Winner’s circle: A long goodbye

Register reporter Vickie Moss recently traveled to Old Friends, a racehorse retirement farm in Kentucky, to fulfill a 12-year wish to follow up on an article she wrote while working in Franklin County. The farm educates about the importance of "aftercare" for racehorses.



June 25, 2021 - 3:20 PM

Clever Allemont spent much of his final years lying in the thick Kentucky bluegrass, basking in the sun.

Horses spend most of their time on their feet, even sleeping, so passers-by often stopped by the office to warn Old Friends founder Michael Blowen: “You’ve got a dead horse out in that pasture.”

Blowen would shake his head and head out to the paddock.

As he approached, Clever would flick his ear as if to say, “I’m still here. Now, let me enjoy my retirement.”

Clever Allemont died in 2014 after spending the last five years of his life at Old Friends, a premier “aftercare” farm for retired Thoroughbred racehorses. The farm is located near Georgetown, Ky.

During his time at Old Friends, Clever was a fan favorite. His popularity came just not from his friendly personality and illustrious career — compared to many of the Old Friends millionaire residents, Clever’s $316,329 in lifetime earnings was pocket change — but because of the story that led him back to Kentucky. 

In December 2008, a Kansas woman rescued a scraggly, deaf, one-eyed horse from a “kill pen” near Emporia, just as he was about to be sent to slaughter in Mexico. He was identified by a lip tattoo as Clever Allemont, winner of the 1985 Southwest Stakes and Rebel Stakes. He was trained by icons Lynn Whiting and later D. Wayne Lucas.

The woman reached out to the media and online thoroughbred rescue groups. A worldwide fundraising campaign paid the costs to ship him to Old Friends.

THEN A reporter for The Ottawa Herald, I met Clever at a farm near Williamsburg, where he was waiting to start his new adventure. It became a national story, and one of my favorites.

I interviewed Blowen by phone and learned about the dedicated efforts to give former racehorses like Clever the dignified retirement they deserve.

Register reporter Vickie Moss visits Clever Allemont’s grave. Courtesy photo

I wanted to visit Clever at his new home, but never got the chance. 

On June 14, nearly 12 years later, I made it to Old Friends. 

Blowen offered a private tour, escorting me around the farm on a golf cart. He introduced me to the majestic residents and talked about  his efforts establishing the non-profit farm and the challenge to keep it going.

“THE BLACK Stallion” book series inspired my love for horses as a youth.

Every year after the Kentucky Derby, I would cut the winner’s picture out of the sports pages of The Kansas City Star and tape it to my bedroom wall.

In 1986, Derby winner Ferdinand took his place in history and on my wall.

In 2002, came reports that Ferdinand had been sent to slaughter in Japan. Horse racing fans were outraged. 

The truth began to emerge out of what had been a dark secret in the horse racing industry. 

Old Friends founder Michael Blowen gives carrots to Birdstone, the 2004 winner of the Belmont Stakes who spoiled the Triple Crown hopes of Smarty Jones.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

That is, a racehorse is a commodity. After he finishes that final run on the track, he might be used for breeding and then tossed away. 

Thoroughbreds, especially those bred and trained for racing, tend to be high-strung and temperamental. It takes time to transition from the track to a different type of life. That’s even more difficult for stallions.

It’s not easy to find them a new home.

Not everyone in the industry treats horses so callously. 

In the past couple of decades, numerous organizations have begun to educate the public about the importance of  finding responsible homes for these animals once they leave the track or breeding shed.

THAT’S how Blowen came to establish Old Friends.

Blowen, a former journalist and film critic for the Boston Globe, wasn’t part of the horse racing industry except as a gambling man. He liked to go to the track and bet on the ponies. 

Michael Blowen, founder of Old Friends, gives a carrot to Nicanor, the full brother of the late Barbaro. Photo by Vickie Moss

He thought it would help if he learned more about the horses. Turns out, that just made it more complicated. He started to care about the animals and what happens to them.

He told his wife, newspaper columnist Diane White, he wanted to move to Kentucky and start a home for retired racehorses.

Old Friends started in 2003.

