by Kathleen Adams
In a scene reminiscent of many retirement communities, three Old Friends retirees-- Sunshine Forever, Awad, and Kiri’s Clown--each stand on their own side of a black, three-plank wooden fence that separates their paddocks and seemingly engage one another in non-verbal idle conversation.
The three have formed a loose huddle and pay little attention as Old Friends founder and president Michael Blowen maneuvers a golf cart to the edge of Eclipse Award winner Sunshine Forever’s paddock.
“I don’t know what they talk about at their meetings or how they communicate, but wouldn’t you love to know,” Blowen said to the passenger seated next to him. “They do this all day long, the three of them.”
As Blowen shuts off the golf cart, Sunshine Forever steals a glance over his left shoulder at the former Boston Globe arts and entertainment reporter. The 22-year-old horse then turns away from his comrades and slowly walks in the direction of Blowen, who has disembarked from the golf cart and is now offering “Sunshine” an outstretched hand filled with horse treats.
When Blowen launched Old Friends in 2004, the equine retirement facility was billed as the first-ever in the United States for stallions. And indeed, the first two residents--Sunshine Forever and European sensation Creator--were acquired from the Japanese once their stud services were deemed no longer profitable.
Less than three years later, an additional 22 horses ranging from a miniature named Silver Charm rescued off a “killer” truck to a gelding who portrayed Seabiscuit in the Oscar-nominated movie call the 52-acre Georgetown, Ky., farm home.
“It averages out to about $100 day if you take into account vet bills,” Blowen said of the daily cost of caring for each horse. “And we get great deals on everything, so I’m sure we do it cheaper than a lot of people could do it. But that’s a lot of money.”
Another expense facing Old Friends is the substantial mortgage Blowen undertook last year when the facility moved from Midway, Ky., to its current location.
“A friend of mine in Boston loaned me the money for the down payment,” Blowen said. “We have serious debt, but the way things are going with the revenue coming in and with new ideas … I think if I owned the whole thing myself, we’d never come up with one idea to raise money. We’d just sit on our laurels. But the fact that we have to pay the debt off and make this place self-sufficient is a great motivation on trying to come up with ideas on how to do that when you’re not rich.”
Most nonprofit organizations recognize the necessity of constantly pulling in donations and dollars in order to stay afloat, but Danielle Clore, director of the Nonprofit Leadership Initiative at the University of Kentucky, said few seem willing to ask the hard question: “Where will the money come from?”
“For individuals who have a great idea and are very passionate about a cause, taking a step back and thinking about things realistically is not something they want to do because they want to forge ahead,” Clore said.
Blowen falls into that category.
“It involves a great leap of faith,” Blowen said while sitting in a small office offering an unobstructed view of Florida Derby winner Bull inthe Heather relaxing in his paddock. “We don’t really go after people. I think people are sick of getting gone after. It’s the same people that get it over and over again, and they start to resent it. And once they resent it, that’s the end.”
When it comes to cultivating benefactors, Blowen said the philosophy employed by Old Friends is straightforward and simple.
“I like to say that we make ourselves available for other people’s generosity,” he said. “By that I mean, we come up with these ideas and then I contact people who I think might think this is a good idea.”
An example of this low-key fundraising technique is the ‘Fly Wallenda Home’ campaign.
Old Friends recently discovered the 17-year-old son of Gulch who earned more than $1.2 million for Dogwood Stable was nearing the end of his stallion career in Japan. Determined to repatriate the winner of the 1993 Super Derby to the United States, Blowen figured out the mileage between Hokkaido, Japan, and Old Friends. He then hatched a plan by which donors could help sponsor Wallenda’s trip at $10 a mile.
Blowen shared his idea with Cot Campbell, president of Dogwood Stable. And without ever asking for a dime, Blowen secured financial contributions from Campbell and members of the syndicate that originally owned Wallenda. That approach to fundraising flies in the face of conventional wisdom, Clore said.
“Even though he is not directly asking, he is in some ways creating a compelling reason for people to support them,” Clore said of Blowen’s efforts. “This is an organization that is able to say, ‘Hey, look at the horses we’ve saved,’ and when you’ve been successful, it generates more donors and it’s like a snowball.”
