The twelfth consecutive “Hats Off to the Horses: The Road to the Derby” fundraiser sponsored by MAGGIE MAE DESIGNS® for Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement in KY features a very special hat up for bid in February that honors Slew’s Brew, a 9-year-old New York-bred great grandson of Seattle Slew on both sides of his pedigree!
Old Friends at Cabin Creek is home to 15 Thoroughbred retirees (and one American Quarter Horse) who, under the loving care of JoAnn Pepper and her husband, Mark, and over a dozen devoted volunteers enjoy a safe and happy retirement.
I interviewed JoAnn back in 2013 for our Thunder Rumble “Hats Off” auction and then again in 2018 when I created an auction hat Mr. Cowboy.
This year marks the 6th year in a row that our fundraiser has featured a horse from the Old Friends Cabin Creek satellite farm, so I asked JoAnn if I could interview her again this year. I was thrilled when she said, “Yes”!
Sally: JoAnn, welcome to my Hats and Horses blog! It seems like just yesterday when I was interviewing you for Thunder Rumble and Mr. Cowboy. It’s great to get the chance to let everyone know what you have been up to since then… For those who are meeting you here for the first time, where were you born and where did you grow up?
JoAnn: My name is JoAnn Pepper and I am a local NY bred. Raised in and around Saratoga.
Sally: What is your earliest memory of a horse? Did you have horses in your life, or did you ride when you were little?
JoAnn: I never owned a horse until I was in my 40’s, but I had been around them most of my life. Going to the racetrack very early in life, loving horse racing. I was never a great rider, mostly loved looking at them, watching what they liked to do, feeding and caring for them.
Sally: What have you done for a living in the past, before Old Friends? Were there any people in your life who especially inspired you along the way?
JoAnn: Before Old Friends I was a payroll manager for over 10 years. Prior to that I was a cook at a local college. Horses were always on my mind and we had the land, so building a farm was always a huge dream. My husband, Mark is an amazing excavator and builder and we were in our early 40’s when we decided to start clearing the land and build a farm, so Mark was my biggest inspiration.
Sally: Have you always been a horse racing fan? Do you have any favorite racehorses or favorite races that you will never forget?
JoAnn: I have loved racing forever, now I find I don’t follow it like I used to.
Sally: JoAnn, did you ever imagine that you would be involved in Thoroughbred aftercare? How did you come to know the president of Old Friends in KY, Michael Blowen, and how did you and your husband became the managers of Old Friends’ satellite farm in New York called Old Friends at Cabin Creek?
JoAnn: It took us about 2 years to get the farm built and ready for some horses. I wanted it to be a foaling farm to earn money to start to retire horses here. One day I just decided to call Michael Blowen and ask if he would help me do what he was doing in KY. He said we could do it together and it sounded perfect!! So Michael and his wife Diane came up to see the farm and we agreed to do it. That was the same weekend that Bobby Frankel passed so we wanted to honor him. Just like that, the place became Old Friends at Cabin Creek, The Bobby Frankel division.
Sally: Where is Old Friends at Cabin Creek located. How many horses are in your care and is the farm open year round?
JoAnn: We are located at 483 Sandhill Rd, Greenfield, NY, about 15 minutes from Saratoga racetrack. Right now we have 15 retired thoroughbreds and 1 quarter horse. We just lost Will’s Way on Christmas Eve, so we have a huge hole in our hearts.
Sally: I am remembering that Thunder Rumble was one of your very first retirees at Old Friends. Can you tell us how the two of you met, what made Thunder so special to you? And since Thunder’s passing, have there been any horses since who have stolen your heart?
JoAnn: Thunder Rumble… Was our first stallion to arrive, he was magnificent, as they all are. I had seen his picture but hadn’t met him in person till he got off the trailer here… The big black stallion, he took my breath away and also intimidated me at the same time.
