The following feature ran in the Feb. 21, 2015, issue of BloodHorse magazine. Progeny statistics for Thunder Gulch have been updated in this article.
Feb. 18 marked the 20th anniversary of the first leg of one of the most underrated 3-year-old campaigns of the modern era of Thoroughbred racing. Despite his stature as a grade II-winning juvenile and his rugged good looks, Thunder Gulch was in the shadows of not one, but two, stablemates leading up to the Triple Crown, and throughout the summer and fall wound up playing second fiddle to the mighty Cigar, who was putting together his own remarkable season.
In that mid-February race, battling head-and-head to the line at Gulfstream Park, Thunder Gulch edged Suave Prospect by a neck in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2). The sturdy Thunder Gulch wouldn't leave the dance floor for eight months, making nine more starts against top company.
Beyond that iron-clad season, Thunder Gulch would prove to be a breed-shaper as a stallion, leading the North American sire list in 2001. He has sired 86 black-type stakes winners (to date) worldwide while serving in both hemispheres for his Coolmore connections.
"He was so professional," Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas reminisced of his big chestnut colt. "He did everything right and kept getting better and better. The thing that made him a joy to train was he showed up every time. He's the kind of horse you wish you could run across every 10 years."
Bred in Kentucky by Peter M. Brant, Thunder Gulch is a son of Gulch (Mr. Prospector—Jameela, by Rambunctious), who was also bred by Brant and trained first by Hall of Famer LeRoy Jolley and later by Lukas. Bloodstock agents Jerry Bailey and Ken Ellenberg bought Thunder Gulch for $40,000 at the 1993 Keeneland July yearling sale with thoughts of pinhooking him as a 2-year-old. At the Keeneland April juvenile sale in 1994, the bidding stalled at $120,000 on Thunder Gulch, just under his $125,000 reserve.
Thunder Gulch went to conditioner John Kimmel, and once he was in training, one of Kimmel's clients, Howard Rozin, bought in for 50%. The colt remained on the market, and after making three starts including a second in the Cowdin Stakes (G2), Coolmore's Michael Tabor learned the colt was available through Dr. Dave Lambert. Tabor had bloodstock agent Demi O'Byrne travel to New York to look Thunder Gulch over. A deal was struck over lunch at Aqueduct Racetrack Nov. 11 prior to that afternoon's Nashua Stakes (G3).
While Thunder Gulch ran fourth that day, the payoff wasn't far in coming.
"Michael Tabor and John Magnier transferred him to me right after that," Lukas said. "They were looking for something for the 3-year-old campaign. I don't think they anticipated he'd be quite that sensational. He looked like a solid horse and was a good value, and we didn't have him very long before I told Demi, 'I think we have a pretty damn good horse.' "
Thunder Gulch returned immediate dividends with a win in the Nov. 26 Remsen Stakes (G2) at Aqueduct and a second-place finish in the Hollywood Futurity (G1).
Although based in California, Thunder Gulch made the first two starts of his 3-year-old season at Gulfstream Park. Lukas noted his charge shipped to South Florida just prior to the Fountain of Youth and he stayed through the March 11 Florida Derby (G1).
Thunder Gulch won both races, but just barely, topping Suave Prospect by a neck and a nose, respectively.
Lukas deemed his hard-knocking colt needed another start before the Kentucky Derby (G1). The Blue Grass Stakes (G2) at Keeneland fit the bill: At least Lukas thought it did.
Facing Suave Prospect for a third time in as many starts, Thunder Gulch was the 6-5 favorite. However, he faded in the stretch, finishing fourth behind 30-1 shot Wild Syn, Suave Prospect, and Tejano Run.
"Keeneland at that point—the old track was difficult for a lot of horses," Lukas said. "Some horses really loved it, and some really didn't care for it at all. There wasn't really any in between. I don't think he cared for Keeneland. That race was so subpar."
So subpar that Thunder Gulch, despite his two wins in Florida, was the third stringer for Lukas at the 1995 Kentucky Derby behind the 2-year-old champion male Timber Country and filly sensation Serena's Song, winner of Turfway Park's Jim Beam Stakes (G2) against the boys.
