GEORGETOWN, KY – Jan. 3, 2024 — PRESS OPPORTUNITY
Date: Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024
Time: 1-4 p.m.
Location: Josephine Abercrombie Center at the top of the hill at Old Friends, 1841 Paynes Depot Rd, Georgetown, Ky.
Subject: Michael Blowen stepping down as President of Old Friends; John Nicholson, former Executive Director of the Kentucky Horse Park, to take over as President and CEO
Opportunities: Both Michael Blowen and John Nicholson will be available for interviews
Barbara Fossum, (610) 322-7125
Michael Blowen, (502) 863-1775
With the end of 2023, which was the 20th anniversary of the opening of Old Friends, Michael Blowen, founder of the Thoroughbred retirement farm in Georgetown, Ky. in 2003, has announced he will be stepping down as President of the facility.
However, while he won’t be running the farm on a daily basis anymore, he will still be greeting visitors, giving tours, and other things as needed.
Taking over the reins as the President and CEO of Old Friends is John Nicholson, best known as the former Executive Director of the Kentucky Horse Park from 1997 to 2014. He will assume his new position on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024 and will be responsible for the leadership of the organization.
“I started looking a couple of years ago for someone to take over as President,” said Blowen. “The most important thing I was looking for was someone that really, really, put the horses first. It’s not like they’d just be saying it, but that they really have to think about the horses first.
“Then maybe about six months ago,” Blowen continued, “I ran into John and we started talking, and I said to him, ‘You know, I’m really looking for somebody to take over Old Friends because I’ve really taken it as far as I can take it. It started out with Diane and I and a golf cart and feeding the horses; a little mom and pop operation on the corner. And, today it’s like a multi-million dollar corporation, and it needs somebody that can handle that kind of operation. It needs a really good CEO that has managed a much bigger facility than we have, and the only way that we can improve is to get more space for more horses, which means more money, more donations, and an executive CEO that knows how to handle big business.’
“As I was looking for someone to step into the position, something that was a big concern for me was to find somebody who had the same attitude towards the horses that I did. I always worried about that. Well, now, with John coming on board, I’m not worried about it at all. I feel like, instead of being an old has been, I feel that a big weight has been lifted off of my shoulders.
“So when John said he would like to take the position, I just thought this was the greatest thing. I’ve known John for decades, and what he did over at the Kentucky Horse Park was just phenomenal. He did a wonderful job over there.
“So, two things. First and foremost, to have somebody of his experience, his sensitivity for the horses, his love of the horses, along with his administrative abilities, and the way he gets along with people – he knows a lot of really important people that would really love to help Old Friends – I just thought it was so obvious that he was the person to take over this organization and take it up to the next level.
“The second thing was that we finally have put together a great team, both on the farm taking care of the horses, and in the office to keep the farm running smoothly. It’s our “World Series” team and I wouldn’t trade anyone on our staff now. So, I felt like John would be coming into a great situation where the momentum was pretty much there and he just had to keep it going and take it to another level.
In accepting the position, Nicholson said, “I am thrilled to have the opportunity of joining the Old Friends family to continue and enhance Michael Blowen’s vision and values. Old Friends has been at the vanguard of the Thoroughbred Aftercare movement and I feel privileged to be a part of such an important cause.
“I have always had a deeply felt respect and appreciation for Michael’s vision and tenacity,” Nicholson continued. “What he has accomplished is beyond remarkable. I have treasured our friendship over the years, especially having had a great collaborative relationship between Old Friends and the Kentucky Horse Park. He and I have always shared a spirit that the horse has given far more to us than we could ever give in return.
“Old Friends is making an important and vital contribution, not only to the racing industry, but most importantly to the lives of the horses who have given so much to us. I have been fortunate in my career to be a part of some meaningful endeavors, but Old Friends offers all of us who love the horse a unique opportunity to serve the animal who has served us so well.
“It is also very gratifying and reassuring that Michael will remain a part of the daily world of Old Friends as the Founder. We are blessed that he is in good health and his passion for the mission of Old Friends is undiminished. I plan to sit at his knee in the weeks and months ahead to listen and learn. I know for certain that working with him and the Old Friends team will be exhilarating and rewarding.
“And, at this stage of my life and career, having had much experience in the equine, tourism, and non-profit worlds, I believe I am in a position to help assure that Old Friends will remain a strong and viable force for all the good things it does for decades and generations to come.”
About Michael Blowen
In 2001, the Boston Globe offered buyouts and Michael, who had been the newspaper’s movie critic, and his wife Diane White, who was a Boston Globe columnist, took those buyouts and moved to Midway, Ky. where he worked as Operations Director at the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF). During his time at the TRF, he had an idea – if people become star struck when meeting their favorite movie stars, maybe people would have the same reaction when they met their favorite race horses.
It was an idea he followed through on, and in 2003, with a lot of hard work, perseverance, and help from some others, he opened Old Friends, a retirement farm for Thoroughbreds, at Afton Farm in Georgetown, Ky. thanks to Mary Sue Walters who owned the farm. When it opened, it consisted of a few paddocks, his own horse, Invigorate, his pet miniature horse, Little Silver Charm, and its first official retiree, Narrow Escape, a mare that had been left in a stall following a sale.
A year later, Old Friends outgrew that farm, and thanks to Alfred Nuckols, the retirement farm moved to his Hurstland Farm in Midway, Ky. However, soon after that the facility outgrew that farm, too, and in 2004 Michael purchased a permanent home for Old Friends in Georgetown, Ky. Named Old Friends at Dream Chase Farm, it consisted of 52 acres with plenty of room to grow.
