It was Wayne’s World back in 1995. The equine empire of D. Wayne Lukas boasted stars in nearly every stable and his three year old crop was superlative. The hard-charging horseman conditioned a sensational filly and an imposing, powerful champion who was everyone’s Kentucky Derby favorite. The third-stringer was a spunky, little chestnut colt.
”He is in a stall between a ballerina and a Juvenile champ,” Lukas said back then of Thunder Gulch who was stabled between Serena’s Song and Timber Country in the trainer’s barn at Santa Anita Park. “They both have loads of charisma. He’s a bit of a red-headed stepchild.”
In search of softer foes Lukas sent Thunder Gulch packing in February of 1995, headed to South Florida and the $200,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. It was the first major Kentucky Derby prep for eastern three-year olds. It was a tall order for Thunder Gulch considering it was the unheralded colt’s first start in nine weeks and he had traveled cross-country just 48 hours prior to the Grade-2 event.
The Fountain of Youth was run for the first time in 1945. The distance varied until 1953, when it was set at 1 1/16 miles. Trainers liked the idea of 1 1/16 mile and two turns for developing newly minted three-years into classic prospects. Soon the race blossomed into an attractive stepping stone for Gulfstream’s premier race, the Florida Derby in late March.
When Lukas’ chief assistant Todd Pletcher brought Thunder Gulch to town he suggested blinkers to sharpen the colt’s focus. Breaking from post-9 in a 12-horse field in the Fountain of Youth, Thunder Gulch was caught five-wide on the first turn. Under Mike Smith he moved into fifth down the backstretch behind the leaders Ops Smile and Oliver’s Twist. Still wide coming around the far turn, Smith gunned the colt to the outside and began reeling in the leaders. By mid-stretch it was a two-horse battle with Suave Prospect. Matching stride for stride, Thunder Gulch prevailed by a neck over the gritty Nick Zito-trained colt.
“He was real gutsy,” Smith said. “Wayne told me to get him into the race and then sit. He was a little wide in the first turn, but it worked out fine.”
Thunder Gulch covered the 1 1/16th mile Fountain of Youth in 1:43 1/5 - the fastest running of the race since Forty Niner ran the same time in 1988. His victory gave Lukas yet another strong hand approaching the 1995 spring classics.
Bred by Peter Brant in Kentucky, Thunder Gulch is the son of 1988 Sprint Champion Gulch out of Line of Thunder. The winner of the 1 1/8 miles Wood Memorial, Gulch was quickly whisked into the sprinter division to avoid the likes of Alysheba, Bet Twice and Lost Code.
Gulch’s diminutive chestnut son first caught Lukas' eye as a yearling at the 1993 Keeneland Summer Sale.
"I looked at Thunder Gulch pretty carefully," Lukas remembered. "I wrote `plain, small, nothing to not like.' By that I mean he was correct.”
Still, Lukas passed. Ken Ellenberg purchased the colt for $40,000 at that auction. Because of Thunder Gulch’s late May foaling date and small stature, Ellenberg waited until the following April sale, asking $125,000 at a two-year-olds-in-training sale at Keeneland. When the gavel fell Ellenberg still owned the horse.
Trainer John Kimmel took him home to his Belmont barn. Within days the colt began to amp uph is morning workouts. In his racing debut Thunder Gulch was beaten a neck, mostly due to inexperience.
"Mentally, there was always a lot of room for improvement with this colt," Kimmel said. "The first two times we ran him, he'd get anxious in the paddock. He'd get hot and he'd come back and drop out of his feed tub.”
In the mud at Aqueduct Thunder Gulch finished second in the Grade II Cowdin Stakes, then fourth in the Grade III Nashua in New York that fall. The colt showed his stamina by winning the 1 1/16 mile Remsen Stakes and his value soared. Englishman Michael Tabor reportedly paid $500,000 in November 1994 and the diminutive colt was placed with Lukas in California, where in his first start the colt finished second in the Grade-1 Hollywood Futurity.
