by Kathleen Adams
Hundreds of viewers of a June 8 segment on CBS Evening News with Katie Couric featuring the Kentucky-based stallion retirement facility Old Friends have responded by opening their hearts and wallets.
Old Friends volunteer Ruthann von den Burg said when she arrived at the facility the morning after the broadcast and checked telephone messages, several were from people offering material and financial support, including an equine dentist in California.
“Some of these people were crying,” von den Burg said. “They didn’t know what happens to these horses.”
In the three-minute segment, CBS news correspondent Richard Schlesinger told viewers about the fate that could await former racehorses and stallions when their careers are over. But he and producer Chloe Arensburg also managed to capture footage of Old Friends retiree Popcorn Deelites, one of several Thoroughbreds to play Seabiscuit in the Academy Award-nominated movie, romping in a paddock on a near cloudless spring day with West Coast star Special Ring.
Schlesinger also told the story of other residents--Swan’s Way and 1988 Breeders’ Cup champion Sunshine Forever--and let Old Friends founder and president Michael Blowen explain why he believes the horses are so special and worth saving.
Of Old Friends, Schlesinger said he was taken by the 52-acre Georgetown, Ky., farm as soon as he and Arensburg pulled into the driveway.
“It’s beautiful,” he told The Blood-Horse. “And (Blowen is) such an interesting guy. I mean, how do you go from being a film critic to saving horses? I loved his personal story. It’s clear he loves racing, but he knows the dark side of it, too.”
Schlesinger said he was originally allotted two minutes and 30 seconds to tell the Old Friends story. But when the piece was finished, it came in at three minutes.
“We are blessed with an executive producer who loves animals even more than me,” Schlesinger said.
At the end of the broadcast, Couric invited viewers to visit the CBS Evening News Web site to see an additional four minutes of footage that didn’t make it into the original broadcast. And by Belmont Stakes (gr. I) eve, volunteers at Old Friends had fielded about 200 e-mails from people either wanting to tour the facility or express their appreciation.
In a related matter, a racing partnership and Old Friends have joined forces to a "retirement plan" for horses. The program was announced June 14.
Blowen and Lisa Lake-Roedmeier, founder of the racing-partnership company The Media Thoroughbred Group, said under the terms of the deal, all horses partnered by MTG will have a secure future at Old Friends when their racing and/or breeding careers are over. Each partnership in existence now and in the future will have a small quarterly "nest egg" paid directly by the owners beginning July 1.
Currently, MTG has six 2-year-olds and three 3-year-olds in the program.
"Social Security plans or 401K-type plans have been one of the goals of this organization since the beginning," Blowen said. "And so this is just really exciting to see it come to pass."
Blowen said he is in talks with New York-based owner and breeder Dennis Brida for a similar agreement.
"I got into this business to make a difference," Lake-Roedmeier said of the decision. "I believe that in order for horse racing to continue, we will need to attract new people, and we can do that by being socially responsible and showing that we are not an inhumane industry."