The ballad of Tom Cunningham

Long before he became one of the sport’s top insurance agents, TC had a tenure as a horseman.

by Murray Brown

When one hears the name Tom Cunningham today, the first thought that enters one’s mind is insurance, specifically equine insurance.

It was not always thus.

TC, as he is often known, comes from the small town of Glens Falls NY, roughly a half-hour drive north of Saratoga Springs.

As he explains, he got involved in a poker game at the age of 13 in a local barber shop. One of the participants in the game owned a horse by the name of Candy Peter who raced regularly at Saratoga. He brought Cunningham along regularly to see his horse race.

Cunningham was intrigued.

He hadn’t, yet, chosen his venue in life and thought that harness racing looked like it could be fun.

He began as a groom with master horseman Howard Parker at Saratoga. There may not be many out there today who know the name, but those who were ever exposed to Mr. Parker know what a wonderful horseman he was. Cunningham tells the story of one of Billy Haughton’s patrons buying a horse from Parker. The owner said to Haughton something to the effect of, “You’d better come up to see the horse to see what changes would be necessary.” Haughton responded, “Why would I want to change anything on one of Howard Parker’s horses? Nothing that I could do, would improve him.”

From Howard Parker’s stable Cunningham headed east to work for Tug Boyd at several New England tracks.

Cunningham then went to work for Billy Herman.

From there he went to the stable of Hall of Famer John Simpson Jr., where he worked for five years. “Even though Jr. is in the Living Hall of Fame at Goshen, I don’t believe he gets near the credit he is due. He is a truly great horseman. He was as hard a worker as one could find. If there was somebody who could improve on the way he would have his horses shod and the detail he demanded, I haven’t met that person.”

During his years with Simpson, Jr, Cunningham began a lifelong admiration and friendship with the man that he still refers to as “The Commander”, John Simpson Sr.

In frank terms, after some time Cunningham began to become bored with what he was doing as a second trainer.

He went back to Saratoga where he began brokering horse deals for horses to race in New York.

One of his clients was one of the finest people those who knew him had the pleasure of knowing — Artie Silverman. If he liked you, Artie was the kindest, sweetest and most generous person that ever trod this earth. Cunningham had met Silverman when he was with Simpson Jr. and Silverman was one of Jr’s owners. Silverman offered to buy a few horses for Cunningham and set him up with a stable to race in New York. Cunningham asked if he could think it over.

In the interim, Peter Rhulen, who at the time had the largest standardbred insurance agency, contacted Cunningham asking if he wanted to join his team and get involved in the insurance business.

Cunningham called Silverman for advice. Silverman said his offer was still open, but told him, “Go to any town. The two biggest buildings are usually owned by the bank and the insurance company.” Cunningham got the message. He told Rhulen he’d give it a shot.

Rhulen was one of the sport’s truest characters. There were two Peter Rhulens — one before sobriety and the second after he discovered what booze was doing to him and he became sober.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how one looked at it, the first Peter Rhulen was a lot more fun than the second one. One could literally tell hundreds of stories of Peter Rhulen number one.

The first Rhulen became involved in harness racing beginning with the establishment of Monticello Raceway in his hometown. The Rhulen family had an insurance firm in Monticello. When harness racing began, the family dispatched Peter to establish an equine branch. He dove into the sport in just about every avenue of it. He owned horses, he bred them, he bought them, he sold them. Physically, he resembled Hoss Cartwright who he emulated down to the cowboy boots that he always wore.

Rhulen Insurance quickly became the sport’s leader in equine insurance. Rhulen was a person that everybody liked. It was that Rhulen for whom Tom Cunningham went to work.

The business had grown so much that Rhulen needed someone to work with him. Cunningham took to equine insurance like ducks take to water. One of the biggest assets when selling anything is personality. Personality and friendliness are traits neither Rhulen nor Cunningham lacked.

They worked together for several years and the business thrived.

Then came the second Peter Rhulen. Drinking had got the better of him. His family was understandably concerned about his well-being.

Together with Peter decided that he needed to change his lifestyle or die. There was no in between. He went to a clinic where lifestyle change and sobriety were the goal. After some time spent there, the goal was met and possibly surpassed. Rhulen left a new man. He was to remain sober for the rest of his life. He was not only sober, but became a preacher for one living the good and healthy life. For many of his friends, in the process, Peter Rhulen had lost his Joie de Vivre.

While Rhulen was in the clinic, Cunningham was placed in the hierarchy of Rhulen Insurance where everything had to be done in a stringent, defined, business-like manner.

“This isn’t the way it was supposed to be,” he thought to himself. “Our deal was, I was supposed to work for and with Peter Rhulen and only Peter Rhulen. We did great that way. Once Peter comes back to work, we will resume as we were.”

When Rhulen returned he had bought the corporate line. Cunningham, for better or worse, had to answer to the higher ups and do it their way. He tried, but found that wasn’t for him.

He told Rhulen that he was going on his own. They told him that he couldn’t because he was not allowed to compete.

“Watch me,” he said.

So he did. Many of Cunningham’s clients chose to go with him under no urging. Tom Cunningham was their agent, not some suit from Rhulen insurance.

A few weeks later, someone knocked on his hotel room door. It was a process server. He was served with a sheaf of papers. The process server said it was the largest bundle of papers that he had ever served.

Tom Cunningham was being sued by Rhulen Insurance for $10 million.

“Was I frightened? Damn right I was frightened,” Cunningham said.

