A Voice for the Horses
Rich in Dallas as "Seabiscuit" with Michael Blowen
Michael Blowen has one of those voices made to tell you a horse story over a cold beer. When he tells you that he used to volunteer as a groom at the Suffolk Downs horse track in Boston before going to his day job as an entertainment reporter at the Boston Globe, it doesn't sound goofy, it sounds right.
'I went to Suffolk Downs to improve my betting,' he sheepishly admits. 'At first I was terrified of the horses. You walk into a stall with a 1,200 pound beast and it is intimidating to say the least. But before long, I was less concerned with the betting and more concerned with the horses.'
Blowen's voice changes from charm to anger when he tells you the story of Ferdinand, a champion that won the Kentucky Derby in 1986 along with the Breeder's Cup and Horse of the Year honors in 1987. Ferdinand was the fifth highest moneymaker of all time earning $3.8 million dollars when he was retired to stud at Claiborne Farm. Unfortunately, his success in the track wasn't matched in the breeding shed and he was sold to Japanese breeding interests. His offspring never measured up to his high standards and he was sold to a Japanese slaughterhouse where he spent his final days.
Exceller was the only horse ever to beat two Triple Crown winners in one race, Affirmed and Seattle Slew in the 1978 Jockey Club Cup. Exceller was killed in a Swedish slaughterhouse. He most likely received a stunning shot to the head and was then bled to death by a slit to his throat.
'I just don't understand,' Blowen begins, 'I know where all of my $3,500 claimers [a less successful horse who can be bought at a low price] are, found great homes for each of them. No one could do that for Ferdinand or Exceller?'
The dark secret of horse slaughter is that it is a thriving business. While horsemeat in the United States is normally regulated to dog food, in Europe it is not uncommon on restaurant menus. In America the two largest horse slaughterhouses are French and another Belgium owned. The horsemeat is generally exported back to Belgium, France, Sweden, Italy and Japan.
As if the killing wasn't enough, horses heading to slaughter are made to endure torturous transportation. In a bizarre legislative loophole, horse transportation laws do not apply to horses heading for slaughter. Any horse being transported must legally receive food, water and have frequent stops except horses heading to slaughter. Due to extreme overcrowding and 'double-decker' trailers that are normally reserved for smaller livestock (sheep, cows, pigs) the horses cannot even stand up straight. It is no surprise that the horses normally arrive at slaughterhouses in far worse condition than when they started their tragic journey.
Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society states, 'We urge Congress to enact pending legislation to ban the transport of horses for slaughter for human consumption.'
Congressman Ed Whitfield of Kentucky's First District is a strong supporter of H.R. 857, an anti-slaughter bill in the House of Representatives. While Blowen jokingly notes that he and Mr. Whitfield don't agree on many political issues— 'He's a Republican and I'm something else.' - they see eye to eye on the need for legislation to prevent horse cruelty.
'The bill has 230 sponsors, more than the 218 necessary to get it to the floor,' Congressman Whitfield notes. 'However, it can't get past the agriculture committee.' Calls to Congressman Bob Goodlatte, head of the agriculture committee, were not returned.
With legislation stalled, Blowen works tirelessly to do his part. It started a few years ago when he was working at the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. The TRF was so overwhelmed with discarded thoroughbreds that they could not help the thousands of unwanted stallions past their racing prime, let alone the multitude of claimers and farm horses - leftovers from the 35,000-38,000 horses born each year.
Blowen decided to start Old Friends with the ambition of offering a retiring post for racing stallions - with a twist. 'I knew the horses could pay for themselves. We'd promote Old Friends as a place to visit retired racehorses, who are celebrities in their own right to racing fans, and then they could not only pay for themselves but for less successful horses heading to slaughter.'
However, Blowen needed land for his grand plan. And thanks to the generosity of Betty-Sue and Phillip Walters he got it. The horse-loving duo decided to rent 20 acres of their Afton farm for $1 a year to Old Friends. And to paraphrase an old saying, if you build a retirement farm for old stallions, a galloping they will come.
Last year, Blowen proudly retired his first horse, appropriately named Narrow Escape. While she is a mare, not a stallion, she is the daughter of Exceller. Blowen is in the midst of securing one of Ferdinand's mares as well. He intends to keep both mares in front stalls of the farm with portraits of their sires nearby as a poignant reminder of the past and the future of horse racing.
Blowen has a network of famous friends who offer continued support. Those include famed trainer Nick Zito, whose horse Birdstone won the 2004 Belmont Stakes to world-class jockey Gary Stevens to Funny Cide's owner Jackson Knowlton to the best-selling author of Seabiscuit, Lauren Hillenbrand.
But with great pride, Blowen notes that the people of New York, California and Florida have been his greatest supporters. Most supporters are individuals who send in a $25-100 donation to this non-profit, 501c3 sanctuary.
'We have hundreds and hundreds of supporters, people who have never even been to a racetrack. We are 100% grass roots and that's how we like it.'
One of Old Friends' most recent acquisitions is Rich in Dallas, one of the seven stallions used in the acclaimed film SEABISCUIT. Apparently Rich in Dallas was juggled around to different owners and wound up in a $2,500 claiming race. Thanks to Old Friends and an anonymous donation along with free airfare from Tex Sutton airlines, Rich in Dallas is now safe at Old Friends. Another one of the horses used in the film, Popcorn Deelites, is currently running at Turf Paradise as a $3,000 claimer. Blowen is anxiously trying to work out a deal to bring Popcorn Deelites to Old Friends.
If horses with starring roles and winning records on their resume routinely wind up in the slaughterhouse, one can only imagine the horrors that bottom claimers and non-winning horses face.
Blowen goes about building up Old Friends as a point of interest with big name horse retirees, as well as trainer and jockey appearances, hoping their fame will attract people, and thus funding, to bring in all the other forgotten horses. On top of this, he hopes that people will begin to look at horses the way homeless dogs and cats are seen. When all else fails and domestic animals cannot find a home, they are humanely euthanized, not slaughtered. He hopes that horses will at least get that luxury in the near future.
'If we can make this sport humane, both the sport and the horses will benefit,' he says. For now, the black eye of slaughter is on the other cheek of the speed and brilliance of horseracing. When a five-year-old kid asks what happens to horses when they can't race anymore, wouldn't it be nice that when you say, 'they go to a farm' it is actually true?
For more information, or if you would like to contribute to Old Friends:
411 Mill Rd. Pl.
Midway, KY 40347
About the author:
Susan Cava is a freelance writer based out of Manhattan, New York. She is a strong supporter of equality for all animals.