1995 Thunder Gulch

April 21, 2019

Here is the latest installment in Nick Costa’s and Mary Dixon Reynolds’ series on “the other horse” in the Kentucky Derby.

Under blue skies with a temperature of 75 degrees, the 1995 Kentucky Derby with entries from Canada, England, and the first ever from Japan, had an international flare. But with Mint Juleps, the Twin Spires, and ‘My Old Kentucky Home” being sung, no one could mistake they were anywhere but Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

Wayne Lukas had won the Derby in 1988 with the filly, Winning Colors, and Gary Stevens in the irons. For this Derby, he came loaded. He had the favorites: Timber Country and the filly, Serena’s Song, were both owned by Bob and Beverly Lewis. They owned share of Timber Country. So, they were a coupled entry. The colt had been champion 2-year-old and he had won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile the previous year.

Lukas’ third horse was a chestnut named Thunder Gulch. The colt was owned by Michael Tabor and his odds were 25-1, making him one of the longest shots. He had won the Remsen as a 2-year-old and as a 3-year-old, he won the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth and the Grade 1 Florida Derby before throwing in a clunker and finishing fourth in his pre-Derby race, the Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes.

Gary Stevens had been riding in Hong Kong but did not want to miss the most exciting race in the world. He was supposed to ride Larry The Legend but the horse got hurt so he was available for Lukas. They had combined for a Derby win once and Stevens knew Lukas only brought “live” horses to the Derby. He remembered how Lukas’ son, Jeff, had given him a leg up on Winning Colors so he asked him to give him a leg up on Thunder Gulch. Horsemen are superstitious. Now it was time to go to the post.

Thunder Gulch was in gate 16. No horse had ever won from that post position. Stevens wore Tabor’s colors: blue with a big orange circle. Thunder Gulch was wearing white blinkers. All the horses were finally loaded and the gates sprang open as Serena’s Song took the lead. Thunder Gulch was running sixth. Timber Country was in a pack of runners in the back. Serena’s Song looked like she was trying to win wire to wire. She ran fast fractions and no one contested her. As they turned for home, those white blinkers came side by side with Serena’s Song and then passed her. Thunder Gulch was headed for the wire and for infamy. There was a quarter of a mile to go and no one could successfully challenge Thunder Gulch. He won by a length and a half with a time of 2.01 .  Timber Country came up for third and Serena’s Song tired and came in sixteenth.

Serena’s Song would go on too much success winning American Champion 3-Year Old Filly.  Timber Country won the Preakness, as Thunder Gulch came in third. Timber Country was the favorite for the Belmont but had to be withdrawn because of a fever. Thunder Gulch entered the Belmont as the favorite and he won the race by two lengths. This gave D. Wayne Lukas the first individual Triple Crown. This win was his fifth consecutive win in the series. Thunder Gulch went on to win the Travers and two other stakes before entering the Jockey Gold Cup where he would race against Horse of the Year, Cigar. Thunder Gulch came in fifth, Cigar won. After the race it was discovered Thunder Gulch had fractured his left front cannon bone. He was retired to Ashford Stud.


Some of the horses he sired were graded stakes winners Spain, Circular Quay, Balance, and Point Given. Point Given won the 2001 Preakness and Belmont Stakes and was 2001 3-year-old Horse of the Year.


In 2015, at the age of 23, Thunder Gulch was pensioned at Ashford Stud. Today he has a paddock beside 2015 Triple Crown Winner, American Pharoah. It is said that Thunder Gulch has a calming influence on the Champion colt.


On March 19th 2018, the dual classic winner died from infirmities of old age at Ashford stud.


Unlike American Pharoah, Thunder Gulch was underestimated but for a period in time, he put his connections on top of the world.

@jonathanstettin Nice piece and well articulated! Thanks for sharing your knowledge through your work!

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