The crux of the suit was that Rhulen Insurance had made Tom Cunningham. They said Cunningham was an unknown in the horse business before he went to work for them. Many of Cunningham’s clients, among them Stanley Dancer, wrote the judge saying that was not true. In fact, they would not have been insured by Rhulen if Tom Cunningham had not been the agent.

John Fabbiani was Cunningham’s attorney. They ended up winning the case. He remains his attorney and good friend to this day.

As time progressed, so did the business. In 2000, Cunningham brought Sara, the middle of his three daughters, into the business. The business is now known as Cunningham & Cunningham with, according to Tom, the younger Cunningham being by far the largest component of it.

“I still come to the office daily and speak with friends and clients, but Sara is the boss. I’m fortunate in that many people think it’s still me.”

As the harness business has shrunken, Cunningham & Cunningham have also become involved in other forms of livestock insurance, the chief of which is show horses. They still maintain a strong presence in harness racing, though. Wherever there is an important sale or event, you are likely to see Cunningham in his colorful garb or see his 1957 pale blue Ford Thunderbird parked outside.

TC, let’s talk about some of the people you’ve known and dealt with.

Howard Parker

“A wonderful horseman and a real gentleman. He gave me my start and taught me many things I still remember today.”

Billy Herman

“A really good guy and a very good horseman. For a period of time he could drive a horse with the best of them. When he was working for George Sholty, George would often put him down to drive when he had to be elsewhere. Believe me, when that happened you weren’t losing much. That is saying a whole lot.”

Stanley Dancer

“As everybody knows, one of the greatest horsemen ever. One morning after a sale he asked me if I had all of his purchases covered. I said, ‘Of course. I always do.’ ‘How do I know that?’ he asked. “Because I told you so,” I said. ‘What if you die?’ he asked. ‘Then it’s not my problem,’ I answered. He just walked away.”

Artie Silverman

“One of the finest men that ever lived. To have known him was to have loved him. I insured Arties Dream, my first million-dollar horse, for him. He and the Simpsons, both Jr. and Sr., were best of friends with him as were you and Bob Bencal.”

Delvin Miller

“It wasn’t for no reason that he was harness racing’s greatest ambassador. He was honest, a great horseman, never a bad word to say about anybody. He’d go out of his way to help anybody.”

Bill Rosenberg

“The founder of Dunkin Donuts. He was always ahead of the curve. Always thinking and loved our business. Once I wanted to get a Dunkin Donuts franchise up here where I live. ‘Okay, I’ll send my people up to check things out,’ he said. They rejected me. I spoke to Bill. He said ‘My people are pretty sharp. If you still want the franchise, I’ll get it for you. But if I were you, I’d listen to them.’ I did.”

John Simpson Sr.

“‘The Commander.’ A brilliant man and a great horseman. I remember him telling me ‘Don’t tell me how they raced. Tell me where they finished. I’ll tell you how they raced.’”

John Simpson Jr.

“A terrific horseman and a hard worker. He had assembled a great group of owners, the Gaines, K D Owen, his father, Artie Silverman, Lon Frocione and several others. He got into that horrible accident at The Meadows and was never quite the same. I worked for him for five years and every minute was a pleasure, except when he lost his cool. But he would get over that quickly.”

The Antonacci Family

“They are all or were great people beginning with cousin Big Frank (not Frank The Elder), Sonny, his sons Frank (The Elder) and Gerry and now on to the next generation. Terrific people. Hard working, ambitious and brilliant.

“Here’s a story about Sonny. Angelo Cardin and I almost had a deal done to sell a good trotting filly to Italy. I got a phone call asking me if I’d stand aside. ‘Sonny wants to buy the filly,’ the caller said. I told Angelo. We stood aside. That filly was named Moni Maker.”

Tony Pedone

“If not for Tony, the breed would be a whole lot different. I got a phone call from him telling me to get hold of Arlene Traub and to not let her out of my sight. ‘Jan Johnson thinks he has a deal to buy Valley Victory and export him to Sweden. We can’t let that happen. The trotting breed here needs that horse.’ Anyway, to a very limited extent, we kidnapped Arlene and convinced her to sell the horse to Tony who was putting a deal together. The deal was that $900,000 was to be wired into Arlene’s bank on Monday morning. ‘Now how are we going to pay for him?’ Tony asked. “We?’ I said. ‘I was just helping you.’ Anyway, George Segal came up with the money and that’s how Valley Victory didn’t get exported. There are hundreds of Tony Pedone stories. His loss was a great one for the sport.”

Bill O’Donnell

“A great friend of mine ever since the Saratoga days. He really liked Mr. Simpson and begged me to get him to buy Valley Victory and stand him at Hanover. ‘He can go faster than a hobbled pacer,’ he said. Mr. Simpson wanted to wait until after the Hambletonian. Of course, the horse didn’t make it there, so he lost interest.”

You say that show horses are now the biggest part of your business. How did that come about?

“I was at an airport in Chicago and bought the book, ‘Who moved my cheese?’ The mice go in a defined lane to get their cheese and pretty soon there is no more cheese. I saw the same thing happening in harness racing. We were shrinking — less owners, less horses, less horses to insure. We needed to expand or at least hold our ground. I had the opportunity to get into show horses. It’s now the biggest part of our business.”

TC, you have the most wonderful disposition. You rarely get angry and when you do, you quickly get over it. How do you do it?

“Life is just fleeting and too darn short. You’ve got to embrace every moment, because you never know when it could be your last. The one thing I’ve found is that being angry solves nothing, the only thing it does is get you upset. I have no animosity towards anybody. Without good thoughts, it’s not a good life.”

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