JoAnn: The 2 guys who delivered him were also nervous about bringing him off the trailer, a lot of ruckus going on. Finally he walked off and looked right me, I took his lead and started walking to the barn, he continued to keep looking at me, which was different. Usually they are more interested in where they are going then who is walking them. I put him in his stall and he started to carry on like crazy. I started to rethink everything, could I actually handle him??? The next morning, I turned him out and he ran like the wind and I thought for sure he would be a challenge coming back in. Which he was, but only that first time. After that he seemed to start to like me and we started a great friendship and he was easy to handle as long as he agreed. I miss him everyday…
Sally: How many employees do you have at Cabin Creek, and how many volunteers? What do your volunteers do, and what is the process for finding them?
JoAnn: We have about 40 volunteers that help here, mucking and feeding. Most folks have no experience but want to get to know horses on a personal level, so they start out mucking the paddocks and getting to be around them and then we will teach them whatever they would like to know. Some just want to muck others now can hold horses for the farrier and do some first aid. It’s great to watch folks get more comfortable and fall in love!!
Sally: If you could imagine it, what would be your perfect day at Old Friends?
JoAnn: A perfect day at Old Friends is… No Covid, sunny and 75 degrees, all the horses happy and healthy and 300 visitors celebrating!!
Sally: Do you have any hopes or dreams for Old Friends at Cabin Creek for in the future?
JoAnn: My hopes and dreams for the farm is that all the horses always feel safe and content and that our mission of providing a dignified retirement and raising awareness lives on long after I’m gone.
Sally: Our current hat up on the block for the upcoming auction is the “Slews Brew” chapeau. Had you ever met Slew before he arrived at Old Friends? Can you tell us something about him that makes him unique, or special?
JoAnn: Slew’s Brew… I hadn’t met him until he arrived here from Finger Lakes. Slew is a sweet horse. Big blaze. When he arrived he seemed tired and shy. I put him in a paddock by himself for the winter. He made lots of girlfriends and was so easy to be around.
JoAnn: In the spring, he was ready to have a new buddy. So I took Commentator out and put Slew in with Frankie (This hard Land), a big, big dark bay, full of life and sweet also. It was nerve racking but it turned out well and they have been together about a year. Slew has grown a lot emotionally and seems happy. “
JoAnn: He (Slew) has always been a weaver while he waits for his meals but that is the only time he does it now, so I think their friendship has been good for Slew. He’s easy to catch and very lovable and kissable. We are blessed to have him with us.”
Sally: Do you think of yourself as a “hat person”? If so, in what way? (And this can include fancy hats, baseball caps, fedoras, cowboy hats, sombreros, berets, top hats, whatever you might like to wear!)
JoAnn: I guess I am a baseball hat person. We sell hats with our horses names on them, the one I wear the most is my Thunder Rumble. I do have a fancy hat that I have never worn.
Sally: I am sure that people are going to be inspired by your dedication to the retired racehorses Old Friends at Cabin Creek. Can you tell them why it’s important to support these retired Thoroughbred athletes?
JoAnn: It has been so great to see the importance of aftercare rise up to the top of horse racing, as it really is the most important thing for horses. Their racing careers are only a small part of their entire lives as they can live well into their 20’s and beyond. Zippy Chippy is our oldest at 30.
JoAnn: The industry has come along way in helping support aftercare, there is still a ways to go to ensure every horse born to race is promised a full, dignified life. The fans are the major players in supporting the horses.
JoAnn: That is the reason I love Old Friends is that the fans can come and start a relationship with the horses and spread the word!!
Sally: JoAnn, thanks again for helping us with our Twelfth Annual “Hats Off to the Horses” auction series with the “Slew’s Brew” chapeau!
And thank you all for visiting us today at Hats and Horses!
About the “Slew’s Brew” Hat Auction:
The “Slew’s Brew” auction hat is currently up for bid on eBay. Bidding ends February 11th at 8 PM EST.
Note about Photography: All images that are shown here without credits have been provided with permission from JoAnn Pepper.