When I visited Old Friends at Cabin Creek last November, only one horse—a weanling—was on the grounds, living in the only paddock. Mark Pepper, who manages the farm with his wife JoAnn, was on his tractor, clearing land. It was cold and deserted. It was a place of promise, but promise only.
Arriving yesterday for the grand opening, I saw lush trees and landscaping; several new paddocks; and nearly a dozen horses who have arrived over the last nine months to find a home in the Bobby Frankel Division of Old Friends.
Turnout for Thursday’s grand opening and dedication exceeded the expectations of its organizers; horsemen and racing fans turned out in full force to celebrate the horses and honor Frankel’s memory.
Trainer Rick Dutrow, whose Big Brown stayed in Frankel’s barn before the 2008 Belmont, was there, as was Chad Brown, a former Frankel assistant. Jockeys Richard Migliore, Edgar Prado, and Angel Cordero, Jr. attended as well.
Visitors to the farm were given the opportunity to wander among the paddocks, feeding treats to the retirees and hearing their racing biographies from Old Friends volunteers. Will’s Way, who won the Travers and the Whitney and placed in the Jim Dandy, Suburban, and Woodward, recently moved from the Kentucky Old Friends to this new home up north. Thunder Rumble won the Travers, Jim Dandy, Count Fleet, Montauk, and Saratoga Handicap; the first New York-bred to win the Travers, he was among the first residents of the farm in Greenfield Center.
Thirteen-year-old Cool N Collective, who raced earlier this year at Aqueduct, showed none of his former racetrack grittiness; fans literally put their arms around him, and he rested his head on their shoulders. Zippy Chippy, who raced 100 times and never won, shares a paddock with Red Down South; they are, reportedly, inseparable.
Formal festivities were limited; beginning the dedication, Old Friends founder and president Michael Blowen said, “Let’s keep this brief and to the point, like Bobby was.” In vocal approval, a nearby horse whinnied just at that moment.
“The only reason we’re here,” Blowen said, “is these horses.” He thanked the Peppers for making their farm available to Old Friends, and for their incredible efforts in getting it ready to receive horses.
Old Friends was, he said, “conceived in Saratoga,” at the Washington Inn. “And every time I talked about it, people would say, ‘You need a million dollars to get it going.’ When I talked to JoAnne and Mark,” he went on, “they didn’t mention a million dollars.”
He praised Carol Nyren, the owner of Dry Martini, who last year contacted Blowen about a retirement plan for her horse. “It’s the first time,” he said, “that an owner has contacted me about a horse’s retirement when the horse is still running.”
Turning to the dedication, he called the farm “an ode to Bobby Frankel.”
“I talked to Bobby for the first time at Saratoga, and I told him that we had Ruhlmann, whom he had trained, at Old Friends in Kentucky. And he absolutely blew me off.
“Three days later, I saw him again, and he started telling stories about the horse. And he said thanks for taking care of him.”
After Frankel’s death, Blowen learned that the trainer had included Old Friends in his will, making a sizable donation that included all of his trophies. “It took a truck to get them here,” said Blowen. “Bobby’s legacy is a proper and dignified retirement for as many horses as possible. The farm is a living legacy to Bobby’s love for these amazing animals.”
A series of speakers shared remembrances of the trainer. Jockey agent Ron Anderson said, “He loved you or hated you. And if he hated you, you were in trouble.”
Perhaps the most emotional moment of the afternoon came from Ray Amato, Frankel’s long time farrier. He spoke of Bobby’s tenacity in trying to engage his services. Over and over, Amato put him off; over and over, Frankel came back at him. Finally, on Buddy Jacobson’s orders, Amato took the work. Frankel was, Amato said, “Peculiar but generous. Generous? Forget it.” Choking up, he couldn’t continue.
If Amato had the most sober moment, Cordero provided the biggest laughs. “We never did agree with each other,” the jockey recalled, and went on to tell a story that will lose everything in the translation from Cordero’s cadences and accent. “Bobby made a cheap claim, and I rode him in a claimer. The horse [Barometer] was no good, and Bobby said to me, ‘You didn’t try.’ I said, ‘I did, boss—he just didn’t run fast enough.’”
When the laughter subsided, Cordero continued. “So I told him, ‘You should run this horse in the Suburban.’ He said, ‘The Suburban? You can’t win a claimer on him and you want me to run him in the Suburban?’” Cordero paused. “Bobby asked, ‘Did you hold him?’ He thought I stiffed his horse!
“I offered to take a lie detector test, but Bobby said, ‘Angel, you’re such a good liar, it wouldn’t make any difference.’”
The punch line is, of course, that Barometer won the Suburban. Cordero claimed that in the ensuing decades, Frankel was never convinced that the jockey hadn’t held the horse he first time he rode him.
A museum will be established at Old Friends, and Frankel’s trophies will be featured prominently. Pleased as he is about that prospect, Blowen put it in perspective:
“When I was talking to Nick Zito about this, he gave me two pieces of advice: 1) It’s not about the trophies. 2) It’s not about you. It’s only about the horses.”
And walking through the barn, looking at the magnificent facilities, Prado said, “It’s good that these horses have a place to live; they deserve a good place for their retirement after all they do for us.”
Old Friends at Cabin Creek: The Bobby Frankel Division is located in Greenfield Center, about a fifteen minute drive from downtown Saratoga. It’s open to the public; more information is available here. More photos below, and as always, you can click on any image to enlarge it.