The day before the Kentucky Derby, Candice and I headed out to Old Friends. It was my first time going there, though visiting it had been on my list of things to do ever since I heard that there was such a thing as a place to go visit retired racehorses. It was exactly the afternoon I needed: an hour and a half long stroll through the Kentucky bluegrass during which I got to see the cute, relaxed, and sometimes downright silly sides of the racehorses we all knew and loved.
The first horse on our tour was 2002 Belmont Stakes winner Sarava. He could be a bit of a biter, and tried to chew a shirt button off of one of the people on the tour. However, if you kept your hand nice and flat, you could still feed Sarava carrots.
Anyone who follows Glorious Alliance on Twitter knows one thing: she does not like fences at all. A few days before visiting Old Friends, I joked with her that I wish I knew how to ask a horse what they thought about fences. Glory gave me a few ideas. The first thing I did when I got to Old Friends was to ask Sarava what he thought about fences, and I am pretty sure Glory and Sarava would get along quite well.
Before I knew much about racing, before I knew about sires and dams and pedigrees and the like, I still watched the Classic races from home. I remember Thunder Gulch winning the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont in 1995, when I was still in middle school. Little did I know that twenty years later, I would see his sire hanging out and munching on some grass. It blows my mind that Gulch is still around. Even though he was not feeling social that day, seeing Gulch in person and knowing that he is still alive and being well taken care of makes me happy.
I was flabbergasted in the best possible way when he ran such a huge race in the 2014 Santa Anita Handicap. Little more than a year later, here I am, bamboozled at my good luck to hang out along his paddock fence, with carrots to distract him from his cribbing.
Game On Dude was tenacious on the track, but a total sweetheart away from it.
As exciting as it was to meet Game On Dude, as a Chicago racing partisan, I was even more thrilled to meet his paddock-mate: Yankee Fourtune. Sure, he only raced locally once, but that one time was a big one: he went wire-to-wire to win the 2010 Hawthorne Derby over Mister Marti Gras.
Like many of the horses at Old Friends, Yankee Fourtune could be a little silly.
Speaking of noses, if Old Friends were to give out an award for the cutest nose on the farm, the snip on 2009 Hollywood Gold Cup winner Rail Trip would make him the morning line favourite for that award.
Amazombie’s racing career came to a close less than a year before I started following racing very closely. I never saw him run while he was active. However, he was all class…and less mischievous than his paddock-mate Rapid Redux.
Out of all of the horses at Old Friends, the horse I was most excited to see was that paddock-mate of Amazombie’s Rapid Redux. He had an amazing 42-28-1-1 career line, including 22 races in a row between 2010 and 2012 to close out his career. Almost all of those races came in the starter ranks. I love the consistent horses no matter what their racing level, and being able to show up twenty-two straight times and get his nose on the wire first required serious talent and consistency.
Rapid Redux was a bit aggressive at first, or at least the bitey kind of playful. However, after I gave him a few baby carrots, he just stood there for a few minutes, licking my hand. I happily let him, and only moved when the tour group was leaving the area. I’m so glad he warmed up to me.
One of Old Friends’s newest residents also ranks as their most accomplished on the racetrack: dual Classic winner, Dubai World Cup winner, Champion, and Hall of Fame inductee Silver Charm. Pensioned from stud duty in Japan last year, he has lived at Old Friends since last fall. Retiring at Old Friends runs in Silver Charm’s family; Bonnie’s Poker, his dam, lived there from 2004 until her death in 2010.
Three times a day, Old Friends runs tours. Three times a day, Silver Charm gets to bask in the attention of the Pony Paparazzi.
I had watched Silver Charm’s Triple Crown try when I was in high school, and the thought never crossed my mind that I might meet him one day. Yet, here I was, up close enough to the big, grey guy that I could feed him some carrots.
Not to be dwarfed by his Hall of Fame namesake, Little Silver Charm was also a character. The only non-Thoroughbred on the Old Friends grounds, he was named after the big horse many years before having Silver Charm at Old Friends was even a dream.
Little Silver Charm has a purple streak in his hair, which would have matched my hair had we met on Illinois Derby Day. Michael Blowen was not a fan of this fashion statement, but his wife Diane White loved it. For the record, Blinkers Off endorses Diane’s opinion.
The saddest part of a retirement farm for the horses is that eventually, the horses pass away. Every horse at Old Friends looks like they are living out their lives happy and loved. But, when the time comes, they are all buried and remembered in the equine cemetery. Buried under the large tree in the cemetery is Black Tie Affair. Black Tie Affair was conditioned by local trainer Ernie Poulos, and remains the namesake of an Illinois-bred stakes race for turf routers. In addition to Black Tie Affair, a few other locally linked horses also rest forever at Old Friends. The Name’s Jimmy, an Illinois-bred who won the 1992 American Derby (GII), lived at Old Friends from 2007 until his death last year. Awad, winner of the 1995 Arlington Million (GI), lived at Old Friends from when he was pensioned in 2006 until he died in 2011.
After visiting the horse cemetery and paying respects to everyone who had left us, I enjoyed going back to say hello to more happy horses in their pastures. I did not follow Danthebluegrassman during his career, since he raced during the period of my life when I was the farthest away from racing. However, his flashy blaze begged for attention.
As stallions, both Afternoon Deelites and Mixed Pleasure had their own pastures. However, they could see each other, since their food buckets were placed on the fence just across the way from each other. As we were coming by their pastures, they were both munching away on their afternoon snacks.
I knew Afternoon Deelites before going out to Old Friends, but had not been familiar with Mixed Pleasure. I figured he was fairly old since we had to feed him handfuls of shredded carrots instead of whole ones, but was a bit surprised to see on Equibase that he was thirty. He looked good for thirty.
From start to finish, visiting Old Friends was a thrill. For one, I loved just petting horses. I do not get to do that as often as I would like, since all of the horses I see week in and week out at the track are busy racing or ponying. Here, they were hanging out in their pastures, and had plenty of time to munch on carrots and enjoy a pat on the nose or a scratch on the ear. A few of them I had seen race during their careers. More of them, I knew as I had become better versed in horse racing, and only saw in replays. No matter what, it made me happy to see these horses up close and get to know little bits about their personalities. Next time I am anywhere near Lexington, I hope to go back to Old Friends.