Thunder, Richie, and the Great Spa Comeback

With Saratoga about to open, you can bet there will be new stories added to the lore of this hallowed racetrack that is so steeped in history, dating back to the Civil War.

When one looks at the history of The Spa they normally go right to the meet’s premier event, the Travers Stakes, going back to the great upset of 1930 when 100-1 Jim Dandy shocked the world by upsetting Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox. Since then, the track’s reputation as “The Graveyard of Favorites” has grown with some of the most memorable upsets of all time.

One story that is not told enough is about the time a temperamental New York-bred named Thunder Rumble achieved the rare double of winning the Jim Dandy Stakes at odds of 24-1 and followed it up with a stunning 4 1/2-length score in the Travers Stakes at 7-1, equaling the third fastest Travers of all time and becoming the first New York-bred to win this historic race in the 20th century.

That in itself was a remarkable story, especially with his trainer, the personable Richie O’Connell, being a Brooklyn-born former high school teacher who decided to take out his trainer’s license and had to wait nine years before he won his first stakes race. But that is just the beginning of the story.

For years, O’Connell maintained a modest stable, with his clients being mostly small-time owners. Then in the early ‘90s, a wealthy Swiss industrialist named Konrad Widmer asked O’Connell if he would like to train the horses he owned and bred with his daughter Ursula, racing under the banner of Braeburn Farm. O’Connell accepted, and in 1991 he was sent a dark bay colt by Thunder Puddles named Thunder Rumble.

O’Connell managed to get the colt on the early Derby trail. Following a 12 ¾-length maiden romp and a four-length victory in the Montauk Stakes for New York-breds, Thunder Rumble ventured into open company, winning the Count Fleet Stakes, finishing third in the Whirlaway Stakes, and then romping by five lengths in the Gate Dancer Stakes on March 13.

But an illness that forced him to scratch the morning of the Wood Memorial knocked him off the Derby trail, and O’Connell immediately set his sights on the Travers. After an uninspired seventh-place finish in an allowance race on the grass at Belmont, he shocked the racing world by not only winning the Jim Dandy at odds of almost 25-1, his time of 1:47 2/5 was the fastest Jim Dandy in the past 29 years.

He followed that up with his runaway victory in the Travers, sweeping to the lead on the far outside turning for home and running the mile and a quarter in 2:00 4/5, equaling Easy Goer’s time as the third-fastest running of the race. This was a major boost for the New York breeding program, which was raised to a new level by Thunder’s Rumble’s Travers victory.

The 3-year-old division had a new leading contender to rival Belmont winner A.P. Indy, but the success was short-lived for both Thunder Rumble and O’Connell, as their careers unraveled, sending both on a dramatic downward spiral.

Running against older horses, Thunder Rumble was out of the money in the Woodward, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Breeders’ Cup Classic. His performance in the Gold Cup was so bad he was sent off at odds of 40-1 in the Classic.

O’Connell gave the horse some time off to regroup, but on March 11, 1993, O’Connell slipped on a rug in his home and fell down a flight of stairs. There he lay unconscious until he was found by a neighbor. Rushed to the hospital with a cerebral hemorrhage, it took several days before he was out of danger. However, he still suffered from memory loss and his brain function in general was not back to normal. Unable to even converse on the phone, he was told by his assistant John Morrison that Widmer was taking the horse away from him and sending him to Chris Speckert in California.

Thunder Rumble, meanwhile, suffered a fractured ankle that would sideline him for 18 months.

O’Connell never held any animosity toward Widmer and his daughter for taking the horse away. “I don’t blame them,” O’Connell said. “They weren’t wrong in what they did. I was in the hospital and didn’t know when I was getting out. They live in Switzerland and here is their trainer laying in a bed somewhere unable to even take a phone call.”

Other owners began taking their horses away from him, and that’s when he realized he had to get out of the hospital before he wound up with no owners and no horses. So against his doctor’s wishes he checked himself out of the hospital and was back at the barn at 5 o’clock the next morning.

But he was still far from normal. Morrison told the Washington Post, “There were times when he didn’t know what year it was.” He would discuss how he was going to train a particular horse that day when in reality that horse hadn’t been in his barn for years. Morrison added that he would go home and collapse on the sofa and barely budge until the next day.

