A Letter From Michael Blowen At Old Friends

Monday, April 18, 2011

As most of you know, Old Friends has received a lot of notoriety lately. There was a flattering story by Esther Marr in The Bloodhorse last month. Ed DeRosa, in his Thoroughbred Times blog was very complimentary and we're receiving a great award named after my great friend, the late Boston Globe turf writer Sam McCracken in July. Last night, at the Keeneland two-year-old sale, I couldn't walk more than a few yards without someone stopping me to say good things about Old Friends. Yet, today, I feel like a complete failure.
Given the amazing athletes, great employees and invaluable volunteers, an idiot could make Old Friends profitable. We're surrounded by superstars that are visited by 20,000 fans a year. They come from all over the world to touch the magic of Marquetry and the majesty of Gulch. They donate carrots and mints and racing memorabilia and money. Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel left money and his trophies to Old Friends. Jerry and Ann Moss, Zenyatta and Dottie Ingordo Shirreffs have been unwavering in their support. Mike Repole, John Ciccolo, Dogwood Stable, Mary Sullivan, Brereton Jones, Brian Burns, Susanne Gottlieb and Angie Dickinson are extremely generous.

All of the horses look fabulous. Except for the ravages of old age that we all face and a bowed tendon here and there, they are all doing well. "You have the greatest horses ever assembled in one place in the whole history of horse racing," Kent Desormeaux told me last week. Yet, with a farm flattered by Eclipse Award winners and more than $80 million in race track earnings, I'm still left begging at the gate.

All of these great deserving athletes retired without Social Security or a 401 (k) plan. Through no fault of their own they ended up broke. Whether it's Clever Allemont who won the Rebel and the Southwest Stakes or one time Derby contenders Lusty Latin and Easy Grades or Canadian horses of the year, Thornfield and Benburb, they all come to us and come to depend on us.

By the end of May, we should be in better financial shape. We have the Ferdinand Ball on May 5 and the Homecoming on May 7. We have an anticipated grant of $50,000 coming from the ASPCA and some money from Thoroughbred Charities of America. The Frankel Trust will be dispensing a sizeable contribution later this year, once the Trust's tax obligations are satisfied. The future looks bright. It's the present that's problematic.

We don't waste money at Old Friends. You can check our tax returns to verify where the money goes. I make $20,000 per year and Diane makes nothing. We get to live in the house as innkeepers and I wouldn't trade my life for wealth or fame or anything. None of our employees has ever had a raise. And our volunteers are priceless.

Here's what has happened. About three years ago, I went to our bank and asked them to re-write our mortgage so we would have payments due biannually. They would be due after our big fundraisers in the spring and fall. They concurred and re-wrote the loan. We continued to make payments on time through our bookkeeper. A couple of months ago, I was visited by two bank representatives and their attorney. They explained the bank had made a clerical error. While they had re-written the loan, they had failed to increase the payments. Consequently, the bi-annual payments we made were the same monthly payments and we were in arrears for more than $200,000. And, because the bank is under pressure from Federal regulators, they couldn't do anything until the account was brought up to date. As you might imagine, this was quite a surprise.

On top of that, the price for horse farms in the Bluegrass has bottomed out. Stonewall, Hillcrest and dozens of other farms are being sold at bottom of the barrel prices. Old Friends at Dream Chase Farm is undervalued as well. In spite of the fact that we built dozens of paddocks, run-in sheds and waterers and fenced in more than 70 additional acres and re-built the driveway to accommodate buses, the value of the farm has actually diminished. We need to raise $300,000 over the next two months to maintain our current status and, quite possibly, increase our space.

It's a lot of money. We don't get a dime from the Commonwealth of Kentucky or the Federal Government. We receive a grant for signs and brochures from the Georgetown-Scott County Tourism Commission. These horses depend on you and I'm tired and heartsick to ask you once again to do for them what they can't do for themselves.

And, on their behalf, I come to all of you to ask for help, once again.  We need to raise $300,000 by the end of the month.

This is humiliating. Frankly, if I had any money left, Diane and I would do it ourselves. But, we've already done that. I resolved many years ago, to not expect people to do what they could do or should do or ask them for money. Today, I'm breaking all three of those resolutions.  It's frustrating because of what all these great athletes have accomplished. What if Old Friends received a penny for every $100 wager when Black Tie affair electrified the Churchill Downs crowd when he went wire-to-wire in the Breeders' Cup Classic or a nickel for every hot dog sold when Awad broke the track record in the Arlington Million? How about a dime for every beer sold the day Gulch won the Breeders' Cup Sprint or a quarter for every admission when Wallenda and Bull Inthe Heather competed in the 1993 Kentucky Derby? How about a dollar every time a son or daughter of Fortunate Prospect was sold or every time Marquetry was bred? How about $10 for every $100,000 jockeys made riding these great champions? What about a fund set up by vets who earn their living treating these horses or a small fee from Fasig-Tipton or Keeneland every time a horse goes through the sales ring? The ideas for sustained funding are endless. And, once more, they earned it.

What does central Kentucky look like without these stunning Thoroughbreds? Old Friends not only cares for these deserving retirees, we are a significant boost to the local economy. We are desperately trying to prove that they can generate income once their racing and breeding careers are over. And, we're on the cusp of proving they can. Once again, I feel terrible at my personal failure and would not be begging anyone for anything except for these spectacular creatures outside my window. They deserve better than what I've been able to provide. But I can't give up. Any ideas, donations or advice from all of Old Friends' friends would be deeply appreciated.


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