Despite his victory in the Fountain of Youth the rail-birds sided with Suave Prospect who went off at 9-5 in the $500,000 Florida Derby. In a stirring stretch duel before a raucous crowd of 25,434 at Gulfstream Park, Thunder Gulch overtook Suave Prospect in the final stride poking his nose in front at the wire to capture the 44th Florida Derby.
“Right now, he is king of the hill in the East," Lukas boasted afterwards.
When he finished fourth in the Blue Grass Stakes three weeks later Thunder Gulch’s stock plummeted with horsemen. Around Lukas’ barn at Churchill Downs Thunder Gulch was given the cold shoulder where stablemates Timber Country and Serena’s Song were media darlings. Lukas sported a “Timber Country” ballcap.
A picture-perfect spring day brought out the second-biggest crowd in Derby history (144,110). Not many supported the diminutive chestnut colt. Thunder Gulch stepped in the starting gate at odds of 24-1-- a stunning overlay for a Florida Derby winner.
Under Gary Stevens Thunder Gulch gained good position early and was fifth with a half-mile to go. He began his winning drive on the final turn while Serena’s Song and the early leaders were backing up. Thunder Gulch took the lead with about three-sixteenths of a mile to go as Timber Country closed strongly and just missed catching Tejano Run, 2 1/4 lengths behind the winner. The winning time -- 2:01 1/5-- tied for the sixth-fastest Derby.
"I took a snug hold on him, and he ran well within himself. We got a smooth trip down the backside,” related Stevens who won his second Derby. “There wasn't a straw in our path."
“He’s a blue-collar worker,” added Lukas. “He just goes out and does it. He had the dream trip. He was laying outside - an absolute perfect position. When you get that scenario with a legitimate finisher, good things happen.”
Timber Country, called the "Big Red Train" by Stevens, swooped by his Kentucky Derby-winning stablemate at the sixteenth pole to win the Preakness. The rubber match was the 127th Belmont Stakes. But when the starting gates sprung open Timber Country was back in the barn recovering from a fever.
Thunder Gulch proved his mettle once more and scored a two length victory in the Belmont that featured a spirited duel down the homestretch with Nick Zito's Star Standard.
"I pushed his button pretty hard at the sixteenth pole," Stevens noted. "That's when he pulled away. I knew I could put away that other horse any time I wanted to."
Meanwhile, Lukas marched into the racing record books as his spunky little chestnut gave Lukas a record fifth straight win in a Triple Crown race. Lukas also became the first trainer to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont stakes with different horses.
The summer of 1995 Thunder Gulch ripped off victories in the Swaps Stakes in California in July, the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in August and the Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park in September.
Finishing fifth in the Jockey Gold Cup in October Thunder Gulch fractured the cannon bone in his left foreleg and was retired to stud.
"After the race, he was very uncomfortable," said Lukas. "We had X-rays taken and discovered he has a condylar fracture. We'd seen him run all year and knew that that was not the Thunder Gulch we knew."
Owner Michael Tabor commented "Obviously, I'm shell-shocked. I had hoped to run him as a 4-year-old. I think the public really enjoyed watching him run. But I think this is the right thing to do."
Thunder Gulch headed off to Ashford Stud, the American branch of the giant Irish breeder Coolmore Stud near Versailles, Ky. One of racing’s greatest overachievers, he won nine of 16 career races earning $2,915,086 and became the first horse in 53 years to win the Derby, the Belmont and the Travers. Thunder Gulch won the Eclipse Award as the champion 3-year-old colt in America.
“Thunder Gulch was a tough, sound racehorse who ran very frequently during the 1995 season without the use of Lasix and he carries that on today producing those sound horses at stud,” said Dermot Ryan, the manager of Ashford Stud.
Among the many horses Thunder Gulch has sired are the graded stakes winners Spain, Point Given (2001 three-year old champion), Balance, and Circular Quay.