Monday, October 19, 2009

Remembering Woodbine Legends Benburb and Thornfield

In the heartland of Kentucky resides an expansive parcel of racing heaven known as Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement at Dream Chase Farms. It is a living, breathing tribute to horse racing where fans can interact with retired thoroughbred champions and experience the history of the Sport of Kings. Spread across 92 acres of lush, green grass are the paddocks of millionaires such as Sunshine Forever and most recently, Sovereign Award winning Woodbine heroes Benburb and Thornfield.

20-year-old Benburb has aged gracefully

Photo provided courtesy of

Old Friends is the brain-child of former Boston Globe film critic Michael Blowen who runs a bed and breakfast on the grounds of the facility with his wife, Diane White, also a former Boston Globe columnist. Upon retirement, Blowen convinced White that pulling up roots, selling their belongings and starting a horse farm would be a great idea. In a moment of weakness, White agreed.

The couple met when White penned a column tearing apart a Blowen review of a Russian film named, The Slave of Love. “It’s a movie about the making of a movie,” explained Blowen. “I write this glowing four-star review on the Saturday and on Tuesday here comes Diane’s column...". Adopting an affected tone, a bemused Blowen interprets White's critique. "I went to see this movie called The Slave of Love at the Orson Welles cinema over the weekend and this movie is precisely the reason you can never trust movie critics...”

Blowen confronted White about the piece and the rest is history. The couple are still living happily-ever-after with their conflicting columns framed, side-by-side, on the wall of the farmhouse they now share.

Michael Blowen charms Little Silver Charm

I spoke to the ebullient Blowen over the phone recently as he made the nighttime rounds checking the stalls of his famous guests. First stop is the stall of Little Silver Charm, a miniature horse named after the 1997 Kentucky Derby. The farm mascot was rescued off a slaughter truck for $40 by an acquaintance and donated to Old Friends. The mascot’s story illustrates how a horse can slip through the cracks if someone isn’t there to lend a hand.

As Blowen walks the grounds, I am regaled with stories of generosity from the racing community. Earlier that day, volunteers combined to shoe 51 horses in under six hours. “I think it must be a world record,” laughed Blowen. “Usually you would spend that long just chasing the horses.”

There’s plenty of whinnying in the background of the phonecall as the waiting horses know there are treats to be had. Blowen strolls past the stall of Creator, a graded Stakes winner in Europe, and makes his way to the pasture home of multiple Grade One winner Ogygian.

“Hey Og,” calls out Blowen. “Hey Big Og!” The mercurial bed and breakfast proprietor has a story for each horse on site. “He only had ten starts. Won seven of his first eight. New York Daily News race writer Russ Harris has seen every New York race since 1961 and Ogygian is the best horse Harris ever saw.”

Ogygian, now 25 years old, is best remembered for his authoritative defeat of Groovy in the 1986 Jerome Handicap. Ogygian retired due to an ankle injury at the age of four.

Now this one here is my girlfriend,” exclaimed Blowen as he greets Hidden Lake. A daughter of Quiet American, Hidden Lake won the 1997 Eclipse Award for top older female. Apparently she has regained her crown at Old Friends.

Hidden Lake wins the 1997 Go For Wand Stakes

Hidden Lake famously collapsed after capturing the G1 Go For Wand. “From the recesses of her heart, Hidden Lake found a way to fight back and win,” said jockey Richard Migliore. “After the finish line, she actually collapsed from exhaustion. That was how much effort she put into winning that race. She was running on empty and found more to give.”

The mare has a few things in common with her new owner.

A loud whinny interrupts the phone call and I am informed we have finally caught up with Benburb, the 1992 Canadian Horse of the Year and Champion Three Year-old Male.

“I’ve got a special treat for you,” laughed Blowen. “It’s Canadian champ Benburb eating a carrot.” For the next thirty seconds I’m treated to a combination of crunchy root vegetables and incessant giggling.

The giggling is infectious.

Blowen returns to the phone to advise that he also recently acquired Thornfield, Canada’s Horse of the Year in 1999. “I now have two Canadian horses and being bilingual, they’ll be greeting our visitors in two languages,” cackled Blowen.

The program for the 1992 Molson Million

Benburb, who first made headlines by defeating Alydeed in the Prince of Wales Stakes, was a special horse for many at Woodbine. However, going into the 1992 Molson Million, the Phil England trainee was little more than an afterthought next to such heavy hitters as A.P Indy and Technology.

Benburb’s regular rider, Larry Attard, was hurt on the day of the event and Richard Dos Ramos was the fortunate recipient of the mount.

The journeyman’s face lit up when asked recently about the race. "Larry Attard got hurt and at the time I was riding a lot of horses for Debbie England, Phil’s wife," said dos Ramos. At Debbie's urging, Dos Ramos got the mount.

