Fans pitch in to return Derby winner to United States

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GEORGETOWN, Ky. (WKYT) - A notoriously rebellious horse, 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem is taking to the perks of retired life, even if he has his own way of showing it, according to Michael Blowen of Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Center in Georgetown.

"He doesn't like to do anything that's not his idea,” Blowen said with a smile. “He's the textbook bad boy. James Dean would play him in the movies, the rebel without a cause.”

Beginning in the summer of 2015, getting the 17-year old to Old Friends became a cause for Blowen and a group of the horse’s fans.

The idea began when Amy Osborn contacted Blowen in June. Osborn, who had no previous attachment to War Emblem, had recently returned from a vacation in Japan, where she had visited the horse at the farm where he stood at stud. Since being sold to the Yoshida family and retiring in 2003, War Emblem had proved to be confounding in the breeding shed and at 16-years old, representatives of Shadai Stallion Station in Hokkaido, Japan told Osborn his time as a stallion was through.

Osborn, a New Jersey native who had only passed through Kentucky, knew of Old Friends and shared the news with Blowen. Immediately he got to work.

Jockey Victor Espinoza and trainer Bob Baffert were riding a crest of popularity after winning the Triple Crown with American Pharoah. Previously the two had combined to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown with War Emblem.

They autographed limited edition prints. In honor of the 2002 Derby winner, the cost was $202. Hundreds were sold and the money helped pay for half the cost of transporting War Emblem stateside. I It was enough that In October, he returned to Kentucky.

This week Old Friends invited the fans that chipped in to visit. Close to 100 fans made the trip, many from outside of Kentucky.

Sharon Bengston came from Baltimore with her 20-month old daughter. A self-described “on the fence horseracing fan” in 2002, she fell in love with War Emblem’s headstrong personality.

“He was just like a black beauty. I could tell he had a distinct personality,” she said. “I always dreamed of visiting him in Japan and when I heard he was coming to the States, it was like a dream come true to be able to see him again.”

Though Blowen is sure War Emblem would have been well cared for and happy if he had remained in Japan, he has noticed a change in the horse’s spirit as he settles in to retirement.

Osborn, who was among the fans visiting the farm, teared up when thinking of the horse she first met in Japan.

He's just a different horse now,’’’ she said.

“To see him like this, so full of life and energetic, it's really special.”

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