On the day of the 2002 Kentucky Derby, top thoroughbred Danthebluegrassman was ready to race but got sick and never made it to the starting gate.
Twelve years later, the aging chestnut colt runs for carrots — not roses — on a central Kentucky farm alongside dozens of once-great thoroughbreds. For all of these horses, the glory days of racing and breeding are far behind.
Old Friends farm, set on rolling pastures about an hour's drive east of the home of the Kentucky Derby, is full of horses with stories. Some ran in the Derby or nearly missed making it to Churchill Downs on the sport's biggest day.
"Some of these horses, they start off with the bright lights of Churchill Downs," said Michael Blowen, president of Old Friends, now in its 11th year operating as a refuge for racehorses past their prime. "But eventually as they wear down and they get a little tired, they end up in races at smaller tracks for smaller purses, and they can't really compete any more, and when they're done with that, that's when we like to get them."
Blowen had just opened the farm in 2003 after moving to Kentucky from the East Coast when the news broke that 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand had died in a slaughterhouse in Japan.
"I think at that point most Americans were really unaware of the possibility, even the possibility, of a great thoroughbred like that ending up in those dire circumstances," said Blowen, who retired to Kentucky after a career as a movie critic with The Boston Globe.
Ferdinand's story gave his farm a mission: to take in at-risk racehorses, give them a comfortable retirement and bring in tourists. He later moved the farm from its original location to a prime spot off Interstate 64 in Scott County, and it has grown into a 52-acre reserve with 100 horses that draws about 20,000 visitors a year. Old Friends opened a satellite location in New York state near Saratoga Race Course in 2009.
In a state with a $3 billion horse industry packed with major breeding stables, Old Friends gets by on donations, tourism grants and an annual pre-Derby fundraiser in Louisville named for Ferdinand.
The farm has brought back five at-risk horses from Japan, including Ogygian, a burly 31-year-old colt with a missing eye. In his prime, the big horse won three Grade 1 races in the mid-1980s and sired 23 stakes winners during his breeding career.
Though there are no Kentucky Derby winners here, the connections to the historic race run deep. Secretariat's last foal, Tinners Way, is here, along with Wallenda, who ran in the 1993 Kentucky Derby.
A son of Ferdinand, Bull in the Heather, had to be euthanized in early April. The white horse ran with Wallenda in the '93 Derby, though both finished in the back of the pack. Blowen said the horse wasn't eating in his final days and was struggling physically.
"I saw many of these horses race in their prime, and it's like having Michael Jordan and Larry Bird here if you're a racing fan," Blowen said.
Pat Oswald was touring the farm one recent day after traveling from Delaware, Ohio, feeding carrots to Ogygian and Popcorn Deelites, a colt that stood in for Seabiscuit in the 2003 Hollywood film.
"I really don't know what would happen to these horses had somebody not had the dream of opening up their place and taking care of these horses and giving them a wonderful retirement," Oswald said. "Not just a retirement in a stall, but in a pasture."