"I didn’t even know it was a million dollar race," smiled Dos Ramos. "On the post parade I was talking to the outrider and I said to him, ‘who did I pick up anyway.’" Dos Ramos was quickly advised he had secured the ride on Benburb in a million-dollar race. "I said 'perfect' and that's how I ended up with him," laughed the good-natured veteran.

An appropriately dressed Richard Dos Ramos shared a little love for Benburb

The Molson Million was meant to mark the return from injury of the highly acclaimed A.P. Indy. Little was expected from the Canadian horse out of Steve Stavros’ Knob Hill Stable. "Phil never gave a lot of instructions,” recalled Dos Ramos. “What he did tell me was, 'Rick, if he gets into a dogfight he'll win’. We turn into the lane and he was sitting fourth and we got in between two horses and had a four-horse dog fight going.”

Deep in the stretch, A.P Indy was out of contention as Benburb surged between Alydeed, Vying Victor and Technology. Elated Guy was closing like a train on the outside. Dos Ramos continued, “Phil’s words came into my head saying he'll win this dogfight and I just kept on riding and he just shot through. We crossed the wire and I thought, ‘holy jumpin' I hope this isn’t a dream!’"

Dan Loiselle’s stirring call at the wire is burned into Woodbine patrons memories, “An upset for the ages, Benburb wins the Molson Export Million.” A.P Indy would go on to win the Breeders Cup Classic and the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.

A program cover featuring a jubilant Richard Dos Ramos

At 20-years-old, Benburb is nearly white. The champ is being assisted with issues caused by melanomas by top local vet Dr. Byers. Benburb is now restricted to how much sunlight he can have. The equine senior citizen is now a night owl.

“He's going out twelve hours a day. Dr. Byers pointed out that melanomas are a lot harder on the humans than the horse,” said Blowen.

Benburb doesn’t seem to mind.

“He’s such a sweet horse. Kids eat carrots out of his hand,” stated Blowen. “He has a marvelous disposition. His forelocks have turned almost albino white. He's very attractive.”

Soon to join Benburb at Blowen’s field of dreams is 1999 Canadian International champion Thornfield. The victory made the Stavros Stable charge the first International winner sired by an International winner (Sky Classic, 1991.)

American-bred Fruits of Love was favoured in the event but the team of Phil England and Richard Dos Ramos had other ideas. “We were trying to teach him (Thornfield) to rate a little bit because he's real headstrong,” remembered Dos Ramos fondly. “Phil got him to relax a little bit and he started to come around and he just peaked at the right time for the Canadian International.”

Thornfield, longest shot on the board, wins the 1999 Canadian International

In a truly international field, the Chilean-bred Dancing Place, led the field through the first quarter with Dos Ramos sitting fourth on Thornfield. British invader Courteous loomed dangerously in that one's rear view and made an early move to take the lead in the backstretch. “That day everything went perfect,” smiled Dos Ramos. “In the morning, my wife Linda said, 'you're going to win that race, I have a gut feeling' and I said to her 'I hope you're right'.”

Courteous maintained a six-length lead into the far turn with Dancing Place and Thornfield stalking patiently along the hedge. “Turning into the lane there was a horse (Courteous) four, five lengths in front and I knew I had him but I didn’t want to move to soon because this lane is so long,” explained Dos Ramos. “I looked back and I didn’t see anyone coming. I straightened out, set him down and when he went by there man, I tell ya what, when I crossed the wire I could have jumped off that horse.”

An ecstatic Dos Ramos stood up in the irons and waved his whip in the air as he crossed the wire just steps in front of a late-charging Fruits of Love. “It was great because he's a Canadian horse,” laughed Dos Ramos. “Just a great little horse to ride."

Thornfield is now 15 years of age and waiting patiently on a satellite farm in Paris, Kentucky while Blowen completes renovations on his massive property. Blowen’s goal is to build a facility that can support itself with revenue generated by a full-scale bed-and-breakfast complete with rooms offering satellite TV including all the horse racing channels.

Nearly twenty thousand fans visit Old Friends each year and the number is growing as people become aware of one of the best kept secrets in racing. Calvin Borel is a regular patron. Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron lives down the road and offers his assistance on a regular basis. Racing fans continue to pour in by the thousands.

As for his new Canadian retirees, Blowen laughed “I hope they get along so we can put them in the same paddock and put up a Canadian flag.”


For more information about how you can visit Old Friends, or make a donation, please visit their website.

1 comment:

Jean in VA. said...

Thanks so much for taking me on a trip to Old Friends. Visiting there is number one on my wish I could do list.
Each and every one is so lucky to be able to call Old Friends home and Old Friends is so lucky to have them all.
Michael Blowen must be a very caring and special person.
Thanks again.