“It was harder than I thought it would be,” Blowen told me. “I thought everybody would greet this with open arms. And some of them did and were very helpful. 

“Aftercare now isn’t a big secret. It’s something to be proud of. What little part we’ve played in that has been great.”

The farm has grown to more than 236 acres, more than 230 horses, and two satellite locations.

“I would have been intimidated had somebody told me I’d eventually have 200 horses. I probably wouldn’t have had the gumption to start it,” he said.

Fans come from around the world to visit their favorite racehorses. Owners, trainers and jockeys visit their former horses. 

“It’s all different people” who visit Old Friends, Blowen said. “They either like horses, or they like this idea, or they’re horse players. Some of the owners and trainers really appreciate what these horses did for them, and others don’t care. It’s kind of a microcosm of life in general.”

According to their statistics, Old Friends has three Kentucky Derby winners, three Preakness Stakes winners and three Belmont Stakes winners. Eight horses have been repatriated from overseas. Five have only one working eye.

The horses eat 250-300 lbs. of carrots a week.

The collective earnings of Old Friends retirees, living and deceased, is $1,495,395,336.

The non-profit facility is supported by donations and fundraising.

Blowen said that many veterinarians donate their services.

Donations can be sent to Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement, 1841 Paynes Depot Rd., Georgetown, KY 40324.

Old Friends founder Michael Blowen gives reporter Vickie Moss a tour of the farm.Courtesy photo

AS MY tour of Old Friends began, Nicanor ambled his way to the paddock fence to greet us. 

He’s one of the sweetest residents in Old Friends’ history, Blowen said. Like a true star, he tilts his head for selfies with guests.

He’s also a full brother to Barbaro, the winner of the 2006 Kentucky Derby who shattered his leg two weeks later in the Preakness Stakes. Extensive efforts failed to save him, and Barbaro was euthanized about eight months later.

His story captivated racing and non-racing fans alike. Once again, the public learned more about the realities of horse racing, and the heartbreaking fragility of animals bred to give their all on the racetrack. 

Nicanor never achieved anything near the success of his famous brother, but he’s a star at Old Friends. He was sent to Old Friends at the request of Gretchen Jackson, who bred, raced and owned both Nicanor and Barbaro with her husband, Roy.

In the paddock next to Nicanor, we visited multimillionaire best buds Little Mike and Game On Dude. Between the two of them, they earned more than $10 million. And even though Game On Dude won twice as much money on the track, Little Mike is the big boss, Blowen said.

Across the way, we met Birdstone, the 36-to-1 longshot winner of the 2004 Belmont Stakes. His dash to the finish line smashed the Triple Crown hopes of Smarty Jones. 

Blowen hopes to bring Smarty Jones to the farm, reuniting two fierce competitors.

Old Friends keeps a couple of Triple Crown “spoilers” on hand, paired with their top rival. 

Sarava ended War Emblems’ Crown hopes in the Belmont Stakes in 2002. Both ended up at Old Friends (the surly but beloved War Emblem died in March 2020).

Touch Gold won the Belmont Stakes in 1997, crushing the Triple Crown dream for Silver Charm. They reunited at Old Friends.

Despite these classic matches, the horses don’t seem to care.

“Horses don’t hold grudges,” Blowen said.

SILVER Charm holds a place of honor at Old Friends.

He’s an iconic superstar who earned nearly $7 million and was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2007 — and he’s Blowen’s favorite.

In fact, Silver Charm occupies a pasture just steps away from Blowen’s home. Blowen gets to start every morning with a greeting from the elderly, gray gentleman across the fence. 

Nearby, we stopped at a well-manicured cemetery. When Old Friends residents pass on, they are cremated and interred within a semi-circle of honor.

Blowen told me that even horses participate in a type of funeral ritual. When they euthanize a horse at Old Friends, they try to do so in the field. Other horses will gather around their fallen comrade to say goodbye.

It’s noteworthy that Blowen keeps not only his favorite horse close at hand, but also all of those that came before. 

We stopped so I could visit Clever Allemont’s final resting place and pay my respects. 

Patch, another one-eyed racehorse and fan favorite, watched in the background.

And with that, our story came full circle.