When I was 11 years old, I was channel surfing while my sister got ready for her senior prom. I was a tomboy, and dresses, hair, and makeup didn't appeal to me. So while my mother and sister ran around getting her dressed, I was stuck watching television.
It was the first Saturday in May, and I had no idea I was about to become a fan of the Sport of Kings. The second I spotted a dark grey horse prancing in a post parade, I stopped flipping through the channels. He was captivating as he pranced, his body barely containing the excited energy boiling beneath his steely hide.
That horse was named Silver Charm. It was the 1997 Kentucky Derby.
Then the rest of the field was shown, and I was floored as exquisite creatures paraded in front of a large crowd that sang the melody of "My Old Kentucky Home." It was enough to bring a tear to my eye, touching me deep in my soul as I watched it all play out in front of me.
When the gates opened for the explosion of power and energy that was the field taking off to begin that year's Kentucky Derby, my heart raced along with them. Free House and Pulpit battled for the lead position, and I was falling in love a little more with each pounding stride as they rounded the far turn. The horses were close together, galloping and jostling for position.
And then came the final turn, when the race turned into a different one. Captain Bodgit and Silver Charm emerged from just behind Free House and Pulpit to create the most exciting finish. I've been hooked on horse racing ever since. Click here to watch a replay of this race on YouTube.
Being a little girl from a small town in Georgia, I never got the chance to attend a live race until I was in my 30s and pregnant with my second child. The closest I got to that was visiting the Kentucky Horse Park when I was around nine. When I did get the chance to visit the races, my husband and I went to Keeneland the one time he let me drag him on a vacation I planned.
Before that, though, we did a tour of the Old Friends Farm in Georgetown, KY. This place is a living museum of horse racing's stars. It features both interesting stories and Hall Of Fame legends.
If you're ever in the area, I highly recommend this tour. Unlike others, on this tour you get treats to give the horses and can interact with them. I got my hands on horses I've seen on television, like Ike, Game On Dude, Alphabet Soup, Sarava, and so many more. Eclipse Award winners and classic winners are all located in one spot for you to interact with. We also got to see horses who weren't successful on the racetrack but still had interesting stories.
And that's the point of Old Friends. It's a farm that gives back to the athletes who give their all for horse racing. They host mares, stallions, and geldings that aren't on the tour. It's the place any retired racehorse can call home when they have either nowhere else to go or just need a safe place to land after their career is over.
But the only horse I had eyes for was the same one responsible for my love of horse racing.
I don't get starstruck by people. However, when I came to his paddock, I couldn't form words. I wasn't nervous, but I wasn't calm. Silver Charm was fast asleep on the other side of his paddock. As soon as he heard our tour group coming, he got up, shook like a dog coming out of a bathtub, and walked calmly over to us. He was a gentleman. He politely ate the treats we brought him, stood and even posed for photos, and accepted our affectionate scratches as we talked with our tour guide about what the big guy had seen in his days.
This experience was a dream come true for me, and it was a moment where my love of horse racing came full circle. Silver Charm's hair is much lighter these days (so white, I joked, he could put on sunglasses and go to Halloween as his trainer, Bob Baffert). It's also good to hear that former jockeys, trainers, and owners come by to see their former charges. More times than not, the horses remember them. That's ironic since before Old Friends and charities like the Retired Racehorse Project, these athletes were forgotten once their careers were over.
There are two other locations of Old Friends. One is in New York while the other is at Kentucky Downs. If you're near any of them, they make excellent trips and have plenty of gifts (both at their locations and online) available for any horse racing fan.