Lukas always seems to have an ace up his sleeve when racing under the Twin Spires.
"Donna Barton (now Brothers) was working a lot of horses for us in the mornings," Lukas recalled. "The week prior to the Kentucky Derby she worked all three of those horses: Serena's Song, Timber Country, and Thunder Gulch—all on the same morning. I remember driving back and he was the last one to work that day and I said to Donna, 'Well, you had the best seat in the house. Which one gives us the best chance to win the Kentucky Derby?' I thought she would have said Timber Country, but she looked at me and said, 'Thunder Gulch.' That was interesting."
On Derby Day the entry of Timber Country and Serena's Song was made the 3-1 choice. Thunder Gulch, at 12-1 on the morning line, drifted all the way to 24-1. Serena's Song set strong fractions, carrying the lead to the head of the lane, but faded. Timber Country wove his way from 14th to finish third, but Thunder Gulch had a dream trip under Gary Stevens, opening up a two-length lead at the eighth pole and winning by 21/4 lengths over Tejano Run.
Having horses for different owners, Lukas pressed on with both Timber Country and Thunder Gulch for the Preakness Stakes (G1). The betting public, making Timber Country the 9-5 choice and Thunder Gulch 7-2, got it right as Pat Day and the juvenile champion rallied for the win while coming wide into the lane, outlasting a stubborn Oliver's Twist, who split horses in the stretch, by a half-length, and Thunder Gulch.
"The Triple Crown has always been elusive," Lukas said. "I thought he ran credible; it was one of those trips, one of those days. You often wonder if you ran it again if he wouldn't have won it."
Without a Triple Crown on the line—for a horse at least—and with the absence of Timber Country, Thunder Gulch was the 3-2 choice for the Belmont Stakes (G1). He got past pacesetter Star Standard to win by two lengths.
Thunder Gulch kept going ... and kept winning, but there was little flash to his game. As Cigar tore through the older division and Serena's Song returned to beat the boys again in the Haskell Invitational Handicap (G1), Thunder Gulch was workmanlike in the July 23 Swaps Stakes (G2) and the Aug. 18 Travers Stakes (GI) across the country at Saratoga Race Course. Despite a 4 1/2-length victory at the Spa, jockey Gary Stevens yawned, "Once again, nothing real, real flashy, but he just keeps getting the job done."
Thunder Gulch knocked off older rivals in the ungraded Kentucky Cup Classic Handicap Sept. 23 and then took on Cigar in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1)—his 10th start in nine months—but finished far back in fifth. The following day revealed he had suffered a condylar fracture of his left front cannon bone during the race.
To recap, that was 10 starts for the year, seven wins—six grade 1 or grade 2 stakes—and two classic wins and a classic placing, with $2,644,080 in earnings.
"Looking back, if you were to outline a schedule now the way most people look at their horses—trainers and owners included—and said this is what we're going to do: go in the Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby, Blue Grass, Kentucky Derby, straight through the Triple Crown, then let's go to the Travers ... they'd say, 'Well that's just not going to work,' " Lukas said. "He answered every bell. He was amazing."
And Thunder Gulch wasn't through. A prolific stallion for Ashford Stud in Kentucky—and one year at East Stud in Japan—Thunder Gulch also stood seven seasons in the Southern Hemisphere. He has 2,504 foals worldwide, with his best son being Point Given, Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male of 2001 off grade 1 wins in the Santa Anita Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Haskell, and Travers. His $3,350,000 in earnings that year helped propel Thunder Gulch to the head of the sire list.
Pensioned from stallion duty earlier this year, Thunder Gulch figures to have a long retirement at Ashford Stud.
Thunder continues to roll throughout the Thoroughbred community. Despite the 20 years since his remarkable sophomore run, Thunder Gulch's bloodlines are still grade 1 material. Al Shaqab Racing's Mshawish , out of Thunder Gulch's daughter Thunder Bayou, won the 2015 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap (G1T).
Editor's Note: Mshawish would go on to also win the 2016 Donn Handicap (G1) and is now retired to stud at Taylor Made Stallions.