'How did you come upon this?" Beth Shannon says, "My sister made a donation in my name."
We're talking about Old Friends, a Kentucky nonprofit "dedicated to providing a dignified retirement to old champions." Old champions being champion thoroughbreds found abroad, bought, and then shipped to Hurstland Farm near Lexington.
Before we get any further, I should mention that Beth lives in Lexington, Kentucky, and normally flies into California once or twice a year to visit friends. I should note further that "lives in Lexington, Kentucky" is a little like saying the Emperor of Japan lives in Tokyo. Beth's forefathers (actually, a fore-uncle) arrived in the Lexington area during the 1790s. She is a local girl of some 200-plus years standing.
This will cause a personhood to see the world differently than you and me. Particularly when it comes to horses.
Last month, Old Friends bought Ogygian, who, at the age of 22, was taking his meals in Japan. Old Friends bought him for $13,400 and brought him home.
Beth says, "An awful lot of these horses are being brought back from Japan, but also other places. Sea Hero, who is in Turkey, is on the list. Charismatic is on the list. What this means is that every few months Michael [Michael Blowen, Old Friends president] will phone the owner and say, 'How are you doing? Are you interested in sending him back?' It's a gentle way of saying, 'We are aware of and care about what happens to this horse. If you ever want to sell, we are interested.'"
I ask if her sister's donation was connected to a particular horse.
"It was made on behalf of a mare who was a daughter of [Kentucky Derby and Breeders Cup winner] Ferdinand. Ferdinand was slaughtered in Japan. I had not thought that horses who used to be stars could be in need of rescue. In Kentucky, they are usually retired in great dignity and comfort. Not so everywhere. That was a rude awakening to a lot of Kentuckians."
I...don't see it. "I talk about Joe Montana the way you talk about horses. Ran into him in a stadium corridor a few weeks before he retired, and instead of asking a question, I thanked him for pleasure he'd given me." Silence. "But, Joe played for 16 years, 16 to 20 games a year. Racehorses run for seconds at a time, a dozen times a year, for two, three years. I don't get how you make a relationship out of that."
Beth says, "For us, it's not a horse who's here for two years and then disappears after he sprained an ankle. These horses are around with us for decades. And they breed, and we follow their lineages. So, the horses are not a flash-in-the-pan to us. They come back and they stay and they live with us for decades and decades.
"For instance," Beth says, "my connection with Ogygian. His grandson, Johannesburg, has given me an enormous amount of pleasure. And my sister was nuts about his grandfather, Sword Dancer. And so, I owe Ogygian. I couldn't see him being starved to death and slaughtered in Japan."
"How much of your passion for horseracing is because you live in Lexington?"
Beth smiles in a way that tells me there are a lot of things I'm never going to know. "Lexington natives mostly grow up going to Keeneland [a racetrack built in the 1930s, located six miles west of Lexington]. It's not for the hard-bitten bettor; it's a family center. There was an epidemic of strangles [a highly contagious disease attacking equine lymph nodes] a few months ago. A lot of people in Lexington have back-yard horses and pet horses. Keeneland immediately had a workshop on strangles; what it is, how it can be prevented, how to recognize it. Typical of Keeneland. Their purses aren't humongous, but it gives humongous grants to the University of Kentucky library. Keeneland does so much community stuff. It is a presence in the community in a way that I don't think people out here could understand."
Beth mentions she's part of a syndicate that owns Ogygian. I have no idea what that means.
"These are baby shares, $100 shares," Beth says. "It's kind of a PR thing, but it's fun. People say, 'You're a part-owner of that horse.' Hey, I'm part-owner of a horse who won the Jerome Stakes and Dwyer Stakes and a Futurity. And that's big stuff. I'm part-owner of a son of Damascus. That's a big deal. He is the grandfather of Johannesburg who is worth zillions and zillions of dollars.
"I'm not rich enough that I would normally drop a $100 on a charity, but when I found out that I could help rescue and be an owner of this particular horse, I picked up the phone and dialed Old Friends' number. Michael answered the phone and I said, 'Put me down. Right now.'"
Readers wanting more are invited to visit the Old Friends website, www.oldfriendsequine.com/ or e-mail Michael Blowen at: [email protected]