a strong friendship that they don’t even like to be separated in the evening.
“Every morning, it’s like a reunion,” Blowen said with a chuckle.
Blowen said after racing-breeding careers, many retirees have not been consistently out in a paddock or independent, really, since they were weanlings. Individuals acclimate differently to a new life and some take longer than others, as was the case with Birdstone, to become comfortable with their new surroundings.
“We’d been working on trying to get Birdstone here for several years,” Blowen said. “I was there when Birdstone won the Travers and when he won the Belmont Stakes, so I was a big fan.”
Blowen said he got the call earlier in the year from Neil Howard at Gainesway letting him know they had agreed to send Birdstone along to Old Friends.
John Hendrickson, widower of Birdstone’s owner Marylou Whitney, played a pivotal role in the move to Old Friends, and Blowen said Hendrickson has long been an extraordinarily generous supporter of the retirement facility.
Birdstone arrived at Old Friends in late August.
“Birdstone was really nervous; he was anxious and sweaty. He calmed down a little, but not a lot, in the first week. Then, I noticed that he wouldn’t take his eyes off Sun King,” Blowen said of another retiree in a neighboring paddock.
Sun King had retired to Old Friends in March 2017 after standing for eight seasons as a stallion. Blowen said Sun King has always been a favorite of his because he considers him the best son of 1999 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Charismatic to race in the U.S.
Sun King earned more than $2.2 million in his racing career and won four graded stakes, while also finishing second in the 2005 Haskell Invitational, the 2006 Whitney Handicap and Met Mile, and the 2007 Woodward Stakes.
Blowen discovered Birdstone also was quite fond of Sun King.
Not only did Birdstone seem mesmerized by his neighbor, Blowen said he started mimicking Sun King.
“It was like me and my own shadow, almost like a stalker,” Blowen explained. “When he went to get hay, Birdstone would go get hay; when Sun King would get a drink of water, Birdstone got water.”
Steadily, Birdstone started to relax but there were still occasional anxious moments. Sun King doesn’t like rain and goes in the run-in shed when rain starts to fall, and Blowen said it really bothered Birdstone when he couldn’t see his confidant.
Curious about the budding friendship, Blowen called up Hall of Famer Nick Zito, who trained both of them during their racing careers, with Birdstone a year older than Sun King.
“For a long time, they were in the same barn in stalls right across from each other,” Blowen said. “When [Zito] told me that it all made sense.”
Blowen said he is consistently impressed with how much racehorses remember, from a groom they have not seen in years to a former stablemate, like Sun King, from the old barn.
One example he mentioned was champion Silver Charm. He was in Japan for 11 years and had not seen his trainer, Bob Baffert, or regular rider, Gary Stevens, for at least that long, yet Silver Charm instantly recognized both of them.
When asked about the great responsibility of caring for these great animals in the final years of their lives – during a week in which Old Friends welcomed $3.2-million earner War Story and lost 1998 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Awesome Again – Blowen said he was grateful that so many people place their trust in him and was quick to credit his team.
He said he rarely, if ever, receives veterinary or transportation bills and is thankful for his amazing staff and for the generosity from so many people that combine to help sustain Old Friends.
“I would put our healthcare system up against any other farm in the Bluegrass,” Blowen said. “Whether it’s a $3,500 claimer or a superstar, all of the horses get the same healthcare.”
With the help of buddy Sun King, Birdstone has now settled down quite a bit and Blowen said he’s starting to enjoy the perks of life at Old Friends.
“Now, Birdstone will come and get carrots,” Blowen said. “It’s funny with these old guys. These horses have tremendous memories and I think their intelligence has been underestimated for a long time. It’s just amazing how smart they are.”
Note: While Old Friends is not currently hosting farm tours because of the COVID-19 pandemic, those interested can still make a tax-deductable donation. You also can explore multiple others ways to help the retired Thoroughbreds at Old Friends.