In addition, following the death of 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand in Japan, Old Friends, along with help from some others, became the first organization to repatriate Thoroughbreds from Japan to the United States. The first two horses to arrive home were Sunshine Forever and Creator.
Since then, six more Thoroughbreds – Fraise, Ogygian, Wallenda, Silver Charm, War Emblem, and Charismatic – have been repatriated to the United States from Japan thanks to the efforts of Michael and Old Friends.
In time, Old Friends has also repatriated a horse from Italy, Geri, and in 2022, he opened the door to returning horses from South Korea with the arrival of Any Given Saturday.
Today, Old Friends has grown to over 240 acres with close to 300 horses, thanks to, not just Michael, but the entire staff, past and present, that he assembled to work at Old Friends through the years.
In addition to the main farm in Georgetown, Ky., Old Friends has two satellite farms, Old Friends at Cabin Creek: The Bobby Frankel Division, which opened in 2009 in Greenfield Center, New York, which is very close to the Saratoga Race Course; and Old Friends at Ashton Grove, a senior retirement community in Georgetown, Ky., a place that gives seniors a chance to interact with horses. There are also a few small annex farms near the main farm.
Also, in his time at Old Friends, Michael and Old Friends have earned a number of awards, both personal and for the retirement farm, highlighted by the 2014 Special Eclipse Award, which honors extraordinary service or contributions to the Thoroughbred industry.
In addition, Michael and Old Friends have received the 2010 Joe Palmer Award by the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, which is given for meritorious service to racing; the 2011 New England Turf Writer’s Sam McCracken Memorial Award, which is given for his outstanding work with the rescue and retirement of Thoroughbred racehorses; the 2015 ThoroFan Award, which was given to a person or entity who substantially contributes to building the fan base in thoroughbred racing; the 2016 American Association of Equine Practitioners’ 2016 Lavin Cup, which is given to a non-veterinary organization or individual that has distinguished itself through service to improve the welfare of horses; the 2018 Galbreath Award, for Outstanding Entrepreneurship in the Equine Industry; and the 2023 J. David Richardson Industry Service Award, which recognizes those who have demonstrated an outstanding contribution to the Thoroughbred industry, and in particular, to the greater good of the sport.
About John Nicholson
John Nicholson has had a very impressive career in the horse industry in two different states.
The position he is most known for in Kentucky was as the Executive Director of the Kentucky Horse Park from 1997 to 2014, when he retired. He was the longest-serving Executive Director of the Kentucky Horse Park in its history.
His most notable achievement during his tenure was working to attract the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games to the Kentucky Horse Park, the first time the event was ever held outside of Europe. Nicholson served as the President of the World Games 2010 Foundation board that organized the event, which had a $201.5 million economic impact on Kentucky’s economy.
Nicholson also led the largest expansion in the history of the Kentucky Horse Park, which included the building of many new facilities on the grounds, including the Alltech Arena, which seats 5,500; the Rolex Stadium, which seats 7,300; new stabling barns; and a new 8,500-square foot wing of the International Museum of the Horse.
In addition, Nicholson spearheaded the expansion of the National Horse Center, which today consists of offices and headquarters of 33 national, regional, and state equine organizations at the Kentucky Horse Park. The expansion included bringing the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) to the Kentucky Horse Park. Prior to its moving to Kentucky, the USEF headquarters was located in New York City where it opened in 1917.
Another important accomplishment achieved by Nicholson was his work in improving the public perception of the Kentucky Horse Park, which helped increase the support of the private sector. This included raising $1.2 million to host the Imperial China: The Art of the Horse in Chinese History” collection. Other exhibitions hosted during his tenure were “All the Queen’s Horses,” in 2003; and “A Gift from the Desert,” in 2010.
Also, Nicholson and former Keeneland President Ted Bassett teamed up to get an additional $1.5 million in state and private funding, which was used to purchase the Calumet Farm trophy collection in 1998 before it went up for auction.
During Nicholson’s tenure, the Kentucky Horse Park also received numerous awards, including an Eclipse Award in 2008, which is the highest honor in the sport of horse racing; and the USEF’s Sallie Busch Wheeler Trophy, which honors distinguished service in equestrian sports.
After leaving his position at the Kentucky Horse Park, Nicholson accepted a position as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Virginia Horse Center, which is located in Lexington, Va., from 2015 to 2021.
Under his leadership, he was able to help turn the Virginia Horse Center Foundation (VHCF) around at a time when it was struggling financially. To accomplish this, he brought new horse shows and other events to the facility, which attracted the support of many people, most importantly, the area’s horse community. He also helped recruit new people for the VHCF board, and helped raise the money to fund renovations and upgrades to the Center’s facilities.
Nicholson also worked with the elected leaders of Lexington and Rockbridge (County) to increase the local occupancy tax allocated to meet the debt service on VHCF’s $11.5 million mortgage from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Obtaining non-operating resources to meet annual debt service payments was the first step in returning VHCF to financial stability. In addition, he was able to help the Virginia Horse Center receive a portion of the historical racing funds each year.
Nicholson also served as Chairman of the Board of Directors of Brooke USA, a nonprofit dedicated to significantly improving the health, welfare, and productivity of working horses, donkeys, and mules, and the people and families that depend on them for survival worldwide.
On a personal level, Nicholson has received numerous awards, including the 2010 Equine Industry Vision Award from the American Horse Publications, which recognizes outstanding leadership, creativity, and meritorious contributions in the equine industry; in 2011, he received the Chronicle of the Horse magazine’s “Overall Horsemen of the Year;” and in 2021, he was inducted into the Virginia Horse Center Foundation Hall of Fame.