By Terese Karmel
JoAnn Pepper was in the ladies room of her Cabin Creek farm when she heard a van pull up. She rushed outside to see a handsome dark bay horse kicking and snorting before marching like a champion down the van ramp onto her property and, very quickly, into her heart.
Thunder Rumble, the 1992 Travers (gr. I) and Jim Dandy (gr. II) winner, who banked more than $1 million in his career of eight wins in 19 starts, had just arrived. The 20-year-old New York-bred, pensioned in 2006, is the fourth horse to make his home at Cabin Creek, near Greenville Center, N.Y., just 10 miles from his Saratoga triumphs. A newly opened satellite farm operated by Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm of Georgetown, Ky., Cabin Creek is the first outside the Bluegrass State.
The 40-acre facility will be named in honor of the late trainer Bobby Frankel, for whom placement of retired Thoroughbreds was a top priority.
The farm is owned by Pepper, a former groom for Nick Zito, and her husband, Mark. In addition to Thunder Rumble, the farm has two retired former claimers, Karakorum Patriot and Midnight Secret, the latter of whom finished third in the final run of his 111-race career Nov. 21 at Finger Lakes, and Moonshadow Gold, a 10-year-old gelding who raced 89 times with 51 in-the-money finishes. Others are expected soon to take up residency in the 12 stalls at the Bobby Frankel Division barn, which has two generous round pens and plenty of large, spacious paddocks.
Taking care of Thoroughbreds has been a dream of Pepper’s since she was 9 years old. Her first passion was Seattle Slew, whose dark color is similar to that of Thunder Rumble. “I guess it stuck with me all those years,” she said of her desire to own a horse farm. In the meantime, she remained involved with horses through a brief excursion into ownership and regular visits to Saratoga, but “then I had my children and 20 years just flew by.”
While the other retirees are welcomed by visitors, Thunder Rumble is the star of the show. Looking and acting like a colt in training during a recent open house, he ran the fences of his spacious paddock as if he were warming up for a grade I race—his muscular, near-black body whipping back and forth like the winter wind across a backdrop of clouds and pines.
Unlike some of the others at the farm, Thunder Rumble did not poke his head over the fence for a stroke on the nose or a carrot. Pepper said the night he arrived he was hard to catch and bring in because he was so energized by the freedom to run. But since then, “he’s been a perfect gentleman,” and waits by the gate when it’s time to call it a day. The other “Old Friends” have been rolling in the dirt pen, a sure sign of contentment. Pepper plans to have open houses at Cabin Creek so area fans can come and visit their old pals. Recently, some arrived with bunches of carrots and apples so Thunder Rumble, Moonshadow Gold, and the others would know they weren’t forgotten.
Old Friends president Michael Blowen got the idea to name the facility for Frankel when he learned Old Friends was one of the three charities the Hall of Fame trainer, who died Nov. 16, had designated for memorial contributions. That gesture and Blowen’s knowledge of Frankel’s concern for retired Thoroughbreds made Cabin Creek a natural, he said. More than $10,000 has been received in Frankel’s name since it was made public that this was his desire.
Cabin Creek will be formally dedicated July 22, the day before the opening of the 2010 Saratoga meet. At that time a hand-carved wood sign created by artist Tonia Maryknoll of Georgia will be unveiled with a replica of Thunder Rumble galloping with Frankel’s beloved dogs. Eventually, two aluminum jockeys, one in the familiar green and pink silks of Juddmonte Farms, the other in the black and white stripes of Frankel’s own horses, will be stationed at the farm as well.
“I was really thrilled that he thought that much of what we’re doing,” Blowen said of Frankel’s commitment to Old Friends.