Finally, by the end of the year he started getting back to living a normal life while attempting to put his career back together.

In California, Thunder Rumble wasn’t faring much better. He was still recovering from his ankle injury and Speckert was unable to get him back to the races. Then on April 22, 1994, after being sidelined for 18 months, he finally was back in the starting gate in the seven-furlong Jungle Savage Stakes at Santa Anita. He didn’t run badly, finishing fourth, beaten 3 3/4 lengths, but his next three starts were dreadful, as he was well-beaten in all of them, including a 14-length drubbing in the Californian Stakes at odds of 21-1.

The Thunder Rumble that had been so brilliant at Saratoga two years earlier was now just a shell of his former self with no sign he would ever, even remotely, regain his 3-year-old form of that summer. There was not much more Speckert could do with him.

Then one morning O’Connell received a phone call from Widmer asking him if he would like to have Thunder Rumble back. He jumped at the chance to again train his old friend.

So O’Connell and Thunder Rumble were reunited with Saratoga just around the corner. The 5-year-old would be returning to the place of his greatest triumphs.

O’Connell said that other than being a little more studdish, Thunder Rumble was pretty much the same as he remembered him – a horse with a mind of his own who demands attention.

“He’s always needed physical and mental therapy,” O’Connell said at the time. “When I got him back I pressed all the old buttons and it seemed to work. Federico Tesio had a theory about a horse being propelled by nervous energy. This horse doesn’t know how to have an easy day. He needs a lot of handling. If you just walked him around there every day, he’d be a $2,500 claimer.

“Chris had to send me something to work with or it doesn’t happen. The talent is there, but you have to fool with him a little bit.”

O’Connell found a good spot for him in a seven-furlong allowance race at Belmont, and with Richie Migliore aboard, he drew away to a 3 ½-length victory. It was the first hint that Thunder Rumble – and O’Connell – were back.

Now it was on to Saratoga and the mile and an eighth Saratoga Cup. Two days before the race Thunder Rumble worked a half-mile in a blistering :46 4/5. “It was like he was saying, ‘I’m home,’” O’Connell said.

Sent off at 3-1, he stalked the early pace, again with Migliore up, and bounded clear in the stretch to win by four lengths in a sharp 1:48 2/5. Among his vanquished foes were Belmont Stakes winner Colonial Affair and two-time Donn Handicap winner Pistols and Roses.

One of the great comeback stories had been written in the annals of Saratoga

“God knows what the future will bring for the sport,” O’Connell said following the race. “But this could be the kind of great human-interest story the game needs. There are so many trainers who are rooting for us because we’ve all been fired at one time.”

Shortly after the Saratoga Cup, Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens was engaged in a conversation when he changed the subject and said, “Hey, how about Thunder Rumble and Richie O’Connell? I don’t know of one person who isn’t thrilled to death about that. What a great story.”

The great story came to an abrupt end when Thunder Rumble finished fifth in the Whitney, won by Colonial Affair, who he had beaten by 12 lengths in the Saratoga Cup.

That would be his final start and he was retired as a stallion to Keane Farm in New York. After a brief stint in Virginia, he found a permanent home at Old Friends at Cabin Creek (Bobby Frankel Division) in Greenfield Center just outside Saratoga in 2009. He lived a happy life there, entertaining visitors, until his sudden death in 2015 from colic at the age of 26.

“He was such a kind, intelligent horse,” said Old Friends founder Michael Blowen. “If it wasn’t for Thunder Rumble, the Cabin Creek farm wouldn’t have been as successful as it was. Commentator and Will’s Way were still in Kentucky and it was his popularity that helped boost interest in the farm as well as attendance and support. He was their version of Silver Charm.”

O’Connell’s health would decline. He suffered from lupus and developed a severe sensitivity to the sun, which forced him to wear sunglasses and long-sleeved shirts and long pants, as well as a wide-brimmed hat whenever he went out.

He was forced to retire from training, and in Feb. 2004 he died at the age of 54 from complications of pneumonia.

The amazing feel-good story of Thunder Rumble and Richie O’Connell has pretty much faded over the years, but with this being the 25th anniversary of their emotional comeback victory in the Saratoga Cup, it is hoped that the story will be retold and regain its place as one of Saratoga’s great tales of the turf. A story to be remembered for years to come.

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