It’s Always Good To See Old Friends
There are times in people’s lives where certain events, people, places or dates stick out in their minds as if they happened just yesterday. We can all recall those times in our lives.
Such was the case for me in 1985 when Ogygian (pronounced Oh-Guy-Gee-An), a two year old son of the great Damascus, strutted onto the Belmont Park main track to warm up for his second career race. Absolutely gorgeous and magnificently formed, I knew immediately I wanted a closer look at this bay colt as I believe it was love at first sight for me.
Little did I know that this singular event would take me on a twenty plus year journey that would culminate in discovering one of the most amazing places in the world of horse racing; Old Friends/Dream Chase Farms in Georgetown, Kentucky.
The incredible brainchild of Michael Blowen, a former Boston Globe film critic, Old Friends adopts retired racehorses to live out their lives in comfort and dignity, instead of ending up in slaughterhouses like so many did years ago.
Like I normally do, I was standing alone on the third level of Belmont Park’s grandstand that day in 1985, but I quickly ran down to track level to get a better look at this amazing animal.
He won the race easily that day and I was very interested in getting an even closer look at him. I aligned myself along the tunnel that leads from the racetrack to the paddock to get a glimpse of him on his walk back to the “spit box”. This is where a urine sample is taken from every horse, before going back to their barn to cool out, get a bath and some time later, a well deserved dinner.
With nostrils flared, sweat dripping off him and veins and muscles popping out everywhere, I chirped to him. He looked at me as if to say “What do you want? Did you see what I just did”?
If I was riveted to the horse before the race, I was completely hooked on him from that moment on. He was a special horse; and he knew it.
After winning the Grade: 1 Futurity Stakes at Belmont in just his third career start, tender shins put him on the sidelines until the winter. That minor setback would cost him any chance of running in the November 1985 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, for which the winner is perennially named two year old male champion.
Although the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile was won by Tasso that fall, and he was named two year champion that year, Ogygian was dubbed “the nation’s fastest two year old.”
Back in training that December, Ogygian kicked the rail after a workout, chipping bones in his right hind ankle which required surgery. That incident would wind up costing him any chance of competing in the vaunted Triple Crown series.
He would go on to win two more Grade: 1 races in 1986 before more ankle chips forced his retirement.
In 1987, he was sent to the legendary Claiborne Farms in Paris, Kentucky to begin stud duty.
I made note of that, and started planning a trip to see my “old friend”.
As a twenty year old, and trying to find myself, life kept getting in the way of me making a trip to go see him. I didn’t feel any urgency as I figured he was young and would be well taken care of in his new home. I figured I had plenty of time to go see him.
As you can imagine, my blood ran cold when I picked up a newspaper one day in 1995 and saw an article entitled “Ogygian sold to East Stud in Japan”.
I raced to the phone, called Claiborne Farms and asked if he was still there and available for viewing. The answer I received was “yes, he is still here but unavailable for viewing as he is in quarantine”.
Disappointed, I wondered if I would ever see Ogygian again. I don’t think I ever truly got over not seeing him when I had the opportunity; I could only hope our paths would cross once more.
I followed him as best as I could and he did well in Japan as a sire. “Great,” I thought to myself. “The better he does there, the less chance he’ll ever come back to the U.S.”
There were other horses over the years who caught my attention and I followed closely. The great A.P. Indy, Easy Goer, Personal Ensign, Dehere and Sky Beauty, but I never really forgave myself for not seeing Ogygian up close and personal when I had the chance.
Fast forward ten years later, in late 2005, a horse racing magazine ran an article entitled: “Ogygian retired from breeding; returning to the U.S”.
The article went on to say “Old Friends Farms has returned Ogygian to the United States and he will reside at Dream Chase Farm in Georgetown, Kentucky”.
“Old Friends/Dream Chase Farms”? I thought to myself, “never heard of it. I must know more about this place and if in fact Ogygian was there, I must go”!
I did some research, made a number of calls and with map in hand, I set out in mid-January of 2007 for Kentucky. I remember the excitement I felt driving up I-75 and crossing the Kentucky/Tennessee border. The six hour drive felt like six days but I finally arrived around 6:30 that evening; with some six to eight inches of snow on the ground.
As I made my way up the driveway, I was met by a tall blonde woman who said, “I’m sorry the farm is closed, you will have to come back another day”. I explained to her that I waited a very long time to see a very special horse and asked if there was any way at all I could see Ogygian, even for just five minutes. She reiterated that it wasn’t possible and I needed to return “another day”.
“Another day? I was only going to be there a couple of days” I mumbled to myself. Dejected, and with my head down, I headed back towards my car all the while thinking, “Maybe this just wasn’t meant to be.”
As I approached my car, I heard a male voice in the distance shout “Hello? Can I help you?”
I turned and saw a middle aged gentleman coming towards me in a green “Old Friends” jacket, matching green cap and open work boots.