Mary Beth MacKay, agent for the legendary circus performers and aerialists The Flying Wallendas, came to read about Blowen’s concept to ‘Fly Wallenda Home’ on a racing Web site. MacKay, of Lakeville, Mass., said her immediate thought was to contact Tino Wallenda, patriarch of The Flying Wallendas.
“I wanted to call him and see if there’s something we can get started, maybe do a special show for Old Friends to help fly Wallenda home,” she said.
MacKay describes herself as a casual racing fan and has followed the sport since Seattle Slew won the 1977 Kentucky Derby. Tino Wallenda, as it turned out, is a peripheral fan of the sport.
“He was aware there was a horse named Wallenda,” MacKay said. “He was amazed his family was so well thought of that someone would name a racehorse after them.”
These days, The Flying Wallendas perform exclusively with the St. Louis. Mo.-based nonprofit Circus Flora, whose co-founder, Ivor David Balding, happened to have a special connection to an Old Friends retiree. Balding is related to the British conditioner Ian Balding, who trained European champion Mill Reef, the sire of Creator.
“The series of serendipitous coincidences and two degrees of separation are just amazing,” Blowen said.
Two weeks after learning about the campaign to bring Wallenda home, MacKay had arranged for Balding to travel to Central Kentucky to meet with Blowen and scout out possible sites for the European-style one ring circus. MacKay said the logistics of bringing Circus Flora to the Bluegrass need to be worked out, but she anticipates The Flying Wallendas will perform on behalf of Old Friends in July as part of the equine retirement facility’s homecoming weekend.
By that time, Wallenda will be settled in his new home at Old Friends. Blowen said the horse is scheduled to arrive at JFK International Airport in New York April 1, and is expected on the farm sometime in mid-April.
Even before Old Friends took in its first retirees, Blowen vowed the facility wouldn’t directly compete with other horse-rescue groups over seemingly limited resources. He also set in motion an informal plan that looks well beyond the Thoroughbred industry for donors.
“I am star-struck by these horses,” Blowen said. “To me, they’re the celebrities. All the years of doing the movies, it didn’t affect me really much. But I get chills just thinking about who is in my yard. I think of them as great athletes and great performers, and so it’s a lot easier to come up with ideas when you’re excited about something.”
And sometimes, the best ideas don’t even come from Blowen or the volunteers he works with at Old Friends.
Not long ago, Blowen was approached by a representative from Chrisman Mill Vineyards who suggested the Nicholasville, Ky., winery was interested in putting renditions of the Old Friends horses on wine bottles.
“If everything works out right, we’ll have a bottle for each one of our horses,” Blowen said. “They’re going to do four bottles a year. The first horse they’re going to do is little Silver Charm, and the reason they’re going to that is because (Oscar-winning actor) Jack Nicholson did a little sketch of him and that will be on the label.”
The concept of placing the likeness of the horses on wine bottles was borne out of a chance meeting between Tamara Connor, director of sales and marketing for Chrisman Mill, and Old Friends employee Sylvia Buerkle.
“She told me this tender story about what they do,” Connor said. “And I said, ‘One day Sylvia, I’m going to do something to help you all. I don’t know when or what, but I will call you.’ ”
Connor tucked Buerkle’s telephone number away in her wallet. Months later, when a co-owner of Chrisman Mill told Connor she wanted to align the winery with a charity, Connor retrieved Buerkle’s number.
“We did get permission from Mr. Nicholson to use his art, and so we’ve taken this sketch that was drawn out on a cocktail napkin, turned it into a label for our Chambourcin, and we’ll produce a thousand bottles,” she said.
About $8 from the sale of each bottle of wine will go to Old Friends. Connor said the wine will be available at Liquor Barn, Bacchus Wine in Midway, and through the Chrisman Mill Web site.
According to Connor, the venture has the potential to generate revenue of $45,000 a year for Old Friends. And Blowen has used to his movie contacts to enlist other Hollywood celebrities such as actor and director Albert Brooks of Lost in America and Defending Your Life to sketch the remaining Old Friends retirees.
Learning to accept the generosity of others has served Old Friends well. But Blowen hopes the lesson people carry with them is respect for gut instinct.
“When we started this, there was nothing logical about going to Japan, picking up two horses that weren’t going to be bred and weren’t going to be raced, and bringing them back because nobody could see that they could be profitable anymore that they could earn their own way,” Blowen said. “I think if we haven’t proven anything else, people need to trust themselves a little bit more. And then you trust that it is going to work.”