Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 24 Days to Go!!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 24 Days to Go!!

Thunder Gulch, the pint-sized chestnut that trainer D. Wayne Lukas nicknamed “Mighty Mouse”, was foaled in Kentucky, having been bred by Peter M. Brant. By the stallion Gulch, and out of the Storm Bird mare, Line of Thunder, the colt was a late foal, being born on May 23. Sent to the Keeneland July Sale, the colt who was underdeveloped compared to the older yearlings, was overlooked by many, including D. Wayne Lukas. Having rated the colt as a 6 minus on his scale, meaning that he would like to train the colt, just not buy him, he circled the May 23rd foal date in his book, leading to the youngster not making his second cut.  

Thunder Gulch did sell however, to pinhooker Ken Ellenberg and veterinarian Jerry Bailey, for $40,000. Hoping to turn around and make a profit off of their purchase in the 2YO in training sale at Keeneland, they wouldn’t find any takers at the $125,000 price tag. Reported to have sold around 50% of Thunder Gulch to Howard Rozin, the colt was transferred to trainer John Kimmel’s barn in New York, where he made his first start.  

On September 16th, Thunder Gulch embarked on his racing career with a 3rd place finish in a 6-furlong race at Belmont Park. Starting to get things figured out, he broke his maiden on October 4th by a nose. Deciding to move the developing colt to stakes company in the Grade II Cowdin Stakes at 7-furlongs, Thunder Gulch showed promise in placing second. Catching the eye of Coolmore Farm’s bloodstock agent Demi O’Byrne, the chestnut was purchased for Coolmore’s Michael Tabor for $500,000. The day of his purchase, November 11, Thunder Gulch ran in the Nashua Stakes with jockey Jerry Bailey, finishing 4th. After the race the youngster was sent to trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who became the conditioner of the colt he graded as one he would like to train.  

Entered into the Remsen Stakes with a new rider aboard, Thunder Gulch along with Gary Stevens secured the win by a neck. The team didn’t pair up again until the 121st Kentucky Derby, as Stevens made the journey to Hong Kong to ride for a change of pace. Contesting the Grade I Hollywood Futurity with the addition of blinkers along with another new rider, Corey Nakatani, Thunder Gulch finished second in his final start at two.  

Sent to Florida to winter, the plain chestnut became overlooked due to his outstanding stablemates, the stately Timber Country and the durable filly Serena’s Song. While Timber Country was based in California, Thunder Gulch relished the Florida setting. In February, with Mike Smith in the irons, the two snatched the Fountain of Youth by a neck over Suave Prospect. Facing that competitor again three weeks later in the Florida Derby, the dauntless chestnut again proved victorious over Suave Prospect, this time by a nose. Shipped to Keeneland after his success in Florida, Lukas’ trainee did little to improve his stature while coming home a lackluster 4th in the Toyota Blue Grass with Timber Country’s regular jockey Pat Day aboard.  

The lead-up to the Kentucky Derby saw the media coverage go mainly to the stable’s other two entrants. When Thunder Gulch drew the 16 hole for the race, the case for him seemed even more hopeless, with the betting public sending him off at odds of 24-1 in the field of 19. When jockey Donna Barton was returning to the barn after riding Thunder Gulch in his final breeze, having also guiding Timber Country and Serena’s Song in their final works, Lukas asked Barton which horse she thought had the best chance to win. “The one I’m on” she responded.  

Reunited with jockey Gary Stevens for the Derby, the tandem made their way to the starting gates in front of 144,110, the second largest crowd to make the journey to Churchill Downs at the time. Once the field sprang away from the gates, Stevens would put his mount into perfect position, just trailing the pace. Tracking the leaders throughout the race until the top of the stretch, Stevens then called upon Thunder Gulch, who responded with a thunderous move, flying under the wire a two-length winner in a time of 2:01 1/5, tied for the 6th fastest time. When the duo passed the finish, Gary Stevens stood up and raised his crop into the air, saying “This is for you Mark”, dedicating his victory to his friend and publicist Mark Kaufman who had suffered a heart attack, passing away a few days prior to the race. 

The Derby win by Thunder Gulch was the second for the combo of Lukas and Stevens, who teamed up for the roses in 1988 with Winning Colors. He was also the first to win from the 16 post position and the youngest to win behind Northern Dancer who was foaled 4 days later than that of Thunder Gulch, on May 27th.   Sent to Baltimore along with Timber Country and Serena’s Song, who won the Black-Eyed Susan, Thunder Gulch finished third, less than a length behind his winning stablemate in the mile and 3/16 Preakness. With the Belmont next, Timber Country was the expected favorite, though he came down with a fever and was withdrawn from contention. Thunder Gulch didn’t disappoint his connections, snatching the lead from the pace-setter Star Standard to win the mile and a half contest by 2 lengths, starting a four race win streak.  His Derby and Belmont win, paired with Timber Country’s Preakness, made D. Wayne Lukas the first trainer to win all three races with two different horses.  

Thunder Gulch’s first start after the Belmont was on July 23rd, when he won the 1 1/8 mile Swaps by 2 lengths. Shipping back to the east coast, the stout-hearted chestnut won the Travers following a bad break, finishing in front of Pyramid Peak by 4½, becoming the first horse since Shut Out in 1942  to win the Derby, Belmont, and Travers. His final win came in the Turfway Park Kentucky Cup Classic which he won by a length over older horses.  

In what would be his last race, Thunder Gulch was entered into the Jockey Club Gold Cup against the great Cigar. Over a muddy track, he placed an uncharacteristic 5th. Walking back to the barn, the colt was fine; however, as he was cooling out he began to seem uncomfortable. Alerting the vet, once they had x-rays the cause of his poor showing became apparent; he had cracked his left front cannon bone. The injury was one that he could have returned from, though Tabor felt he had nothing left to prove and decided to retire the colt to his Kentucky farm division, Ashford Stud.  

Standing his first season in 1996, the 1995 3YO Champion remained at the farm until he passed of old age in 2018. After he was pensioned in 2015, Thunder Gulch became a companion of sorts for the newly retired American Pharoah, helping him to adjust to the quieter life of a stallion. Thunder Gulch was a successful sire, siring several graded stakes winners, as well as 3YO Champion and Horse of the Year, Point Given.  

(Photo courtesy of KDM archives)

Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum