Champion 3-Year-Old Thunder Gulch Won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes
One of the great but underrated champions of the 1990’s had died. Thunder Gulch, winner of the 1995 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, died March 19 at age 26 due to infirmities of old age at Coolmore America’s Ashford Stud. In addition to his two Classic wins, Thunder Gulch won two additional grade 1 races in 1995, the Florida Derby and Travers Stakes, which secured his champion 3-year-old honors.
“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.”
Thunder Gulch earned nearly $3 million and won nine of 16 starts in his career. His Kentucky Derby win was most memorable for this writer. “I recall being with three friends in Chicago and going to an OTB parlor in May of 1995 to bet on the Derby. I remember circling six horses in the racing form noting a very competitive field, and being very surprised Thunder Gulch, with Gary Stevens aboard, was let go at 24-1 odds after being 12-1 on the morning line. I was able to cash in on the winner, making Thunder Gulch one of my favorite horses to watch and remember.”
Imagine in today’s horse racing if a 3-year-old won the Fountain of Youth and then the Florida Derby like Thunder Gulch did. You would never see odds near 24-1 on that horse in the Kentucky Derby. But it happened, as it was noted by many that Thunder Gulch was the third-stringer in Lukas’ barn that year at the Derby behind 2-year-old champion male Timber Country and filly sensation Serena’s Song. But those two would finish 3rd and 16th in the Kentucky Derby as 7-2 co-favorites. Timber County turned the tables in winning the Preakness and Thunder Gulch finished 3rd less than a length behind. But the beautiful chestnut Thunder Gulch bounced back to win the Belmont Stakes, and then won the Swaps and Travers Stakes.
Thunder Gulch made 10 starts in 1995 and won seven including six grade 1 or 2 stakes. He won two classic races, placed in another and earned more than $2.6 million that year before retiring after suffering a condylar fracture of his left front cannon bone during the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which was won by the sensational Cigar.
“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 had more than 2,500 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.
“It is a very sad day for us here at Ashford, as Thunder Gulch has been a pleasure to be around all these years and has left a major legacy at the farm as the first champion sire to reside here,” commented Coolmore America manager Dermot Ryan. “He had a remarkable 3-year-old campaign in the hands of Wayne Lukas and Gary Stevens and provided Michael and Doreen Tabor and their family with some great days. He was an incredibly tough and genuine horse on the track and we are very grateful to the Tabors for entrusting us with his stud career.”
After being pensioned, Coolmore officials noted that Thunder Gulch assumed a new role as a calming influence on younger stallions transitioning to their new life at Ashford. Most notably, Thunder Gulch’s paddock was located adjacent to 2015 Triple Crown hero American Pharoah (Pioneer of the Nile) after the latter’s retirement in late 2015.