History Lesson: Thunder Rumble

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Aqueduct hosts four races that wrap the New York Stallion Series Stakes this weekend, three named for notable landmarks or places and the other for a star bred in the Empire State who made his mark in the early 1990s.

The Thunder Rumble division of the Stallion Series is named for the now 24-year-old son of Thunder Puddles who was the big name of the 1992 Saratoga meet with two brilliant performances in a three-week span and again there two years later with one last remarkable victory.

Thunder Rumble today is the star of Old Friends at Cabin Creek, a 40-acre facility in Greenfield Center about 10 miles outside the heart of Saratoga Springs that is home to retired Thoroughbreds. He occupies a sizable paddock directly behind the operation’s main barn and office and one of the spaces in full view from the house where Cabin Creek owners JoAnn and Mark Pepper live.

“Thunder is definitely the king around here,” JoAnn Pepper said from the operation’s office on a cold late morning Tuesday. “He’s so cool. He lets people pet his face, as long as they don’t get too close to his eyes. People spend just a few minutes with him and they say they feel a connection. It’s amazing really, because he was so untouchable when he first got here.”

Thunder Rumble is the centerpiece attraction even at the entrance to Old Friends at Cabin Creek.

Thunder Rumble’s arrival at Old Friends came after a racing career from 1991 to 1994, which included a missed year due to injury in 1993, and a dozen years at stud.

The first horse bred by Widmer family’s Virginia-based Braeburn Farm, Thunder Rumble is out of the winning Lyphard mare Lyphette. He was foaled at Highcliff Farm in Delanson, New York, and sent to his owner’s farm in Virginia for his early training before coming back to the Empire State to join the stable of Richard O’Connell.

Thunder Rumble thrived for O’Connell, one of the NYRA circuit’s top conditioners who did his best work in the late 1980s and early 1990s. O’Connell, who died at age 54 in early 2004, racked up $1 million in stable earnings for five straight years from 1988 to 1992 and again in 1995. The good years were fueled by the success of Grade 1 winner Capades, Grade 3 winners Congeleur, Grand Continental and Wanderkin, and of course, Thunder Rumble.

Thunder Rumble made his debut in late October of his juvenile season at Aqueduct and made five more starts, winning the Montauk, Count Fleet and Gate Dancer all at the Big A, along the way before going to the sidelines in March of his sophomore season.

A viral infection cost him a chance to compete in the spring classics, but O’Connell got him ready in time for Saratoga and its big 3-year-old races. Dismissed at nearly 25-1 off a dismal seventh against fairly forgettable types racing on the turf in early July, Thunder Rumble gutted out a victory over a stubborn Dixie Brass in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy. Others in the field that day were Devil His Due, Furiously, Agincourt and the 9-5 favorite My Memoirs.

Bettors warmed up to Thunder Rumble a bit more in time for the Travers, but still sent him off as the fifth choice in the field of 10. Alydeed was in from Canada and attracted plenty of buzz, while the field also featured the Allen Jerkens-trained Devil His Due, M.C. Hammer-owned Dance Floor, Southern California-based Bien Bien, Dixie Brass and Furiously. He didn’t need a long drive this time, rating just off the early pace before drawing off to win by 4 1/2 lengths over Devil His Due under Herb McCauley.

The win made Thunder Rumble the first – and to this day only – New York-bred winner of Saratoga’s signature race. It also put Thunder Rumble on a path to take on older horses, where he didn’t fare as well, finishing off the board in three successive attempts to end the season.

The win in the Travers is what people remember though and many a visitor to Old Friends brings their own story of Thunder Rumble, how they might have cashed or lost a bet, when they make the turn right into the short driveway off Sand Hill Road and set foot on this safe place for equine retirees.

“The people he has touched … before and after he got here is amazing,” Pepper said. “It’s really love. You can see it.”

In case anyone needs further proof, consider that about 300 people turned out when Old Friends celebrated the 20th anniversary of Thunder Rumble’s Travers victory in the summer of 2012.

It’s hard to believe it’s been that long. Thunder Rumble shows the signs of his 24 years. He’s lost a lot of the muscles in his chest and front end, giving him a belly, but otherwise he’s the picture of health for a horse his age. He’s not unlike the other 15 residents of Cabin Creek, whether it’s Grade 1-winning retired stallions Will’s Way and Behrens, hapless maiden and 100-start loser Zippy Chippy or anywhere in between, they all look well.

The horses at Cabin Creek have plenty of room, so much that occasionally a “race” might break out. Dubbed the Cabin Creek Travers, it pits Thunder Rumble with 1996 winner Will’s Way.

Thunder Rumble (right) and Will’s Way enjoy retirement at Old Friends at Cabin Creek. Connie Bush photo.

The 1992 Travers wasn’t Thunder Rumble’s final career victory, as he bounced back from an injury suffered in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Gulfstream that cost him the 1993 season and a stint in Southern California with another trainer in early 1994 while O’Connell convalesced from a fall down stairs in his home that caused a serious cerebral hemorrhage. O’Connell and Thunder Rumble returned to Saratoga and won the resurrected and now discontinued again Saratoga Cup Handicap in early August over a field that included West by West, Wallenda, Colonial Affair, Pistols and Roses and Miner’s Mark.

Thunder Rumble retired to Keene Stud in Amenia, New York, and stood his first season in 1995. He also stood two seasons in Virginia in 1999 and 2000. His best runner is Frisky Thunder, a Virginia-bred homebred for Braeburn Farm who raced from 2006 to 2011, won four stakes, nine of 30 starts and earned $331,733. Thunder Rumble bred just three mares in his final season in 2006.

Thunder Rumble took a little while to settle in at Cabin Creek, but now that he, Pepper and the scores of volunteers that keep the place running are all adjusted, it’s smooth sailing for the operation’s star attraction.

“He’s just the coolest horse I’ve ever met,” Pepper said. “He’s got this hole in his field and he’ll just go out there and take a nap. When he does that you could go right out and sit down next to him.”

Thunder Rumble might be in the midst of one of those naps Saturday when the race bearing his name goes off at Aqueduct. The $125,000, 7-furlong race for 3-year-olds and up is one of four stakes scheduled, along with the Staten Island, Fifth Avenue and Great White Way divisions.

Each of the Stallion Stakes races – there are 10 worth a total of $1.15 million – are designed for foals by stallions nominated to the series. The series will become even more lucrative starting with the 2014 breeding season when all foals by those Stallions Stakes Series stallions become automatically eligible for the races without a nomination fee.

Thunder Rumble’s race record, courtesy of Equibase.

Check out how The New York Times covered Thunder Rumble’s Travers victory the day after and another two days later.

Read about Thunder Rumble’s and Richard O’Connell’s comeback in 1994 courtesy of The (Schenectady) Daily Gazette.

Check out the video of the “Cabin Creek Travers.”

More about the New York Stallion Series Stakes.

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a regular series that will shed light on the rich, colorful and sometimes forgotten or ignored history of racing in North America. If you’ve got a topic that’s interesting or something you’ve always wondered about related to racing, send it to Tom Law at [email protected] and we’ll start digging.

Check out the first article in the series, Mrs. Revere.