On the snowy morning of Jan. 23, Michael Blowen was still in his robe waiting for the caffeine to kick in when a voice could be heard outside the farmhouse sounding the worst possible alarm. The barn was on fire.
Not just any barn, either. It was the seven-stall wooden structure at the main crossroads of Old Friends Equine in Scott County, Ky. Hall of Famer Precisionist had taken his last breaths in that barn. Derby winner War Emblem transitioned there after coming home from Japan. And since his retirement from stud duties last fall, the barn was where Breeders' Cup Classic hero Alphabet Soup, now 25 and white as a swan, enjoyed his double-wide stall, spoiled and sheltered from the cold bluegrass nights.
James Crump, an Old Friends employee, was first on the scene when he saw telltale wisps of smoke. He rushed inside and snapped a lead on Alphabet Soup, who glided calmly to safety, then went back for Archie's Echo, a 27-year-old rescue from the New Holland livestock pens.
Archie wasn't quite as quick on his feet as Alphabet Soup, but he was clear and safe by the time Blowen came running.
"We couldn't take them too far away, so we put Alphabet Soup in a round pen right there by the barn and gave him some hay," Blowen said Thursday after making the evening rounds at Old Friends. "There were fire trucks going around, people scurrying everywhere, and at some point the car of our farm manager, Tim Wilson, caught fire. When the air bags blew up, I looked over at Alphabet Soup. He never lifted his head from the hay."
Figures. If Cigar couldn't faze him, what's a little barn fire?
"I'd never been around fire like that before," said Blowen. "It was terrifying. They think it was rodents that ate through some of the wiring. By the time I got there, it was completely engulfed, flames shooting 40 feet in the air. If James hadn't come to work a little early, if he hadn't noticed that wasn't snow blowing off the roof but smoke "
But "if" didn't happen, and no one was hurt -- horse or human -- even though the barn was burned to the ground despite the best efforts of local firefighters who had to slog their way through slush and deep snow just to keep the conflagration from spreading.
This week, Blowen and his Old Friends board of directors signed off on the design of a new 12-stall barn, which was not exactly in the budget. They are awaiting final word on an insurance settlement, but like most Thoroughbred rescue and retirement organizations, Old Friends relies primarily on the kindness of friends and strangers.
That kindness was evident last May in the wake of a break-in at Old Friends that left the business office ransacked.
"They stole an old analog TV that was pretty worthless and around $300," Blowen said. "The next day, we got a new flat-screen TV from Lane's End Farm and about $3,000 in donations. When the police came by to continue their investigation, I said we were probably the only victims they've encountered that ended up with more money than the criminals.
"Our goal is to have the new barn built by the Belmont," Blowen said. "One idea we've had is that anyone who donates $5,000 can have a stall named after them or one of their horses."
The barn was more than shelter. The history of Old Friends was written on the roof beams, where the paddock nameplates of the special old horses who had come and gone were nailed like holy relics.
"Not one of the nameplates survived," Blowen said, his voice choking at the loss, even these six weeks after the fact. "We will have new ones made.
"The one great thing about this is the way people have come together to help us in all sorts of ways," he added. "The farms nearby offered stalls if we needed them temporarily. The guy up the street with a restaurant has offered free lunch to everyone who comes to build the new barn. And the big thing was Fasig-Tipton, who gave us $50,000 through Blue Horse Charities."
Blue Horse Charities was inspired by the late John Hettinger, who rescued Fasig-Tipton from its financial doldrums and spent his later years in a relentless quest to help retired racehorses and end equine slaughter. Blowen said the new structure will be christened the John Hettinger Barn.
Beyond a fire and a break-in, the Old Friends family of volunteers and supporters has been on an emotional roller coaster the past 12 months. Farm favorites Gulch and Ogygian, two of its most accomplished senior citizens, reached the end of the line, while both Silver Charm and War Emblem, with four classics between them, were repatriated from Japan to live out their days as iconic Old Friends attractions.
"They've all got so much class, so much history, and represent such great moments in the game," Blowen said. "To think we could have lost two of them -- just devastating."
The thought will be hard to shake. But at least, saved from the worst possible tragedy, veterans of the Old Friends fire can be comforted by the image of a white horse standing in snow in front of a burning barn, nibbling calmly at a pile of hay while the orange flames danced and died.