Once upon a time, former Boston Globe film critic and Thoroughbred owner Michael Blowen had a dream -- to give retired racehorses, coming off the tracks and out of the breeding sheds, a place where they could spend their remaining years in peace.
In 2003 that dream came to fruition when Old Friends Retirement Center opened its doors in Georgetown, Kentucky.
Today the farm -- which is home to stallions and geldings as well as the mares who foaled them -- cares for more than 150 horses across three states and attracts around 20,000 tourists annually.
This three-part series takes a look at just a few of those who call Old Friends home.
So take a stroll down memory lane to catch up with some Kentucky Derby runners, including one very famous winner, who have found their way back home to the Blue Grass State.
Just a few paddocks away from his champion sire resides a very special stallion.
Wallenda, a son of Gulch, traveled all over the world during and after his racing career -- just like his namesake, Karl Wallenda, patriarch of the famous Flying Wallendas highwire performing family.
"Wallenda is a bit ornery, but he believes he has the right to be so," Grisolia said. "He'd probably get angry if he heard you call him funny or quirky. I think he might prefer formidable.
"He's one of the toughest horses we've ever met. It's that Gulch line. Very hardy stock."
The Florida-bred began his racing career in New York before shipping to his native state to kick off his sophomore campaign. A trip to the Kentucky Derby followed, but Wallenda suffered the worse loss of his career in the 1993 Run for the Roses when crossing under the wire in 13th behind winner Sea Hero.
Just like the Flying Wallendas after a fall, the dark bay colt dusted himself off and soldiered on, competing in Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Arkansas, New Jersey and Massachusetts. Along the way he captured a Grade 1, a pair of Grade 2s and a Grade 3 contest while accumulating more than $1.2 million in career earnings.
Upon his retirement from racing, Wallenda shuttled between the United States and New Zealand before finally finding himself standing at stud in Japan.
Once his stallion career was done, Wallenda took up residence at Old Friends in 2007. The trip back to the United States wasn't cheap, but thanks to the generosity of numerous individuals the now 25-year-old stallion will live out his golden years in the Blue Grass State.
"Wallenda raced for Cot and Anne Campbell's Dogwood Stables, and Dogwood's PR Director Mary Jane Howell was a fan of Old Friends. She was a fan of Kiri's Clown and came to visit and ended up inquiring about Wallenda. She really got the ball rolling," Grisolia explained.
"Wallenda is one of the six stallions Old Friends has returned to the United States from Japan. Cot and Anne Campbell made a significant contribution to his return trip. But we also mounted a fan campaign called 'Fly Wallenda Home,' to raise the rest of the money.
"We tracked his travel on the website -- 'Wallenda's in the air! Wallenda has arrived!'"
Wallenda's homecoming helped bring a lot of attention to Old Friends, including a visit from the Flying Wallendas themselves.
"That year they performed at our annual Homecoming event in May. It was so awesome," Grisolia said.
Now back in the United States, Wallenda receives all the care and attention he needs, though it sometimes comes at a price for those dispensing the care.
"People are his favorite chew toy," Grisolia quipped before explaining all that goes into keeping the stallion healthy.
"Unfortunately, Wallenda suffers from collapsed suspensories. He's our poster child for special needs," she said, adding that a farrier team headed by Dr. Bryan Fraley manages the stallion's care.
"What it entails is super high-tech shoeing about every six weeks to maintain his comfort. The farriers have really had to think way outside the box on this one, but they have learned an enormous amount from treating him -- they're amazed by him.
"The nature of the malady almost always leads to a hoof infection, but Wallenda is so strong and strong-willed that he's been fine. It seems his immune system is super-sonic for a 25-year-old horse. He has an amazing ability to adapt.
"He may not move fast, but he's far from old and feeble. Like I said, formidable."
Easy Grades holds a distinction in this narrative in that, unlike his fellow Derby runners at Old Friends, the dark bay is a gelding.
That being the case, the Kentucky-bred is a bit more laid back than his stallion counterparts.
"Easy Grades certainly lives up to his name. We call him the Wal-Mart greeter of that 'back 40' paddock where he lives," Grisolia said.
"He's just so friendly and personable. He gets along with all the other geldings. He does like to get into the burrs, though. His forelock turns into a tiny baseball bat."
Another distinction that Easy Grades holds is that he actually earned his first victory on grass. He performed so well that his owners decided to try him on dirt and the little gelding responded with seconds in Santa Anita Park's traditional Kentucky Derby preps, the San Rafael Stakes and Santa Anita Derby.
It was in the Santa Anita Derby that Easy Grades truly earned his shot at the 2002 Kentucky Derby.
Gary Stevens was aboard that day but found himself in the unusual position of having little to no control over his mount. A problem with the bridle wasn't discovered until they were already loaded in the gate and there was no time to correct the issue.
Stevens ended up having to ride Easy Grades with no help from the reins. Each time he tried to steer using the reins it would pinch the gelding's mouth and cause him to fight his rider.
That took a toll on Easy Grades, but he still managed to finish second, prompting Stevens to tell The Blood-Horse afterward, "This little horse was so gallant to do what he did."
Easy Grades arrived at the Kentucky Derby with little fanfare and departed the same way following a 13th-place finish. He would compete against stakes rivals just three more times in what turned out to be a 64-race, nine-season long career.
Along the way the dark bay suffered from ulcers, hoof problems and even underwent throat surgery, prompting sometimes long breaks between races. He descended from the pinnacle of racing's elite into the blue-collar ranks of claiming events.
Easy Grades was still running at the age of 10 when he caught the attention of an Old Friends supporter.
"Easy Grades had fallen down into the claiming ranks and was still on the track in $5,000 claimers at the age of 10 -- a long way from his Run for the Roses," Grisolia explained.
"A supporter and now a member of our board of directors, Cathy Riccio, was a former assistant trainer. She contacted his connections -- trainer David Vance, assistant trainer Trish Vance and owner TBS Farms -- and they kindly donated him to Old Friends in 2009."
The now 16-year-old Easy Grades is currently living up to his name, taking it "easy" with his fellow geldings at Old Friends, munching on grass and any carrots visitors want to toss his way.
11th annual Homecoming Event
Now that you've read about a few of Old Friend's residents, you can visit the facility for yourself.
The retirement farm is holding its 11th annual Homecoming Event, which takes place May 3 from 2-6 p.m. (EDT) at the Georgetown facility.
There will be silent and live auctions of racing memorabilia, equine art, jewelry and more, as well as live music and tours of the farm.
Fans can get tickets, which cost $25, by visiting the website www.oldfriendsequine.org or by calling 502-863-1775.
Special thanks to Cindy Grisolia for taking the time to answer questions and being an excellent guide while visiting Old Friends to gather information and take photos.