It all came about rather accidentally. Before Joann and Mark Pepper opened Old Friends at Cabin Creek-The Bobby Frankel Division, a retirement home for Thoroughbreds, the couple ran a boarding farm. A chestnut foal was born there in the spring of 2009. “He struggled to take his first breath and for three days was too weak to be left unattended. On the fourth day he went outside the barn for the first time. He walked like a drunken sailor,” Pepper recalled.
When he was still quite young, a bloodstock agent gave the unnamed colt to the Peppers’ in lieu of a board bill. Pepper’s plan was to keep this youngster right there – to allow him to become an “old friend.”
In his yearling year, the colt grew to be big and strong, and at the same time he started looming larger and larger in the hearts of those around him. Pepper explained, “I don’t know exactly how we decided to form a racing partnership, conversations just started amongst all of us.” The ‘all of us’ would include a dedicated staff of volunteers who help out at Old Friends.
“It was Cowboy’s second birthday when we signed a contract,” Pepper said. January 1 is the official birthday for all Thoroughbreds, no matter what the date of their actual birth. It has become a tradition for Old Friends to throw a party to celebrate this universal birthday. After the 2011, party Mr. Cowboy had 20-plus owners. Most had never dreamed of participating in the ownership of a horse.
Asked how he got his name Pepper answered, “His mom’s name was I’m a Real Cowgirl – I started calling him Mr. Cowboy when he was just a baby.”
One of his owners, Bobbie Cromer, told me about his early education. “Bill Allyn came to the farm the summer of 2011 and taught Cowboy how to accept tack and eventually a rider.” She went on, “It was so cool. Every time Bill came to take Cowboy in the round pen for his lessons, all of the other horses came to the front of their paddocks to watch – like they remembered when they went to school.”
Quizzed a little further, Cromer gushed, “It feels like it’s your child – I know it sounds crazy, but he knows what love is. It’s the way he was raised. I think he feels safe and that’s why he tries so hard.”
Cowboy went from the farm to prep school at the Oklahoma Training Track. He breezed through with aplomb and in November made his first start at Aqueduct. It was less than an auspicious beginning, so the group decided to give him some time off to mature and gain a little weight.
Pepper said, “The time off was good for him. When we sent him back to the track he looked really good and gelding him seemed to have helped his focus.” This time he joined the H. James Bond stable at Belmont.
I asked Bond about the horse and his owners and he happily offered, “The excitement of this group is contagious; they love horses as I do. Their main concern is first and foremost that the horse is okay.” He added, “He’s a neat horse to be around and I think he feels the vibes of all the love that surrounds him. Those people all helped to mold him.”
Bond is a regular guest and supporter of Old Friends. One of his former stars, Travers and Whitney winner Will’s Way, resides there.
Bond says his biggest concern with training a horse with so many local owners is, “Will there be enough room in the winner’s circle for all of them?” Mr. Cowboy is already a winner. If he happens to add victories on the track that will just put icing on the cake. Bond said, “He’s an over-achiever, tries hard to please at everything he does. He has a lot of confidence.”
I personally met Mr. Cowboy through my friend, Janelle Schmidt. She’s a volunteer at Old Friends at Cabin Creek. We work on other projects together and she keeps me posted about Cowboy – he’s one of her favorite subjects.
I asked Janelle to capsulize her ownership experience and she smiled wryly and said, “I own just a tiny bit of him,” but went on to say, "It is difficult to put into words the impact my association with Mr. Cowboy has made on me. From the time I met him as a yearling, playing with his cone and entertaining everyone, to having him recognize and greet us as he entered the paddock at Belmont, watching him grow and take on the role of a professional has been amazing. Being a part of Cowboy's journey has given me the chance to meet some amazing people who I am proud to now be able to call my friends. Though we come from many different walks of life, and I doubt our paths would have crossed without this common bond, I think it is safe to say that our ultimate goals are the same; let's go on the ride of our lives with Cowboy, as long as he stays happy and safe as he travels down it."
Everyone I talked to reminded me that one of the main reasons they got involved is knowing that this horse has a retirement spot ready for him at any given time, once racing is no longer the right thing for him.
Mr. Cowboy has come a long ways since his drunken sailor days. The colt that nearly failed before his first breath has breathed vibrant life into a whole group of people. They are a fine example of compassion and responsibility. When the colt needed time, he got it, and one can rest easy knowing he will always have all he needs to live out a happy life. Those around him didn’t give up when he ran poorly last year, or when the rider fell in a freakish rail incident in his first start this year. His next out he rewarded his people with third money, and in his most recent start he finished a game second.
I asked Pepper if she plans to race others, and without hesitation she replied, “Oh no, not ever. It’s too scary – I mean it is so intense. Every time he races I become flooded with emotions; it’s almost unbearable. It is more than just the excitement. It feels something like what I imagine a military family feels when a loved one is deployed. You feel so proud but you can’t help but be afraid for them, the dangers.” Pepper’s voice trailed off and she added, “I just want him to be safe; I love him so much.”
The popular urban cowboy deserves to be the favorite on Monday – it’s time to test the elasticity of the winner’s circle at the Spa.