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Portraits in 'Old Friends' book pay tribute to retired thoroughbreds

For a fan of horse racing and its equine athletes, Michael Blowen’s view outside his window each day at sunrise borders on the surreal.

Out behind the house in rural Kentucky stands the most handsome of stallions — a 24-year-old whose gray coat with small black flecks brings back warm memories to so many.

Silver Charm became racing royalty when the Bob Baffert trainee captured the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 1997 before coming up three-quarters of a length short of seizing the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes.

Silver Charm went on to a stud career that included a stay in Japan, and he returned to his native state in 2015 as a donation by owner Beverly Lewis. The oldest living Preakness champion, the horse enjoys the perks of celebrity at Old Friends Equine, a farm and tourist attraction in Georgetown, Ky., founded by Blowen.

“I look out my window at him every morning, and as long he’s standing up, and I’m standing up, I’m happy,” Blowen said Wednesday with a laugh over the phone.

“I just got back from Saratoga,” he continued, “and I was wearing my Silver Charm hat. People say how great he was, and I say, ‘Yeah, he lives in my yard.’ And they go, ‘What?!’ ”

Blowen and his wife, Diane White, are former Boston Globe writers who took a buyout in 2001 and made a “Green Acres” life change from urban hustle to languid small-town Kentucky. Or at least it started that way, until they began working on Michael’s vision of a retirement home for racehorses.

“I’ve learned that if you have a really good idea, no matter how bad you are at it, it eventually works,” Blowen said.

Today, Old Friends draws 20,000 visitors a year to see more than 175 retired or rescued horses. Beyond Silver Charm, the star attractions include another 2002 Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem, Game on Dude, Alphabet Soup, Little Mike and Amazombie.

Old Friends operates on a $1 million annual budget, much of which comes from donations among people in the industry, and Saturday at Del Mar it will hold a unique fundraiser.

Equine artist Dagmar Galleithner-Steiner has produced a book, “The Art of Old Friends,” ($39.99) and will be signing copies from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. near the fountain and the entrance to the Turf Club. She’ll be joined by Bob and Jill Baffert — the latter of whom sits on the Old Friends board.

Galleithner-Steiner, who is donating all proceeds from the book to Old Friends, spent eight years painting with pastels and drawing the residents of the retirement farm.

“This is huge for everybody. It’s a true tribute to the horses,” Blowen said. “The thing that Dagmar sees in these horses … I don’t even see in all of the time I’ve been around them. It’s almost as if she’s painting them from the inside out. She’s an amazing artist.”

Game on Dude — best known for sweeping the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic in 2013 — graces the book’s cover. Inside, there are mix of popular champions and some thoroughbreds who were hard knockers who had little success.

Blowen said he believes it’s important to not just cater to former stars. One horse, Mikethespike, made 125 starts in 10 years. Another, Easy Grades, was a former Kentucky Derby contender who won only eight times in 81 starts.

Timothy James is a horse rescued from an abandoned Kentucky farm, and Winning Dubai came to Old Friends following the hurricane in Puerto Rico.

At Old Friends, the horses have plenty of room to roam, and Blowen said some of his favorite times are when the summer evenings turn cool and they “race” each other around their large pens.

“They still enjoy jumping around and playing with each other,” Blowen said. “It’s amazing to watch.”

The gelded horses run in packs, while the stallions have their own paddocks. Game on Dude, Blowen said, is the “sweetest horse you can imagine,” while with War Emblem, “it’s his way or the highway.”

There are few more personable or intelligent than Silver Charm, who seems to be able to tell time. He’ll move up to the fence just before visitors arrive so that he can pose for pictures and be fed carrots.

“When Silver Charm was donated to us, it was like getting Elvis,” Blowen said.

Painting Silver Charm, Galleithner-Steiner said, was a challenge because of the little black spots on his coat. True to her nature, she obsessed over getting them right.

Born in Germany, Galleithner-Steiner, 43, rode horses as a child and worked at a harness racing track outside of Munich while in college. She said it was there that she learned to pick out the details that distinguished each horse.

She is married to and has a 3-year-old son with former jockey Joe Steiner, and they rent a house on the Old Friends property.

Galleithner-Steiner said she got one of her first big breaks when Del Mar commissioned her to do a portrait of 2014 Pacific Classic winner Shared Belief. She has subsequently painted Classic champions Beholder, California Chrome and Collected.

“Those opportunities gave me a lot of confidence,” she said.

Her pastel renderings of the horses are so sharp and accurate that they are sometimes mistaken for photographs — which can be frustrating at times, considering the painstaking hours Galleithner-Steiner spends.

“I’ve had that a lot with the book,” she said. “People say, ‘Nice photo.’ But as soon as they hear that it’s a painting, they become more interested.”

The book was a daunting project. Galleithner-Steiner admitted to becoming so overwhelmed several years ago that she tossed out many of her drawings and notes. Unbeknownst to her at the time, her husband retrieved them from the trash.

“I’m grateful,” she said. “If this is your passion and what you love to do, you always get drawn back into it. You feel that tugging at you, that calling.”

Among their beloved old horses, she and Blowen very much have that in common.


Favored Creative Instinct ($2.80), trained by Peter Miller and ridden by Tyler Baze, easily won the $100,000 Generous Portion Stakes for 2-year-old Cal-bred fillies on Wednesday at Del Mar.

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