I said “no sir….I wanted to see Ogygian but I understand the farm is closed. Perhaps I can come back another time.”
By the time I said that, the man was a couple of feet away from me.
He extended his hand and said “Michael Blowen”…..taken aback slightly, I shook his hand and said “Gerard”.
With that, he said, “come on, “Oggie” is right over here.”
As we trudged through the snow I wasn’t sure who was more excited, me for going to see the horse or Michael for me being there.
We turned the corner of the main barn and there he was. With the Damascus just oozing out of him, and at twenty three years old, Ogygian look terrific. The years and the traveling had been kind to him.
“Careful”, Michael said. “He nips.”
“I’ll take my chances,” I replied with a smile, as I stroked “Oggie’s” forehead and nose.
We stood on the fence line of his paddock feeding him treats and talking about “Oggie’s” background. I mostly listened as Michael told me the story of Russ Harris, who in my mind remains the greatest horse racing handicapper in history and an idol of mine, and how Harris called Michael the day Ogygian arrived at the farm. Harris said “I saw Secretariat, I saw Seattle Slew…this horse was better than both of them”.
I just smiled again.
“Did you know he does tricks’? Michael asked.
“Tricks”? I said with a head tilt.
“Yes, watch this,” Michael said as he climbed through the fence and led Ogygian into the middle of the paddock. Michael raised his right hand over his head and snapped his fingers about four or five times. With that, Ogygian reared up, struck out two or three times with his front hooves and came back down again.
I was speechless…..I just said “wow.” Michael came back chuckling; he knew he blew me away with that one.
With the sun going down and the temperature dropping fast, Michael said, “Come on, let me show you around a little more”.
As we walked Michael spoke about Old Friend’s and what motivated him to create the farm, its early days and his hopes for the future of the farm and retired racehorses.
Old Friends began as a very small operation in 2002, but moved to a 50 plus acres farm at 1841 Paynes Depot Road in Georgetown, Kentucky. This need to create this refuge coincided with the horrific story of Ferdinand in 2002.
Ferdinand was a chestnut colt who won the 1986 Kentucky Derby and 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic, the richest race in the country, on his way to racing’s highest honor, the 1987 Horse of the Year.
After an unsuccessful year on the track in 1988, he was retired and entered stud at the aforementioned Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky in 1989. He was a failure at stud and was later sold to a breeding farm in Japan in 1994.
Ferdinand did no better in Japan as a sire and various reports indicated that in 2002, Ferdinand was quietly sent to a slaughterhouse in Japan with no notice to any of his previous owners. He either became pet food or steaks for human consumption.
Michael was so disgusted by this vile act; he vowed he would do everything in his power to see this never happen again to a racehorse.
We made a lap around the farm. I saw horses I remember vividly through the years including (at the time) the one mile record holder at Belmont Park and son of the great Seattle Slew, Williamstown, Arlington Million winner Awad, Speedy and multiple Graded Stakes winner Kiri’s Clown.
With a final stop at the Old Friends cemetery just behind Michael’s house, I saw the headstones of several others I remembered over the years highlighted by Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Precisionist and mega talented turf mare, Estrapade.
As we strolled back towards the driveway, Michael said “I have the greatest job in the world, don’t I? I wake up every day and walk out my back door and tend to these great horses”.
Since its inception in 2002, the farm has grown from one rescued horse, one paddock and “about 30 visitors” a year into several hundred acres, over 200 horses and two “satellite” farms in Cabin Creek, New York and at Kentucky Downs Racetrack.
It attracts 20,000 visitors annually now and although it would take something similar in size to a phone book to list all of them, it is currently home to Grade: 1 winners and Breeders’ Cup Champions Amazombie, Little Mike and Alphabet Soup, Belmont Stakes winners Sarava and Touch Gold and three time Santa Anita Handicap winner Game On Dude. Three of Michael’s personal favorites reside there too in Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners Silver Charm and War Emblem as well as “Little” Silver Charm, a miniature, palomino pony who is the farm’s “mascot”.
The farm also has Popcorn Deelites, who was one of a handful of horses who played “Seabiscuit” in the movie, Rapid Redux, who shares a paddock with Amazombie, and won an astounding 22 consecutive races at one point in his career.
If you go to the Cabin Creek branch, you’ll find Zippy Chippy, who has the distinction of being racing’s most lovable loser. Zippy Chippy’s final career record: 100 starts, 0 wins and a little over $30,000 in earnings in about 9 1/2 years of racing.
Sadly, my old “friend” Ogygian was euthanized March 14, 2015 at Old Friends, due to complications from colic. He had become the facility’s oldest living horse following the death of thirty two year old Clever Allemont on May 26, 2014.
I try to make annual trips to visit this incredible place, but even some twenty three years later, sometimes life still gets in the way.
However, when I do get there, between Michael and the horses, as I say in the title, it’s always good to see Old Friends…in more ways than one.