Kentucky Life Memory: Old Friends
In 2015, Kentucky Life visited Georgetown’s Old Friends, a retirement home for legendary thoroughbred racehorses. That year War Emblem, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 2002, came to live at Old Friends alongside some other past Triple Crown contenders.
“At Old Friends, we redefined the Triple Crown,” says Michael Blowen, founder and president. “We decided it didn’t have to be one horse, it just had to be one year. So we won the ‘triple crown’ in 1997 because we have Silver Charm and Touch Gold—Silver Charm wins the first two and Touch Gold wins the third. And then just five years later we pulled it off again in 2002 with War Emblem and Sarava…that’s the Old Friends Triple Crown.”
Silver Charm is remembered for pulling to the lead just before the wire to win both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 1997. The striking gray quickly became popular with fans.
“Silver Charm is my favorite horse of all time,” says Blowen. “I loved the way he raced. He just raced like a really great competitor, like he really knew what he was doing.”
After his race career ended, Silver Charm stood at stud, eventually in Japan.
“For years we brought several horses home from the various farms in Japan once their breeding careers were over,” says Blowen. “I never thought we’d get Silver Charm, really. And then one cold day, I get a call from Sandy Hatfield from Three Chimneys Farm, and she said, ‘How would you like an old gray stallion at your farm?’ I freaked out because I knew who she was talking about. She never even had to mention his name.”
Hatfield brought Silver Charm to Old Friends in December of 2014.
“It was a great experience for me to…be taking Silver Charm to his new home, the place where he’ll live out the rest of his life, and with fans and people that love him and can come see him every day and feed him carrots,” says Hatfield. “It was very important to me to be a part of that. I love that horse so much.”
“I don’t want to say I enjoyed being the spoiler,” says jockey Chris McCarron. “But I’m sure glad I was on the horse to win the Belmont Stakes.”
McCarron rode Touch Gold to that victory in 1997, upsetting Silver Charm’s quest for the Triple Crown. While he was an undeniable competitor on the track, Touch Gold was never a Triple Crown contender—he didn’t start in the Kentucky Derby that year, and his Preakness Stakes quest got off to a rough start.
“If this horse had not stumbled leaving the starting gate in the Preakness, he would have won the Preakness,” says McCarron. “He went right on his head. There was a photograph of his nose in the dirt…his whole face was in the track that day and I was very fortunate to stay on his back.”
Nevertheless, Touch Gold went on to finish fourth in that race, and recovered quickly enough to win the Belmont three weeks later.
“We’re very grateful to Frank Stronach and everyone at Adena Springs for allowing us to retire Touch Gold,” says Blowen.
In 2002, War Emblem took a decisive win in the Kentucky Derby, and repeated the feat at the Preakness Stakes. But like Touch Gold, a misstep changed what could have been a different story for War Emblem.
“He stumbled out of the gate,” says breeder Charles Nuckols III of Nuckols Farm. “I turned and said, ‘It’s over.’ And it was over, but almost not. He was really trying. If that hadn’t happened, I believe he would have won.”
After his retirement from racing, War Emblem stood at stud in Japan. In 2015, he came home to Kentucky to retire at Old Friends.
Being the Triple Crown upset can be a mixed blessing, but Gary Drake, owner of Sarava, puts his horse’s 2002 Belmont Stakes win in perspective.
“War Emblem was done at the head of the lane, so it wasn’t like we had taken something away,” says Drake. “Sarava had just run his race. He was that kind of horse.”
Going off at 70-to-1, Sarava’s win gave him the distinction of having the longest odds of any Belmont winner.
He continued to race until 2005, then stood at stud in Florida until 2012, when he came to Old Friends.
“Michael said, ‘If you bring Sarava here, we will make him a rock star,’ and he’s been good to his word,” says Drake. “There are tours every day with buckets of carrots going by and [people] paying attention to him. If you have a horse you really care about, all you want is for them to have a nice retirement, and he’s got a nice retirement here. Old Friends is great for horses, it’s great for fans, so we’re really happy that he’s here.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2115, which originally aired on April 30, 2016. It was re-aired in episode #2502, which originally aired on October 12, 2019. Watch the full episode.