1995: Thunder in the Sun

Sunday, May 07, 1995



By Maryjean Wall and Christy McIntyre, Herald-Leader Staff Writers

On a warm spring day that bathed Churchill Downs in a sunny glow for the 121st Kentucky Derby, Thunder Gulch blew in like a sudden storm down the stretch.
Owner Michael Tabor’s forgotten Florida Derby winner delivered his coup de grace with the biggest winning payoff in 28 years, $51 for his 2 1/4-length triumph over Tejano Run and Timber Country in the most international Kentucky Derby ever and the most wide-open in years. Tabor, from Monaco, is the first from his country to win a Kentucky Derby, which grossed $957,400 with $707,400 to the winning son of Gulch.  Thunder Gulch played to the second-biggest crowd in Derby history, an electric, energized assembly of 144,110 that ran the gamut from former President George Bush to that most famous of house guests, Kato Kaelin. And the one in this crowd most surprised with his victory might have been his own trainer, D. Wayne Lukas. He had expected to go to the Derby winner’s circle — but with another horse.
Lukas went after this Derby with the numbers — three top prospects that included juvenile champion Timber Country and the fast filly Serena’s Song. But the colt that got him and jockey Gary Stevens their second  Derby victory was the one he least expected to get the job done.
“He was standing between a ballerina and a 2-year-old champion,” Lukas said. “Now he’s earned the right to hold his head up.”
Thunder Gulch’s winning race — in 2:01.27, a tie for the sixth-fastest Derby — was as much a surprise, in its own way, as their other Derby triumph in 1988 with the filly Winning Colors. And he was not part of the 3-1 favorite entry of Timber Country and Serena’s Song, who were coupled for betting because of common ownership.
Lukas had talked up Timber Country since last summer as the colt who “could be the one” to take this year’s Derby
roses. He grew more enthusiastic all week at Churchill Downs, for the colt trained as though each day were a dress rehearsal for this one race.
Serena’s Song got nearly as much attention, for the filly had earned the highest speed rating of any 3-year-old this year when she beat males in early April in the Jim Beam Stakes.
Thunder Gulch was not focused in his key Derby workout, 5 furlongs in 1:00 2/5, five days before the race. Lukas did not work him in the blinkers he was to wear in the Derby to keep his attention on the race.
Lukas said he always held Thunder Gulch in high regard, especially since he had won the Florida Derby and Fountain of Youth Stakes this past winter at Gulfstream Park. “All week we liked this horse in our camp,” Lukas said, yet he added, “he’s kind of the forgotten man.
“He’s the blue-collar worker,” Lukas also said. “He goes out there and does it.”
That’s pretty much the way Thunder Gulch ran and won his Derby, in a steady, relentless trip that was  trouble-free throughout the 1 1/4 miles. That’s the combination often needed to win the Derby, and Thunder Gulch had the position and running style that never had him far off the pace set by Serena’s Song.
Lukas and Stevens had  been concerned about the No. 16 post position Thunder Gulch drew in the field of 19 3-year-olds. Serena’s Song got the No. 13 stall, and Timber Country drew No. 15.
But all three overcame that initial disadvantage, and Thunder Gulch became the first to win from the No. 16 post.
This Derby had all the makings of a fast early pace, with so much speed in the past performances of runners like Serena’s Song, Wild Syn, Talkin Man and Afternoon Deelites. Wild Syn, who had led all the way to win the Blue Grass Stakes three weeks ago, rushed to the front right from the gate.
But Serena’s Song flew right by him, cutting across the track to lead Wild Syn by a half-length the first time past the finish line.
From there, the filly led them through fractions that would have left lesser horses dizzy. The pace she set proved her downfall by the time she led them into the homestretch. Serena’s Song was burning up the track in :22 2/5 for the first quarter; :45 4/5 through the first half-mile; 1:10 1/5 through 6 furlongs as if she were sprinting, and 1:35 3/5 for the mile.
“I don’t know if any horse except Secretariat could have run those fractions,” Lukas said. Such a pace portended of disaster in a race as long as a mile and a quarter.
While Wild Syn and Citadeed pressed the filly, Thunder Gulch was cruising along with the perfect trip. “Fifty yards out of the gate I couldn’t imagine myself being in a better place,” Stevens said.
Thunder Gulch was always close up, sixth the first time the field passed the stands and into the first turn. He had angled across the track from the start so that he was only two horses wide on the first turn. From that spot, he had only to bide his time as they raced down the backstretch.
Timber Country was 14th in the first quarter-mile, and hadn’t made much progress after 6 furlongs. At that point, he was only 10th. He was so far back he couldn’t possibly see his stablemates putting all the drama into the race on the front end.
Serena’s Song continued to lead approaching the far turn, as Citadeed, an English colt, rushed into second and the Canadian hero, Talkin Man, moved up to third on the rail. Thunder Gulch was also moving up on the outside. When they turned for home, he was dangerously close.
Serena’s Song had had enough. The pace and pressure of the colts behind her took their toll and she suddenly backed out, just as Talkin Man and Thunder Gulch came together for the final run. She finished 16th.
“This colt surprised me at the eighth pole,” Stevens said. “He’d never won a race by more than three-quarters of a length.”
But like the Energizer Bunny, Thunder Gulch just kept going and going and widened the lead he got in the upper stretch. Talkin Man suddenly disappeared, fading to 12th. Tejano Run, who had come from 12th after a half-mile, moved to the inside on the far turn, survived a bump with Citadeed and angled outside Serena’s Song in the stretch run to take over second. While all that was going on, Timber Country was finally making his way through traffic in the stretch.
“We were searching, bobbing and weaving and never really got clear until the eighth pole,” said Pat Day, who rode Timber Country. “When I did, he came and came good but it was just a little too late. Those things happen when you have a 19-horse field in the Kentucky Derby.”
Timber Country couldn’t quite make it through on time. Tejano Run finished a head in front of him, with Jumron three-quarters of a length farther back.

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